For Today’s ‘Mad Men,’ It’s Nerds Who Rule, Not DrapersMay 23, 2014
In the latest season of Mad Men, Don Draper and company are confronted by a computer.
As the critically acclaimed TV series approaches a climax–the penultimate season comes to a close on Sunday–the fictional 1960s agency at the heart of the show has purchased its very own IBM 360, a state-of-the-art mainframe computer that takes up an entire room. This massive machine replaces the common room in the middle of the agency’s office–the place where the young creatives come to brainstorm ideas–and one ad man, the offbeat and thoughtful Ginsberg, is particularly disturbed by this. He’s worried the machine will eventually replace them all. Feeling he has no choice but to embrace the power of the machine, he chops off his own nipple so that the IBM can plug straight into his body.
Yes, Ginsberg overreacted. But not as much as you might think. Fifty years after the arrival of mainframes like the IBM 360, our modern machines are indeed reducing the relevance of the classic ad man. No, computers aren’t doing the jobs of creative types like Ginsberg. They aren’t writing ad copy or dreaming up magazine spreads. But, thanks to the internet, they’re completely changing the way the ad business works, and that means a whole new type of human talent is needed. IBM never undermined the Mad Men of the world. But Google and Facebook did. As advertising has shifted to the internet, more and more of it is being managed not by the Ginsbergs and the Don Drapers, but by techies–engineers, programmers, and others who understand the world of social media sites, real-time ad exchanges, online analytics, and ad targeting systems.
You see this inside the traditional ad agencies. “There are fewer art history and English majors and more math and science majors and engineers being hired,” says Tom Bedecarre, chairman of ad agency AKQA, a subsidiary of British ad giant WPP. “We just hired a postdoc from Stanford to be part of our data science team.” But at the same time, internet giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter and even small online startups like Polyvore and Pinterest are, at least in some ways, cutting the ad agencies out of the equation, using the net to create a more direct path between advertisers and the places where they want to advertise.
It’s not just that today’s Don Draper may be a computer geek. He may be a computer geek who works for a computer company. He may be Twitter’s vice president of revenue and products, Kevin Weil, who was trained at Stanford as a particle physicist. Or Neal Mohan, Google’s vice president of display advertising, who’s an electrical engineer.
A New Kind of Ad Man
Arnie Gullov-Singh is another modern day Don Draper. An electrical engineer and a former Yahoo software manager, he’s now Chief Revenue Officer at Polyvore, a fast-growing online fashion community. Polyvore is a place where people assemble online collages of clothing called “sets,” and as others browse these sets, they can click on particular items to purchase them from third-party websites. As a direct result of this setup, Polyvore has developed its own relationships with advertisers, without the ad agency middlemen. Many of these advertisers started buying ads on the site, the company says, simply because their server logs revealed thousands of customers were clicking through from Polyvore.com and making purchases.
According to Polyvore, these advertisers wanted more clicks from Polyvore users because they tended to spend relatively large amounts of money. So Gullov-Singh and his team rejigged the Polyvore search engine to allow advertisers to buy the clicks they so craved. When Polyvore users search for clothing, like “combat boots,” a brand can buy promotional placement in the results for its own products. Like Google and Facebook, he and his team built a live, perpetually-running robotic auction house where brands can bid against one another for the right to advertise against certain keywords.
Polyvore is an ad publisher–like a magazine or a TV station, it provides the venue where the ads run–but it also does some of the work of an ad agency, working directly with brands and helping them figure out what search ads to run and even how to create their own “sets,” which can be promoted as native advertising on the front page of Polyvore’s site.
More Data, Please
Gullov-Singh says he watched the first season of Mad Men but didn’t exactly fall in love with it. “Hard to empathize with a guy who doesn’t use data,” he says. Yes, the Don Drapers of that era made use of Nielsen ratings and other market data, but Gullov-Singh says today’s ad men go much further. After all, there is more data available. With online ads, you often know when they’re driving purchases. You don’t have to estimate.
Gullov-Singh’s aim is not just to show all ads to all people. He and his team are constantly honing algorithms that analyzes your Polyvore history in an effort to determine what ad you’d like to see now–all in the blink of an eye.
Such ad targeting systems are only growing more complex, and that’s why engineers like Gullov-Singh are running them. “You can’t work with marketers unless you’ve done your time on the production line,” says Adam Bain, president of revenue at Twitter. “Someone like Arnie has walked it before he talked it, and that’s the trend.”
The Big Fight
Yes, the traditional ad agencies are still alive and well. In many cases, they’re managing campaigns on sites like Google and Facebook and Polyvore. And even online, they play a big role with the ad “creative,” the images and copy that make up an ad. But machines are beginning to arrive here as well.
This topic was discussed during a recent panel at the University of Texas, and Bedecarre, who was on the panel, described it as a “big fight.” There is already software that lets agencies and advertisers experiment with different wording, images, and colors in online ads, and though other ad executives disagree, he’d like to see advertising agencies pay even more attention to data and less to the idea of “a lonely copywriter and art director in a dark room coming up with a big idea.”
But he also believes the Googles of the world need to play more nicely with old-school agencies. They are still the gatekeepers to many big advertisers. “The Madison Avenue side has to become more engineering and tech savvy and the big online publishers need to deal with an industry that is still pretty traditional and still likes to have those lunches to build a relationship and a trust,” he says.
Bain says he doesn’t follow Mad Men — “it would be too stereotypical if I watched” — but, yes, he means the kinds of lunches that are so colorfully portrayed in the series. He adds, however, that these lunches are no longer about how many martinis you can drink. “They’re spreadsheet lunches now,” he says.