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The Year Robots Invaded Madison Avenue

By Martin Kihn | November 06, 2014 | 0 Comments


2014 was the year that robots invaded Madison Avenue. We were all stunned. Nobody expects a robot invasion.

Now that the pixie dust has settled and the spine-shattering insights rolled out to the room for conventional wisdom, it is time to reflect and ask ourselves: What the %*&$@ happened to Advertising Week?

It was unsettling! . . . macabre! . . . eerie! . . . unhinged! . . . yet not in the usual ways.

Yes, AdvertisingWeek 2014 was unlike any week in advertising history, and certainly unlike any of the annual #AdvertisingWeeks we’ve seen before. It wasn’t the attendance – that was healthy enough. Or the energy: it was in NYC. Or the look.

No, there was something more sinister at work at #AdWeek14 this year. For five days in early October, the advertising industry was overcome by something that advertisers do not let themselves feel. And that something is . . . well, look at this chart for a second, comparing this year’s AdWeek with the same event two years ago: Picture1

It’s time to admit it, amigos: Advertisers are – finally, full-throatedly, nakedly – afraid.

The fear was palpable. It gathered in the gray dawn outside the Times Center on 41st Street . . . lingered in the windowless (and all but wifi-less) basement presentation rooms bestride the booths for Rovio and Neustar . . . snaked across Times Square to the NASDAQ Market Site and up a single sluggish elevator to an overstuffed roulette of panels on the state of “PROGRAMMATIC” X and Y . . . and out into the nightscene at Del Posto and the Highline Ballroom, which this year had a distinctly frantic edge, like the dance on the deck of a cruise ship that’s taking on water.

Yes, fear was here – a kind of stunned and open-eyed reaction to the new reality, a pause to capture information before it captures us. AdWeek used to be – at the end of the (very long) day – a party. A week-long prelude of panels and reels that unrolled like tailgates before the big game. Organized by the trade magazine Advertising Age, it was an exercise in self-congratulation, a specialty of the advertising class.

Yet this year, all that shuffling and posturing was replaced by a kind of pinched silence. Respectful audiences scribbled pen-written notes in physical notebooks as data scientists marinated “data-driven decisioning,” argued out the definition of “programmatic premium,” bemoaned the standard deviation – the standard deviation! – of the extant GRP. Rapt suited hordes deciphered the declarations of dreamers from Criteo and OpenX and ComScore and Verizon (announcing targeting with Precision Market Insights) and Adara (“The World’s Largest Travel Data and Analytics Platform”) . . . .

Meanwhile, in a sealed performance space mere feet below the Deuce, aWebMD-sponsored “Lounge” . . . Kruder + Dorfmeister Germanic goth chill-out pillowing languid convos among Sprockets-like creatives. Creatives: the heart and soul of advertising, and AdWeek, in years past. Now, somehow, chillingly, beside the point.

2014 is the year that robots invade Madison Avenue. We are stunned. Nobody expects a robot invasion.

Look at that table up above again: not a single session about “PROGRAMMATIC” two years ago . . . yet now, a dozen and more. Not a single session about “NATIVE” advertising two years ago. None. What are these things? Where did they come from? Aren’t they just computers doing things that people used to do, when you get right to it? Or are they?

And where is creative in all of this? Where are the artists?

In fact, in my opinion:

  • Advertising has never been healthier or in a better place
  • Creatives are more important (and busier) than ever
  • There is far more opportunity today than cause for despair

Fear is a simple reaction to change. We should love it and it passes away. Listen to the believers at Lucille’s at B.B. King when they tell you brands are a form of narrative. Listen to the half-hearted protesters along 8th Avenue who try to use irony to mock us, holding up banners that say:


We have won them over, too. Do not despair, advertisers of New York. Now is when things really start to get interesting. In the middle of a session on cross-device targeting, I wrote the following lines in my notebook. I’m not sure what they mean, either, but somehow this pseudo-haiku sums up what I felt at #AdWeek14 this year. Were you there? What did you think? Let me know @martykihn.

Value of data beating media / Smart people go into marketing / Machines read our internal states


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