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Why One Exec Thinks Infrastructure Is the Future of Advertising

Why One Exec Thinks Infrastructure Is the Future of Advertising

Hal Conick

Former Droga5 CEO Andrew Essex says that in advertising, “there are many that are hanging onto old models by their fingertips and they’re about to fall off the cliff.” To have a future, he claims, advertisers must think in terms of bridges, not banner ads

Sometime between five minutes and five years from now, advertising as we know it will die. Go and buy the black suit now, writes Andrew Essex in his 2017 book The End of Advertising; the funeral is coming.

The End of Advertising isn’t a eulogy, writes Essex, who is currently the CEO of Tribeca Enterprises. Instead, the book is a reminder of the industry’s mortality, a momento mori—which translates to “remember you must die” from Latin. It’s a hopeful reminder that the advertising we know may perish, but its heir apparent has potential to be prodigious. After all, people will always need to buy, sell and know what’s new. Essex says advertisers should learn from past mistakes rather than repeat them ad infinitum into the industry’s next incarnation.

Customers, en masse, are choosing to essentially never see ads again by downloading ad blocking software. Between December 2015 and December 2016, 142 million people downloaded ad blocking software on desktop and mobile devices, per anti-ad blocking company PageFair. Soon, many browsers will come stocked with ad blockers—Samsung’s Android browser and the Asus browsers already do, while Google is planning an “ad filter” for Chrome starting in 2018.


I asked Essex to check the pulse of the patient: Is advertising already dead? He let out a noise somewhere between a scoff and a chuckle and asked if I was serious; “I guess the book didn’t work.” There’s still hope. Of course advertising isn’t dead yet, he says, but bad advertising is careening toward extinction.

Essex spoke on advertising’s annoying qualities, how to fix the industry and why ad blockers are actually the best thing to ever happen to the ad industry.

Q: Can you explain the difference between bad advertising and good advertising? 

A: I think [good advertising is] anything that adds value—and by value I mean entertains—provides a service or offers some utility. That’s a welcome form of content. Anything that annoys is actively unwelcome and thus ineffective.

The last 50 or so years, the industry has subscribed to a model called command and control, which is based on the premise that you have to pay to generate attention, that you have to buy awareness. Then suddenly, we found ourselves in a new world sodden with content—new platforms, new toys, 497 scripted TV shows. The idea of interrupting, of forcing yourself on someone, has become increasingly unattractive. In a world in which there is too much TV for any individual to consume, advertising that doesn’t add value to people’s lives, that isn’t qualitatively welcomed, is perceived as [annoying] like never before. This was always something that was understood, but there weren’t enough channels to worry about it—you could interrupt effectively. Now, I believe you cannot interrupt effectively and, in fact, the interruption is a very bad strategy. 

Q: How many advertisers are providing value versus annoying their audience?

A: A minority. The minority get it and have made very effective, very welcome marketing. But the bulk still follow the old, outdated playbook. 

Q: I like that quote by advertising pioneer J. Walker Thompson that you use at the beginning of the book: “Advertising’s worth to civilization depends on how it is being used.” What do you think advertising’s potential worth to society is? 

A: It’s unlimited. Advertising can be one of the great forces for good. The key is that brands sit on a tremendous amount of liquidity, and as they find themselves grappling with shifting consumer behavior, they can spend their money in more purposeful ways, ways that try to add value to people’s lives. That might be underwriting the arts, it might be fixing infrastructure for that matter. Our nation’s bridges are collapsing; our nation’s brands should underwrite our nation’s bridges. There are huge ways that brands can make the world a better place rather than adding pollution to the equation. It just requires imagination and good leadership. 

Q: You wrote in the book that ad blocking is “the greatest thing that has ever happened to the advertising industry.” Do you think that’s the result of a lack of creativity in advertising, or was it the “infobesity,” as you termed it, of so much advertising and entertainment to consume? 

A: I don’t think it’s so much a lack of creativity. It’s the repercussions of 50 years of forcing something down people’s throats that they didn’t ask to see. There are consequences and this is the comeuppance. The consumers now have a way to say “no” to something they didn’t ask to see. 

Q: As an ad executive at Droga5, you used ad blockers. I’ve seen other marketers use ad blocking software. Why is there that disconnect within the industry? People are clearly using ad blockers to avoid what they don’t want to see but don’t seem to make the connection that consumers don’t want to see it either.

A: Because there’s so much to be said for status quo. And it’s hard to change. There are a lot of livelihoods on the line here, but those that don’t pay attention will find themselves on the wrong side of history. 

Q: Does your average advertiser realize they’re adding to what you call the “toomuchness,” the overloading of the average consumer? 

A: The quick answer is apparently not. Any company that’s making the worst kind of egregious noise and contributing pollution is probably not benefiting from principled leadership or innovative marketing by any stretch of imagination. It becomes a question of, whom do we want to be the scapegoat here? You have to be more specific, but there are too many [ad executives] not thinking about this or not listening to their children or waking up to the fact that consumer behavior has evolved dramatically and marketing has to follow. 

Q: You wrote about the small group of advertisers at the dawn of the web who decided banner and interruptive ads were a good idea. Both are now clearly bad ideas yet are still in use. Is that just a standard human bias to keep using what once seemed like it might work?

A: Exactly right. You know, there are many people that would probably prefer us to still be in horse-drawn carriages. It’s just a case of recognizing that innovation is painful, disruption is awkward and sometimes people lose their leadership or their market share as a result. There are many who are hanging onto old models by their fingertips, and they’re about to fall off the cliff. 

Q: New ways of justifying this hanging on are data and insights. One of the key points in your book was that advertisers have forgotten that consumers are human. How did this happen over the years, and can the data revolution address that?

A: Of course. Data is just a tool, so it’s all about how you deploy the tool. All impressions are not created equal. When you commodify an audience, you forget that they live lives of great complexity in a context that’s rapidly shifting. I think that data needs to be managed by people who are more thoughtful, intuitive and accept that there are consequences to algorithmic marketing. Part of that is that you drive a wedge between human beings and the message you’re trying to send. 

Q: What’s the downside of that wedge, the downside of strictly relying on data and insights? 

A: Annoying people so much that they block the canvas on which you’re trying to communicate, and you lose them forever. What are we to ascertain by the fact that one in 10 Americans don’t want to see commercial messages? When the CEO of Google is saying “Be less annoying”? It is time to pay more attention to the tea leaves. 

Q: You wrote about presenting advertising to consumers in the way one might give a housewarming gift. How can advertisers and marketers give that kind of value?

A: By putting yourself in the position of the consumer and understanding the context in which they live. Don’t think about your message in a myopic fashion; it exists within a continuum, within a feed, within a firehose of astonishing amounts of content. And you had better think about where you exist in that continuum. If you think that you’re the only thing they’re paying attention to, you’re kidding yourself. [You have to think,] what do you, as a consumer, want to see, and when do you want to see it?

Q: Coming down from the ivory tower, I suppose.

A: It’s not even an ivory tower. I suggest hovering and have some perspective. Just keep your thinking more critical.

Q: You gave examples in the book of the next generation of advertising: “The LEGO Movie,” New York City and Citibank’s Citibike, American Girl’s films and immersive stores. One thing I kept wondering is how small and midsize marketers fit into this. Have you seen any examples that have worked for those with a smaller budget? 

A: When you have a small budget, the first thing you have to do is make sure that your product is authentic and distinctive. Look at Sir Kensington’s Ketchup—it was acquired by Unilever recently. You begin by making a superior product. You start with a purpose, and then you convey that purpose in the form of a compelling message that scales through word of mouth and through social. You can make all kinds of clever marketing cheaper than ever before; it doesn’t require a big budget. I would argue you can no longer buy relevance, so even the biggest budget is not sufficient if you are pushing something on people that is inauthentic and fraudulent. You have to begin with product and purpose and then some perspective. 

Q: That makes sense. I liked your thoughts on returning to underwritten entertainment, such as commercial-free TV shows and movies sponsored by brands. But is there proof that this hands-off approach to sponsorship without message works?

A: Empirical data has always been elusive in advertising. Is there proof that direct response works? The standard metric is .001% in terms of people who click on banner ads. That’s proof to me that it doesn’t work, except when you have a billion people. The response can be meaningful, but it really doesn’t work in the sense that there’s no profound engagement. 

If you ask a kid who saw “The LEGO Movie” if they liked LEGO more or not [after seeing the film], they’re probably going to say, “Yes.” And they’re going to go to the store and probably want one of those products. That’s enough proof for me. I know that liking the brand makes me more inclined to buy its product than disliking it. That’s all the proof I need. 

My simple assumption is make something that people like, rather than something people don’t like, and you’ll do better. It’s not brain surgery. It doesn’t require empirical justification, and it is irrefutably true. If you want to bang someone over the head with something over and over again, that’s your prerogative, but I think it’s extremely unwise given the context in which we live. 

Q: Is this the fatal flaw of focusing on things like impressions and shares, these numbers that show a certain result but don’t seem to matter much in the end?

A: That’s right. Engagement is the only metric that matters. And all the other subcategories of engagement: length of stay, completion, brand love.

Q: I thought the idea of private companies partnering with public infrastructure projects was interesting. You talked about brands funding trains or roads.

A: Yes. I recently had the misfortune of having to take Amtrak from New York to [Washington,] D.C., and it’s astonishing what a completely inferior experience it is. Nevertheless, you’ve got a bunch of people and a captive audience. Why the entire experience isn’t underwritten by a brand is beyond me. There’s everything from the signage to the bathrooms to the audio to the Wi-Fi to the food—all third-rate. 

It’s a great opportunity for brands to put up their money in the way that would make people feel more inclined to use their product. It’s a canvas, but we don’t necessarily think that way. And that needs to change. I believe infrastructure is the ultimate white space, and that’s the future of marketing if we can get the right people in leadership roles. 

It’s not dissimilar from Facebook’s pivot to mobile. You have what is said to be a third-rate mobile experience, and then through a real focus on engineering, you have a dominant mobile experience and all the revenue follows. We should create new inventory for our infrastructure and sell it like a 21st century media company.

Q: I imagine it has to be the right message as well because I can see there being dissent. Some members of the public will not be happy with brands playing such a big role in infrastructure.

A: Right, I always push back on advocacy groups and say, “What’s the alternative? Are you satisfied with the way it is?” There are already tons of commercial messages in our airports and many of our roadsides. It’s just not good. It’s not effective, and it’s not holistic. 

Q: How would this concept of public-private infrastructure partnership work online? 

A: It’s already happening. If you look at Axios, the very popular newsletter from the people who started Politico, it’s brought to you by a brand, and there’s usually one commercial spot in the middle, but it’s not hugely interrupted. It’s underwritten. There are many sites, many media companies that have their message underwritten by brands in a non-disruptive way. 

Q: I saw you posting on Twitter about Heineken’s idea for a floating pool in New York’s East River—the Plus Pool​. What other unique ideas have you heard that haven’t gotten much love yet?

A: You’ve heard it’s the “summer of hell” in the New York City subway system. We’re looking at decades of disinvestment and the consequences thereof. This is a case where you still have paper ads in the subway … a series of spots and dots that haven’t changed since the 1930s. It’s shocking in its laziness. My thesis is that if we think about the subway as a media company, we’ve got lots and lots of eyeballs and lots and lots of receptivity and thus lots and lots of impressions. It has to be basically repackaged as an engaged audience. Brands should be in there providing services, utility, surprise and delight. And that’s a scalable idea that extends to every city and every urban municipal transportation agency, but it requires leadership and creative thinking. 

There are tons of ideas out there. It’s just the question of who can execute on them, what’s in the way and how status quo and entropy are powerful forces that require counterforces pushing up against them. The Plus Pool is a great example—something that can let people swim in a dirty river. There’s an example of a brand seeing the upside for its market share rather than advertising an interruption. They are literally putting their money where their mouth is and they will sell more beer as a result. I applaud that.

Q: Do these projects have to match up with the brand’s focus? 

A: Of course, 100%. It has to be authentic and has to be aligned with their purpose. Johnson & Johnson supports nurses, Procter & Gamble supports moms, many brands support water purity or water scarcity issues. It’s not difficult to find an idea that aligns with your purpose. And your purpose should not be to annoy and interrupt people.

Q: Relating to that, you said in your book that sometimes it’s OK for advertisers to simply do or say nothing. That has to scare the hell out of your average advertiser.

A: Well, let’s put it this way: You’re not spending the money, so you are perhaps not wasting the money. There was an airline that went through a little bit of difficulty fairly recently and they went dark in their communications for some time. There are many brands that turn off the media when something happens that they’re embarrassed by; a certain sugary drink experienced that as well fairly recently. 

Your argument is spend the money and sell more product. What if you spend the money and you sell less product? Another argument should be invest in the product, … not spend the money on bad advertising. It really just becomes a cost-benefit analysis. You have $100 allocated to marketing; how can you turn that into $200? Make something that offsets the investment by creating real [intellectual property]. Put it toward research and development, give it away to charity and get a positive benefit. There are always options. But you had sure as shit better produce something great if you’re going to spend it on marketing.

Q: Sometimes it seems it would be easier to do something as simple as sponsor a free day at a museum, a phone-charging station or something online versus a mass message.

A: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And there are ways to track the ROI of that like never before. It’s simply [telling the customer to] opt-in for some messages from a brand for that free day at a museum. Then there’s a relationship. 

Q: That’s much different from the way brands interact with me on a day-to-day basis, which I see as more of a data grab.

A: Right, and how’s that going for them? 

Q: Not so well, from my view. Any advice for your average advertiser or marketer who wants to engage consumers on a human level or be more creative? 

A: I would be fluent in some of the data out there that demonstrates the behavior’s validity. We don’t have to explain to most people that mobile is the primary point of contact. Be fluent in the number of people who have downloaded ad blocking software solutions. Be fluent in the number of channels and platforms out there. Ask the client, ask your partner if there’s something that people want to see rather than forcing people to see something they don’t want. It’s a simple existential question: Why not make something that people like? It’s a unified theory of product. 

Be prepared to stand up for what you believe in. The industry could use a bit more courage across the board.

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.