Why replacing humans with computers might be bad for business

Author: Meriem Alami

By Olly Wright

How effective is digital advertising, really?

Doubts are growing within the marketing mainstream about the overall effectiveness of digital advertising. In particular the advertising services provided by the market leaders Google and Facebook.

As a test, Proctor & Gamble cut $100 million of their digital advertising budget in Q2 of 2017. The CPG-giant did not see any visible impact on their growth rate. “What that tells me, is that the spending that we cut was largely ineffective”, CFO John Moeller told the Financial Times.

However no one could say why this was. It turns out the 100 year old adage “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”is still true, despite the promise of digital measurability.

No user serviceable parts inside
The dominant online ad platform owners, Google and Facebook, provide summary reporting but no direct access to their sophisticated algorithms or data, leaving their customers (that’s you and I) in the dark about what’s really going on beneath the dashboard. Their services are like modern consumer gadgets; we void the warranty if we open the case. GDPR has only made their position stronger due to ‘increased privacy’.

P&G’s CMO Marc Pritchard summed up the situation: the big digital platforms are “the fox guarding the hen house”. They take our money and tell us how hard it’s working for us, offering us no secondary way to validate the results. We have to take their word for it.

Unilever has taken notice, announcing extensive plans to build transparency into their ‘digital media supply chain’ working with IBM on a blockchain prototype to track digital ads separate to Facebook and Google’s reporting. WPP and Omnicom recently announced their joint support for Madhive’s radical blockchain-based advertising data platform. There will be many more companies going this direction. All united by the intuition that exclusively following Google and Facebook’s models is not working for them; that they need a greater ability to dictate their own digital destinies. These initiatives now have a real sense of urgency: create a viable alternative before Google & Facebooks moats become so wide that their data monopolies become unassailable.

We are currently in a Google and Facebook shaped box
The consolidation of advertising options has narrowed our imaginations. As a fish doesn’t think about water, our current digital marketers rarely think of digital marketing outside of the world these two companies provide. We are in Google and Facebook shaped box – one that many of us struggle to notice the limits of. Limits that need to be understood if we are to move beyond our current ways of working.

Open up the latest edition of Marketing for Dummies and dominance of this zeitgeist becomes clear. The book exhaustively details the many possibilities of Adwords, Audiences and Retargeting, but almost exclusively on these platforms. ‘Digital marketing’ has become synonymous with setting up Google and Facebook campaigns. The platforms have swallowed the job description.

The psychological effect of living in that box
With Google and Facebook dominating our industry, there have been other more subtle but even more profound effects: they are also shaping our culture and assumptions. It took an industry outsider to point this out. In an article called ‘Eliminating the Human’, David Byrne states:

“I have a theory that much recent tech development and innovation over the last decade or so has had an unspoken overarching agenda—it has been about facilitating the need for LESS human interaction. It’s not a bug—it’s a feature. “ He claims that this bias: to literally dehumanize, comes from the culture of Silicon Valley: “Engineers and coders as people are often less than comfortable with human interaction, so naturally they are making a world that is more accommodating to themselves.” And he qualifies it with “I should know—I’m different now, but I used to find most social interactions terrifying’’. In other words: David Byrne is a geek too.

Put simply: the people at Google and Facebook are developers, and many developers are introverts. We have allowed this introvert geek-tech culture to dictate how the internet and hence our world works: accepting that interaction mediated through hardware and software is preferable to dealing with humans face to face. For them the thought of direct interaction is often intimidating and anxiety inducing. The question is: who wants to actually talk to a human when we can have an algorithm do it for us? The answer of course is: most of us, just not the folks at Google and Facebook.

Since Google and Facebook are dominated by geeks, this unstated preference to be unsocial has become our new digital culture. Zuckerberg tells us he aims to ‘Bring the world closer together’ yet believes this happens through a glass screen, rather than by being in each other’s company with our phones in our pockets and our attention focused on each other. He cannot conceive that closeness can’t happen via pixels, but has to happen ‘IRL’ for it to really be ‘close’. His vision is constrained by his business model.

Meanwhile the Google folks wanted us to put cameras on our faces, becoming socially tone-deaf ‘glassholes’, and are busy creating driverless cars without visibly stopping to truly acknowledge that most people actually want to be able to drive their cars. Driverless car tech looks good in a spreadsheet but when you ask normal people their enthusiasm for it is noticeably lacking.

Is your business model purely digital? Probably not
Underlying this digital bias are purely digital business models. Google and Facebook are companies that offer 100% digital products. The more time we spend staring at screens, the more money they make. And they work as hard as possible to keep you away from their employees, preferring every interaction to be automated. More screen time + fewer human tasks = increased profit.

But your business probably isn’t purely digital. If you have a physical product, or a service that happens in the physical world, or if your staff actually talk to your customers, then you are a different kind of business. One that exists as a digital / physical hybrid. In this case your business model is not best served by maximizing screen time and minimizing human interaction, but instead by selling your products and services and having happy customers. Screen time is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

And here’s the thing: whilst our unstated digital dogma says ‘eliminate the human’, it turns out that actual human interaction (not digital interaction) can work wonders for your customers. And ever more so in our increasingly socially isolated digital environment.

Reintroducing the human
With many brands digitizing an increasing number of touch points, the quality of human interaction might become the stand-out element in future customer experiences.  Marketers who understand this focus on designing peak experiences around human touch points. And continually keep asking themselves one simple question: how can we align digital and human interaction to present our customer with the best possible experience? How can we enable outstanding human interactions with digital supporting this? As Tristan Harris puts it, formerly Google’s Design Ethicist, and now a campaigner against his former company’s business model: “Create digital tools that enhance the world outside the device. Add so much value that it lets us put our phones away as fast as we possibly can”.

Highly successful answers to this are beginning to appear. Consider Uber. At the center of the experience is the interaction between the driver and the passenger. In a traditional cab ride, the passenger has to negotiate route, destination and sometimes price, and worry about tips. This creates tension which puts people off. With Uber all of this is swept away: changing the nature of the driver / passenger relationship. The ride can feel more like a friend is doing you a favour than a commercial transaction. It’s less intimidating for the passenger, and less confrontational. The commercial elements are hidden by tech, leaving uncluttered human interaction. Meanwhile Uber uses state of the art algorithms to automate the rest of the process, including feedback by passenger and driver to somewhat quantify the human elements of the service.

This Uber-style approach can apply to any business that involves people interacting. Perhaps delivery drivers are given opportunities when dropping of goods to help the person at the door. Or staff in a store are given data insights that helps them understand each individual customer better. Or product brands can activate in real world social settings based on concepts that encourage face to face interaction, not staring at phones.

There are more examples that hint at the potential of this way of thinking. IKEA showcased an app at Cannes 2018 called IKEAtoybox. It uses augmented reality to instruct kids on how to build things from the waste cardboard boxes their furniture came in. Things like dinosaurs, rockets and castles. The app encourages kids and parents to quickly put their phones away and get busy with scissors, tape and social play. It sets the end goal to a positive human interaction, not a fully automated algorithm.

You may find that once you are aware of and challenge the unstated rule to ‘eliminate the human’, many more ideas come your way that feel natural for your brand and more appealing to your customers. Give it a try and see if it works out.

Olly Wright, Strategy Director at Emakina.NL, has been working in digital since the 1990s, delivering varied work ranging from technical to brand strategy, responsible for the concept and design of numerous global platforms. Key clients include Diageo, Unilever, Emirates, P&G, Sony and Lush.

gallery image