Don Draper nos­tal­gia in a data-driven ad in­dus­try

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Stephanie Mehta

It is telling that one of the most prom­i­nent and mem­o­rable fig­ures in Ken Auletta’s new book, “Fren­e­mies: The Epic Dis­rup­tion of the Ad Busi­ness (and Ev­ery­thing Else),” is Don Draper, the fic­tional ex­ec­u­tive at the cen­ter of the cel­e­brated tele­vi­sion se­ries “Mad Men.” Draper, a 1960s ad­man whose bril­liant cre­ative cam­paigns made clients swoon, is a con­ve­nient stand-in for the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try of yore, a sim­pler time when cor­po­ra­tions paid agencies big money to reach con­sumers through news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, bill­boards and the emerg­ing 30-sec­ond spot on tele­vi­sion.

The real-life ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tives Auletta quotes in “Fren­e­mies” talk about Draper like he’s an ac­tual per­son. “Back in Don Draper’s day you had three ma­jor net­works. You had peo­ple’s at­ten­tion. Peo­ple had fewer choices,” Beth Com­stock, a for­mer Gen­eral Elec­tric ex­ec­u­tive whose port­fo­lio in­cluded mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing, tells Auletta. “The big­gest dif­fer­ence from Don Draper days is data,” says Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer. Martin Sor­rell, the for­mer CEO of ad­ver­tis­ing con­glom­er­ate WPP, adds, “Seventy-five per­cent of our rev­enues comes from things — $15 bil­lion of nearly $20 bil­lion — Don Draper wouldn’t rec­og­nize.”

You can hardly blame to­day’s mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tives for feel­ing a lit­tle nos­tal­gic for a less-tu­mul­tuous time. The av­er­age ten­ure for a cor­po­rate chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer is less than four years, about half the shelf life of most CEOs. Pub­lish­ers, fac­ing de­clin­ing rev­enue from tra­di­tional ad­ver­tis­ing, have started their own stu­dios to cre­ate “na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing” for clients, cut­ting out agencies. And the lifeblood of the busi­ness is no longer cre­ativ­ity — though com­mer­cials still have the abil­ity to pull at heart­strings or go vi­ral — but rather com­put­ers, which use al­go­rithms to place ad­ver­tis­ing on web­sites and, as Unilever’s Weed notes, pro­duce data that can be used to pre­cisely tar­get con­sumers to buy more stuff.

The chal­lenge for Madi­son Av­enue and its clients, of course, is that its part­ners in this new world — Google, Face­book, Ama­zon and Mi­crosoft — col­lect, con­trol and ma­nip­u­late far more in­for­ma­tion about con­sumers than agencies and mar­keters do. Sor­rell ap­plies the word “fren­e­mies” to de­scribe the un­easy re­la­tion­ship be­tween mar­keters and tech­nol­ogy plat­forms, but there’s lit­tle doubt which par­ties have the up­per hand — for now. (Ama­zon founder and CEO Jef­frey P. Be­zos owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.)

Auletta’s book, com­pleted be­fore Face­book ad­mit­ted that con­sult­ing firm Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica gained ac­cess to data on 87 mil­lion users, doesn’t go nearly deep enough into pri­vacy con­cerns, de­spite an en­tire chap­ter ti­tled “The Pri­vacy Time Bomb.” He un­ques­tion­ingly quotes Ricky Van Veen of Face­book as say­ing “pri­vacy is over­rated” and bol­sters that view with anec­dotes about how teens and col­lege kids love to share in­ti­mate de­tails on so­cial me­dia.

To help il­lus­trate the shift from Draper to data, Auletta re­lies on mini-pro­files of in­dus­try play­ers such as Sor­rell; Car­olyn Ever­son, head of global mar­ket­ing so­lu­tions for Face­book and the ad in­dus­try’s main li­ai­son with the so­cial plat­form; and cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives such as Com­stock, Weed and Bank of Amer­ica Vice Chair­man Anne Fin­u­cane. With the ex­cep­tion of Sor­rell, who re­signed as CEO of WPP in April amid an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­leged per­sonal mis­con­duct, it’s a pretty but­toned-up bunch. Even Ever­son, who is meant to rep­re­sent the in­dus­try’s big dis­rup­tor, comes with a pris­tine cor­po­rate pedi­gree — An­der­son Con­sult­ing, Dis­ney, MTV, Mi­crosoft. “Car­olyn Ever­son doesn’t look like an ex­is­ten­tial threat,” Auletta writes as he in­tro­duces her. It is as if he’s go­ing out of his way to make her bland.

Auletta ze­roes in on Michael Kas­san, founder of Me­di­aLink, a con­sul­tancy that works with pub­lish­ers, big brands, ad agencies and dig­i­tal plat­forms. (In 2016 and 2017, Me­di­aLink was a paid spon­sor of the Van­ity Fair New Es­tab­lish­ment con­fer­ence, which I helped pro­duce.) Kas­san is an ex­pe­di­ent choice to help guide the reader through the chang­ing in­dus­try land­scape, as his firm touches every part of the ecosys­tem. Like Face­book’s Ever­son, Kas­san, now 67, doesn’t fit the typ­i­cal “change agent” mold. The au­thor de­scribes him as “a pear-shaped teddy bear of a man with a soft, round, tanned face, the sunny smile of a prac­ticed politi­cian, and the jokey shtick of a stand-up co­me­dian.”

The lack of a mod­ern-day Draper makes “Fren­e­mies” a bit of a slog for the gen­eral-in­ter­est reader. Auletta is a quiet writer. His books and pieces for the New Yorker are pro­pelled by his deep re­port­ing and ac­cess to col­or­ful ti­tans of busi­ness. “The High­way­men,” pub­lished in 1997, fea­tures pro­files of Barry Diller, Ted Turner, Ru­pert Mur­doch — en­tre­pre­neur­ial risk-tak­ers whose gam­bits have had a huge and dra­matic im­pact on ev­ery­day Amer­i­can life. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the pro­tag­o­nists of Auletta’s 2009 book, “Googled,” are not ex­actly swash­buck­ling, but the per­va­sive­ness and au­dac­ity of their am­bi­tion — to or­ga­nize all the world’s in­for­ma­tion and make it uni­ver­sally ac­ces­si­ble and use­ful — keep the reader engaged.

“Fren­e­mies” never suc­cess­fully makes the case that the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try, de­spite its mas­sive size, is as im­por­tant or in­no­va­tive or in­flu­en­tial as ca­ble news or Google. (Auletta writes that ad­ver­tis­ing is “var­i­ously said to be a $1 tril­lion to $2 tril­lion in­dus­try,” which seems like an in­cred­i­bly im­pre­cise range.) “Fren­e­mies” cul­mi­nates in the 2017 sale of Me­di­aLink to As­cen­tial, a Bri­tish com­pany that owns the Cannes Lions In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val of Cre­ativ­ity. Kas­san, de­scribed by Auletta as the “supreme power bro­ker in the ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing in­dus­try,” fetched $207 mil­lion for Me­di­aLink. By con­trast, Al­pha­bet, Google’s par­ent com­pany, is val­ued by the mar­ket at about $800 bil­lion. And there’s noth­ing im­pre­cise about the dif­fer­ence be­tween those num­bers. Stephanie Mehta is the editor in chief of Fast Com­pany.


Ken Auletta calls Michael Kas­san, chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Me­di­aLink, the “supreme power bro­ker in the ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing in­dus­try.”

By Ken Auletta Penguin Press. 358 pp. $30

FREN­E­MIES The Epic Dis­rup­tion of the Ad Busi­ness (and Ev­ery­thing Else)

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