The earthquake, of course, was the internet, and the subsequent seizure of the ad business by technology companies. Between them, Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (about whom Galloway has written an acclaimed, critical book, The Four), have transformed advertising’s terms of trade. Clients pour billions into a digital ecosystem that revolves around Google and Facebook in particular. The ad industry, run by people who pride themselves on creativity, is being displaced by the ad business, which prides itself on efficiency. Clients are spending less on the kind of entertaining, seductive, fame-generating campaigns in which ad agencies specialise, and more on the ads that flash and wink on your smartphone screen.
The ad industry views itself as a field of applied artistry, a next-door neighbour to the entertainment industry. Though it often fails, it aspires to surprise, charm, move and delight people on behalf of its clients. The ad business is obsessed with data science, and distrusts the messy stuff of story, image and idea. The ad industry thinks of itself as the custodian of a brand’s meaning in popular culture. The ad business could not care less about such fluff. Instead, it seeks to identify the precise moment that a consumer needs something so that it can trigger a sale. Shopping, on its model, is essentially an engineering problem to which a satisfyingly logical solution has finally been found.
The ad business is largely automated. Clients only have to decide how many people they want to reach, and how much they want to spend; algorithms do the rest. In the milliseconds before a page loads on to your screen, a virtual auction takes place. Advertisers bid for the chance to place their client’s ad on it, based on data about your online behaviour: where you live, whether you’re young or old, recently shopped for shoes or searched for a car brand. The advertiser might create multiple ads and serve different executions to different slices of its audience. Some companies, such as Cambridge Analytica, claim to be able to target personality types using this method. The more valuable your particular profile is to the advertiser, the higher price its algorithm will pay the publisher to get an ad in front of your eyes. In this way, every scintilla of attention is transformed into money.