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Editor's Note:

I just wanted to let my readers know that I've created a blog where I will be posting essays and articles I've written on digital and online marketing. It's an extension of Media Perspectives. I hope you continue to read and enjoy!

Here's the link: Jaffer Ali's Blog - Perspectives from a Media Contrarian

Thanks for Reading!

The Center Cannot Hold
By: Jaffer Ali

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...

--William Butler Yeats, from The Second Coming*

There are times when poets understand and communicate so much better than those of us who can only dream of writing poetry. As we face the financial maelstrom in our markets and economy, can anyone doubt that "something" is terribly wrong?

What is exactly wrong?

We have chaos, volatility and the experts (the falconers in Yeats' poem) admitting that they know not where the future leads. The falcon has ceased obeying the falconer because the noise of the maelstrom is overpowering.

The online advertising world is caught in the same vortex only there are those who insist that the center will hold. It is they who are delusional. What is the evidence that the industry is in the midst of a storm with a manifestly uncertain direction?

If we switch from the lyrical beauty of the poet to the realpolitik of renowned strategist, John Boyd, we might get close to the answer. Boyd, the chief strategist of the first Gulf War outlined how a model of reality becomes more unstable as the second law of thermodynamics asserts itself in the form of entropy.

As entropy increases, by definition instability results. Chaos reigns and unpredictability becomes the norm. In effect, the "center cannot hold."

Boyd spoke about the dialectical process of destruction and creation. Experts can try to patch the model currently in place, but all attempts bring more and more instability. It is like taping together a condemned house in a hurricane.

What is the evidence that the current online model is becoming as unstable as our financial markets?

Well for starters, 10 years ago banners would yield a 5% CTR. This was without the benefit of complex mathematical models. Today even with the most sophisticated algorithms touted by the latest quants (a quant is a believer in quantitative analysis), the average CTR has beaten a path to an average of .3%. What progress!

The solution to declining performance has been to collect ever more data derived from tracking human behavior. Surfing and purchasing data has been assembled into huge databases with ever more mysterious and chic algorithms to model and predict behavior.

This mathematical reduction is suffering from the same uncertainty that Heisenberg proved at the sub atomic level. The more minute we delve, the more uncertain results become. We are less able to predict behavior the more we rely upon more and more minutia.

"Things fall apart...and anarchy is loosed upon the world."

In order to save a failed model, ever more intricate patches are created to prop up the vision that online media can utilize science and math to cure its ills. Of course quality, beauty and soul are completely removed from the online advertising environment. Why?

Because notions of quality cannot be reduced to mathematical calculation.

Soul cannot be reduced to quantitative erudition. Transcendence does not fit into Google's model. Google utilizes the same mathematics that has led to the destruction of our financial markets. Algorithms have replaced human interaction.

There are now more than 250 million websites on the World Wide Web. Has this increased choice led to an increase in quality? Has more led to better? Of course not. Before a new online model can take root, the old one must be destroyed. That is happening before our eyes. Online video will not save the existing decaying model. This will be taken up in a future article.

As CPMs for banners continue their precipitous decline (RON banners can be purchased for as little as $.10/M), the proof that the "center cannot hold" becomes more obvious. But just as there were those physicists who clung to Newtonian physics when quantum mechanics was replacing their model, we have many folks clinging to a paradigm that does an increasingly poor job of describing reality. Response rates continue to decline.

The anomalies are ignored. Who is speaking about how the sophisticated algorithms are not increasing response rates? When banners were new and innovative, they generated responses. Innovation has now taken the form of more useless mathematical reductionism.

It is easier to put faith in numerical precision (sic) rather than seek creative new ways to bring value and connection between advertisers and their audience. No new paradigm can possibly win the day until the old one is destroyed. It is only until the anomalies grow overwhelming and painful that the delusional reliance upon collecting data, measuring and ultimately reducing online advertising to numbers will recognition that our current model is hopelessly flawed. Author Anais Nin had it right when she said:

There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
--Anais Nin

I do not fear the maelstrom because we will see the present advertising models give way to something new. First, there will be more pain I am afraid. There are still falconers calling out to the falcons. But sure as anything can be, the "center will not hold."

* "The Second Coming" Complete

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world;
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

--William Butler Yeats, January 1919

Original Article: The Center Cannot Hold

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