The anti woke razors aren’t spying on your cellphone.

I said I wouldn’t do it, but I’m going to be the adtech bro that writes a response to this article in the NYT that slams adtech titled “If It’s Advertised to You Online, You Probably Shouldn’t Buy It. Here’s Why.” by Julian Angwin that made it’s way around Twitter recently. I am sure I will get heat about this, because advertising creepy and bad (and it is), but there were so many factual errors and misrepresentations that I feel compelled.

Adtech deserves to be criticized by journalists. Hell it *needs* to be criticized by journalists. It’s an industry of mercenaries and external pressure is a disinfectant to the sludge that builds up from shady practices. If you want meaningful change though you have to come at it from a place of being factually correct, and do so in good faith otherwise folks will simply throw the opinion out the window. I don’t know if this was written as a serious critique with the intent to reform or was basically fan service to privacy fetishist crowd or what. I’ll ignore that Julia’s salary is paid by ads, the distribution of the article happened on Twitter and other ad supported platforms. Media companies *need* ads. Netlfix introducing an ad tier after how many years of just subscription should help end the debate that ads are optional for most media organizations. It’s the proven working business model and if we want more media, and we want well funded media, that is going to involve ads on some level so long as humans are involved.

For me, I’m largely neutral about ads as an industry. It’s a useful tool for lots of businesses and like it or not it’s basically the oil of the internet. It keeps the money flowing and the lights on whether we all like it or not. It’s also a tool that is misused and abused to the point of real world harm on a fairly regular basis. I am not claiming it’s perfect or even good, in fact parts are deeply rotten.

So let’s talk about what I am not saying with this article. I am not defending the status quo of the adtech industry as it stands. I am not defending spyware like data collection. I am not defending any law breakers. I am not taking a political stand. This is industry wonkery and nothing more than that. I am trying to bring a real politik energy to this debate from someone who works in the industry but isn’t a pro advertising zealot. I think advertising is a thing that is needed for businesses on some level. I think that there’s a lot of ways it can be used to empower smaller local businesses over very large ones to even the playing field. I think that most people, even the folks doing creepy borderline things in adtech mostly aren’t evil sitting atop their scrooge mcduck fortunes with their monocles and cigars guffawing at the poors. I think when things happen that have moral hazard it’s a series of small compromises that lead to harmful outcomes. There are obviously bad actors and I’m not talking about them today.

To truly reform and bring change you have to start from a place of understanding why things are the way they are with an open mind and nonjudgement. Only then can you start to make a series of similarly small rules that lead to outcomes that are mutually beneficial for everyone involved. Businesses can grow, media can get funded, technologists can innovate, and users can get useful ads while having their privacy mostly respected.

Julia opens the article talking about some brand of Razor’s I’ve never heard of that apparently advertises themselves as anti woke. I have no idea what that means for a brand in this context but it’s setup to obviously draw some sort of Trumpian connection to the advertising industry and upset the sensibilities of the average New York Time’s reader even though most folks I know in said industry are overwhelmingly liberal.

She claims that “But online, many ads are sold based on the many details that advertisers have gleaned about your behavior and interests from your online activity.”

Which is my first point of contention. No, individual advertisers almost never have access to that data. There is no way to meaningfully say in most contexts say Person did X. Or Person did Y online in terms of adtech data being passed. Certainly not to advertisers. Even getting into things like bid logs and win logs, the actual meat which does contain PII (personally identifying information) it shares data like device type and geo location, IP etc. Stuff that can be used to identify you, but is really like 10 pieces of a 1000 piece puzzle. It’s a sliver of half information that can be used to assemble a mosaic but has to be meticulously reconstructed to have any meaningful insights into. Bad actors do this, but it requires a ton of data, patience, and is ultimately throwing darts at a wall while blindfolded. Tech companies like Alphabet or Meta certainly have this info but theoretically it’s encrypted in databases and anonymized in a way that a Meta employee similarly cannot just access the “Person 34231” file and see all the weird things I google late at night.

The other thing, and I’m going to let you in on is an dirty industry secret. Are you ready?

Half the data is pure garbage or totally wrong anyways.

So even if you’re assembling the puzzle half the data is junk and you don’t even know which half further making the idea that advertisers have some folder about you somewhere with your darkest secrets even less likely.

She follows up with the claim that is mostly true but contains an annoying persistent lie which is “Tech firms track nearly every click from website to website, develop detailed profiles of your interests and desires and make that data available to advertisers. That’s why you get those creepy ads in your Instagram feed or on websites that seem to know what you were just talking about.”

The lie being your phones listen to you. They simply do not. The truth might sting but honestly you’re just not that special. Some mix of highly tuned probabilistic models and the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon are responsible for this. I’m in deep, I buy the creepy data every day. My platform is using the creepy data right now. We’re working to get away from this, but the truth is that we just aren’t there yet. When we buy that data though you don’t buy a file on an individual, you buy an audience like “Ford Owners” that has a giant key of anonymized identifiers that links a bid in a firehose of bidstream data to someone in an audiences of millions. The “your phone listened to you talk about x brand” audience targeting option doesn’t exist. Adtech companies do track you in weird ways. This is not one of them.

The next claim I would consider absolutely false is “Already, we know that web tracking has decimated publishers.” which is also simply not true.

Other people much smarter than me such as Ari Paparo and Eric Seufert have pushed back on this in a more elegant way than I am about to briefly touch on, but I do want to push back on it. Technology is disruptive. I don’t care if you sold horses at the advent of the car or you were a whaler when electricity became a thing but it’s a natural consequence that is good. I’m not entertaining a smash the looms argument or socialism now nonsense. When media was both the content and a captive distribution channel whether via governments dolling out radio frequencies, needing the capital to buy a giant printer and hire paper boys, or build a television study it was a lot more profitable because there was less competitors. The internet has dramatically reduced the barrier to entry for creating media and because of that there’s more optionality. More optionality equals more competition and price parity. This can have many negative outcomes, but this is hardly the consequence of web tracking technology. It also has many positive outcomes as well such as elevating the voices of marginalized authors of various backgrounds and creating a robust competition in the media world. It’s been bad for the legacy gatekeepers of course who no longer have unquestioned narrative control accepted at face value. It’s a single facet or a larger trend and frankly the margins of media would have declined regardless even if it didn’t exist simply because of the staggering amount of new supply.

The actual paragraph that inspired me to actually write this entire novel was the following claim which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the technology powering the machine learning driven optimization of media. “Microtargeting has also enabled advertisers to discriminate in ways that are hard for regulators to catch. It is illegal, for example, for advertisers to use language in their ads suggesting that jobs, housing or credit opportunities are being offered to people of a certain race, gender or age or in other protected categories. But ad targeting means that advertisers can hide their preferences in the algorithm.”

It is 100% true advertisers can attempt to discriminate and it can and does happen. The idea though that an algorithm though can pick up racist vibes from a media buyer to automatically exclude someone of a protected class from seeing an ad for something like employment or housing opportunities is genuinely absurd. Machine learning optimization is inherently a black box on some level. You train it on a data set and that data set optimizes for an outcomes, usually based on some very banal goal like “target people more likely to fill out a form”. Those training sets can have biases of course, but again this is not something an individual advertiser controls for. In fact with Meta when you run ads in sensitive categories there literally is not demographic targeting even allowed. The machine learning driven model of media buying arguably reduces bias. In fact you could arguably be more discriminatory by the advertising model that Julia seems to hold in at least less hostile regard which buying directly from a publisher. If I’m only buying a print ad in some Yachting magazine or an equestrian magazine for a housing opportunity do you think I know the demographics I’m likely reaching? Yeah, I do too. The ye olde nostalgic media buying isn’t the panacea of anti-discrimination that it’s cracked up to be.

Julia goes on to lambast the brands that are apparently “allowed” to advertise claiming that “The products shown in targeted ads were, on average, roughly 10 percent more expensive than what users could find by searching online. And the products were more than twice as likely to be sold by lower-quality vendors, as measured by their Better Business Bureau ratings.

My feelings on the BBB aside, I assume this means Julia also roams the aisle of Target on weekends shaking her head at brand name products versus generics on the shelves? Consumers wanting one thing versus the other thing is like the bedrock of marketing and has near nothing to do technology. In the days of yore I assume the New York Times rigorously tested every single product and service that bought an ad in its newspaper to make sure they only accepted the absolute best in each category correct? Of course platforms have a duty to keep obviously scam products from advertising, and tons of platforms like Meta have incorporated customer feedback into a quality score to even try and prevent this too, but the standard being set here is so high and outside the norm that I don’t think any advertiser ever had held themselves to this. I assume NYT has never run an ad for Kia because the performance is lower than that of a Ferrari correct?

My hyperbole aside this is what makes me sad about this entire line of thinking. Adtech has, despite its many many faults, empowered a massive crop of new small businesses, created by people that may have otherwise been marginalized because of who they are by the powers that be, and their downstream service providers and tech companies to be built. An absolutely massive amount of jobs we’re created, people jumped classes and income brackets on the back of what they built. Consumers got actual choices in the things they bought. This was a good thing. You no longer had to have a massive amount of cash to afford a national print campaign with the New York Times to advertise your business anymore. You didn’t have to hire some Madison Avenue Ad Agency to be able to take your shot. Access became dare I say more equitable, and I think this is one of the good things that has come out of this. Small businesses have the same seat at the table with Google as a fortune 500 company and can grow. Certainly hundreds of thousands of them, maybe even millions, did. No longer constrained by nepotism, or who they knew, or if they already came from wealth and could afford to start a company in the first place at all.

The final claim I take issue with is the following. “Jeremy’s Razors doesn’t need to know your family structure, your favorite sport or the name of your favorite singer. Jeremy’s could simply place its anti-woke ads near anti-woke content.”

Jeremy’s Razor’s (Unrelated to me I spell my name with an “O” and have never heard of this brand before this article) doesn’t have this information. It lives in large anonymized data sets entirely unavailable to Jeremy’s Razor’s known only to Meta’s machine learning. They don’t know who you are, they don’t decide what content their ads is placed next to. No human does.

Ultimately adtech is very broken. I could write entire books on ways that adtech needs to be, and could be fixed. This article fundamentally misses the mark and ultimately confuses the debate by providing, dare I say, misinformation about the actual nature of the mechanical ways these things work. Likely this was done to jack up the fear of the average consumer to push them towards Julia’s personal opinion. To be fair it is an opinion piece, but I digress. As Julia points out though it’s a $540 billion dollar industry, an industry that isn’t just going to pack it up. If we want meaningful positive change, and I do, that moves us away from the creepy targeting that does happen, an admirable goal, then we need to at least be realistic about the actual faults that exist and not just make up more dramatic sounding anecdotes about anti woke razors looking through your bedroom window at night writing down what posters of pop stars they see to apparently target their ads better and have a good faith conversation about realistic ways where we can smooth the edges on this industry and work to evolve things over time towards a place where advertising as a business model works for everyone, including consumers, in a more privacy focused way without sacrificing the good that opening up the ability for anyone to harness ads as a tool to grow their business. It’s possible, and we just have to be willing to listen and work together rather than create an unnecessarily hostile conversation based on truth not lies. I’m going to work towards that future, I hope you join me.

The Nihilism Of R/Wallstreetbets

UPDATE: Since this blew up 1. I wrote this mostly in response this article in Bloomberg. 2. If you want to follow me on Twitter for more hot takes on internet culture and marketing stuff you can do that here: @jeromysonne

I want to preface all of this by saying I am not an investing expert. I currently hold no publicly traded companies’ stock. (Though I might I haven’t logged into Robinhood in a while). What I am pretty good at though is internet culture and understanding communities through that lens. I also don’t agree with the Wallstreetbets culture. I’m just trying to explain it.

The recent dramatic fall and meteoric rise of Gamestop via the short squeeze that happened has a lot of technical reasons that people a lot better at finance can explain. What keeps coming up though is Wallstreetbets and their hand in taking a stock that seemed doomed to failure and rocketing it to new heights. I’m seeing a lot of well-meaning takes on their role that generally miss the “why” of the community and what it does / how it exists. After reading a well-written article in Bloomberg (that ultimately misses the point on WSB). I thought I would take a moment to give some insights.

References to tendies, autism, gay bears, and a bunch of other things don’t really make a lot of sense on the surface (and some make even less sense once you dive in). The culture of Wallstreetbets is an interesting one, to say the least, that has a lot of its language and customs rooted in 4chan. As 4chan users have grown up, migrated to other corners of the internet, and spread their language it’s continued on and evolved in different spaces. You saw a lot of this with the_donald on Reddit a few years ago before it was banned and a lot of similar overlap in language between what the community was and what WSB is now. (Twitter is so late to the party compared to Reddit).

The basic surface-level story of WSB is this. It’s a bunch of autistic losers that live in their mom’s basement who are gambling what little money they have to try and become rich to live lifestyles of hedonism. Since they are basement dwellers their obvious food of choice is chicken tenders aka tendies that they trade in their GBPs (Good boy points) to their mom so they can get more. In this world, they earn good boy points by doing well at stocks.

On the surface, it seems really weird but it’s mostly a type of gallows humor that permeates a lot of especially young millennials and zennial men. That nothing really means anything, that no one cares about them (or in some cases actively hate them), and so they reject buying in on the society they feel actively scorns them. I’ll resist the urge to add my personal opinions or quote Fight Club here, but I’m mostly saying all this to get you in their head.

As someone that deals with some (in the grand scheme of things minor) mental health issues around panic attacks and anxiety attacks the “Fuck it if nothing means anything I may as well do what I want” attitude on a self-destructive and nihilistic level makes sense to me. It’s not logical but it makes sense. If nothing means anything you may as well do what you want and try and have some fun before the existential crisis of death takes us all. To do that though you need cash, and most of us are slammed with student debt, increased COL, and stagnant wages as compared to our parents’ generation. All the “boomer” advice we’re given doesn’t really make sense especially when it comes to the dreaded value investing that we’re told to do when it comes to stocks especially in light of the financial crisis in 2008.

See back in the day if you played the rules, worked the job, saved the money you could mostly live a pretty good life. The system was there and it had your back you just had to play by the rules. At some point that changed. Understanding that fundamentally you can do “everything right” and be totally fucked anyways, never able to achieve your dreams regardless of what you do or don’t do is a shitty feeling. Along comes WSB.

Suddenly, there’s a chance. Not a big one, but a chance to get out of your situation and live the life you want. You can do everything right and never be able to retire anyway, OR you can take super speculative positions in the stock market by making giant bets on risky options that, if you happen to be right, could make you rich. You’ve broken the cycle and you can live the life you want. Worst case? You’re right back where you started.

““If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.” – Big Daddy Keyne$

I think there are really 2 things you need to understand about WSB (And really this piece of internet culture in general). It’s 50% depression and 50% a Molotov cocktail. You either win and get out or you lose AND you’re sticking it to the man at the same time. Even if I go super long, ratchet up the leverage, and take a big bet and lose guess what?


Seriously nothing. Most of these people are in hopeless debt with no clear path out anyway. They declare bankruptcy and move on. They took the bet, rode the adrenaline rush, and they lost. The silver lining? The elites that hate them are stuck paying the bill. It’s really a win-win situation. The memes, the culture, all of it really stems from this attitude.

I think it’s honestly fascinating that people are finally starting to notice this sub-culture once it’s begun affecting the mainstream financial system. Maybe now that it’s hitting these folks where they live, hurting the only thing they care about, they’ll start thinking about why these people are acting out. Before anyone accuses me of being a socialist I have a startup that sells radio ads called Decibel. I’m a died in the wool capitalist and I can plainly see these issues. That maybe if they felt they had more of a stake in the future, that wealth inequality wasn’t so bad, that they’ll never afford a home, etc. they wouldn’t feel the need to act out. That if they weren’t in such an unwinnable situation they wouldn’t feel the need to throw Molotov cocktails through the front window of the country and the global financial system.

I doubt it, but one can hope.

Until then this is going to get worse, not better.

The Facebook Hamster Wheel

I just feel stuck these days as a person that does a lot of Facebook marketing. Like I’m in a pit of quicksand and I have the strength to keep myself afloat, but not enough strength to actually get out.

This starts at a “tactical” level with Facebook ads but has permeated up through my entire business structure. Some is certainly my fault on some level, but some of it is just the nature of the game. Things with platforms change of course, consumer preferences change of course, people get ad blindness, etc. This isn’t really that though.

Week to week things change with the platform and it’s infuriating. I do “optimizations” that make no sense yet somehow work. Stacking interests, do single interest ad sets, doing interest ad sets and then narrowing them, doing all the same with lookalike audiences, the list goes on and on and the performance on any given tactic changes week to week. There is no “reason” that say an ad set that has 5 different interests that I know work separately doesn’t perform yet it will work, then not work, then work again. This is what I mean by the hamster wheel. With Facebook these days you feel like you’re running faster and faster just to stay in place. There’s at best a 2 week cycle where you figure it out and then the mad hatter yells “change places” and you start from 0 again. There is no more disheartening feeling than launch an ad set, watching is crush it for 36 hours, and then fall off a cliff. There’s no reason that should happen with an audience of 10 million people.

The long and short though is that the instability is driving myself and other marketers crazy. There is no playbook you can write, no set strategy you can deploy, and because of that its unending work on accounts that should be stable. When nothing is stable and everything is constantly in need of rebuilds you can’t make meaningful progress from an account tactical level. All the time that goes into media buying that could have gone into CRO, or offer tests, or new creative is just eaten up. It’s frustrating and it sucks.

More than that, that sort of permeant firefighter mentality permeates everything. Being bogged down in tactics is exhausting and depressing as a marketer and an entrepreneur. I feel like I can’t So far the answer has been to diversify media spend to other platforms, and while that works, it also dramatically increases the workload for an individual client. As per usual, the only thing we can do is hope and keep working harder, but if I’m honest I’m just really tired. It’s making me consider if I even want to take on Facebook specific projects anymore and maybe have the conversation up front about how we’re going to simply follow the money rather than being ties to any 1 platform. Maybe consulting is the answer? Maybe only working with high dollar clients that can afford to pay us for the work it takes to build and rebuild campaigns every day? I don’t know what that answer is but I know that I need to figure it out fast and get it implemented here post BFCM but before Q1 otherwise 2021 will be a repeat of 2020 and that’s not tenable.

Technician V Entrepreneur

One thing I’m working on doing is trying to be less of a technician and more of a business owner. I’m having trouble though because I’m a bit of a control freak and it’s, unfortunately, inhibiting my ability to meaningfully scale.

I’ve been running Facebook ads for about 9 years. The first ad I ran I remember was for a startup I was working on with some friends in college that was focused on hyper-local crowdfunding. I boosted a post and the rest really was history. Over the years I like to think I’ve gotten at least alright at this having been a part of projects such as:

-Taking a song to #1 Global Viral on Spotify

-Working with Fortune 500 companies

-Working with 10+ Agencies in a media buying role.

-Working with billion dollar DTC brands.

You get the idea.

So the thing is that I kind of muddled around for a few years having these cool flash in the pan moments, but never getting meaningful traction. Recently though I managed to niche down and I’ve found something that has people really aggressively pursuing working with me. Product market fit (or service market fit in this case) really does have a totally different feel to it. Sales are easier, the value prop just clicks with people, it’s smooth sailing. The thing is though that despite calling myself an agency for years and having a handful of team members here and there I’ve never meaningfully run an organization. My lack of process is showing.

My current focus is setting up process, not just to get the work done, but to do it in a way where I can meaningfully transfer my skills while also giving people the room to learn and do the work in their own style and with their own approach. It’s difficult, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. To me, it’s about following our values and creating systems that re-enforce those values in smart ways that also lessen the workload in the aggregate. I’m still figuring these things out but my 2020 goal is to not be running the day to day on any ad account and rather acting in the “senior” role advising and meeting on all our accounts. At this point in the game I think it delivers better outcomes for clients and lets me do what I do best which is collaborate and mentor on a high level. I’m starting to take the steps to get there, but it’s a long road.

Talking about your trade is more important than being perfect at it.

I saw a really interesting post from a semi-famous Twitter user @shl

While I normally disagree with such broad statements I actually really agree here. The most successful people I see are mostly better at describing their craft to the “normies” than they are at actually doing it. I used to organize a fairly large startup meetup in Denver and we had an agency owner come in to speak to the crowd once about his experience building a PPC shop. He said that early on he figured out that he was better at selling the service than doing it and that’s what enabled him to grow his company so quickly.

I think about him saying that often, and I realize that frankly, he’s right. When I marry that with what Sahil is saying above I’m beginning to think that the people that win in any given vertical are going to be the best content creators and content marketers. Delivery and customer experience matters, but only in so far as you do a very good job versus a perfect job. When it comes to advertising finding the right offer with the right creative is 70% of the battle. You add in some good media buying and you’re at 95%. That last 5% being the difference between good and perfect probably takes up 50% of the effort. For most companies if you’re delivering a 95% experience by spending half your time on the work and you spend your other half of the time on your content I think you win every single time over someone who spends near 100% of their time on the work. Most clients only care that you hit or exceed their targets but that last 5% may or may not get rewarded commensurate to the effort put in.

As I personally move forward I’m trying to prioritize education through content and spend more of my personal time writing and distributing my content about my job as well as actually doing the work. To me though that means bringing in some really energetic people that have some skills and are hungry to learn while I direct them at a high level. This has been a good fit so far and can scale up Moonshine Marketing for the foreseeable future. I think planning for anything beyond that is a bit of future proofing. One side benefit of all this content creation is that instead of being heads down in accounts I’m actually able to gain perspective and learn new tactics to implement from being out in the world. Ironically dialing the effort back just slightly and focusing on learning has driven better results for our clients so far.

What do you think? Am I mad or did I unlock the cheat code to business success because honestly after years of struggling it kind of feels that way.

Marketing Mise En Place

My favorite hobby is cooking

It all started when I got really into it on accident as an escape from my anxiety. The rote cutting of vegetables, simmering a sauce while checking whatever was in the oven. The multi tasking, laser focus on what’s right in front of you, and physical work to bring a meal together forced me into the moment and was an escape for me when I didn’t really understand or have a good handle on what was going on with what ultimately ended up being an un-diagnosed anxiety and panic disorder.

When you’re in the kitchen one of the things you learn very quickly is that in order to orchestrate a beautiful meal you need to have things lined up ready to go. The difference between a spectacular feast and a piece of unflavored rubber is 1-2 minutes in some cases. In the world of professional chefs, lining all your ingredients up in pre-measured amounts is known as Mise En Place (French for “everything in its place”). This allows you to have everything ready to go to maximize your time when the actual cooking is happening rather than trying to frantically chop a shallot while your pancetta is burning.

One thing I’ve struggled with in the past with marketing is this constant feeling of being a firefighter rather than a farmer.

What do I mean?

Rather than being able to invest time into long term projects and watching them grow (like a farmer), I’ve felt in the past that I have to run around attending to the disaster of the day or execute on some random new initiative to try and hit an aggressive KPI (like a firefighter). To some degree that’s just a part of the job. There’s always *something* more a marketer can be doing and when the growth of the company, in large part, comes down to your performance there’s a lot of pressure.

A lot of it though is that I, and many other marketers, are frankly just disorganized.

A professional kitchen is a very high pressure environment where people have to move very quickly and execute perfectly not once, but dozens of times in a single night. When you take a look at the military level of precision they have to have you see how they’re able to take and perfect process to the degree that they do you realize just how much is possible. Ultimately, by looking at a restaurant back of house I realized its not a trade off between farming and firefighting, but rather building processes that allow you to not only be bother but 10x at each role.

My learning haven’t stopped there though. There’s a lot more parallels to the world of professional cooking and marketing, and an equally large number of lessons that can be drawn.

-Set a menu and execute it really well. Basically, decide your strategy and stick to it. When you do everything custom every time or go off on wild goose chases you’re going to be super inefficient, far more inefficient than any growth hack you may glean from such an adventure.

-Utilize Mise En Place. When it’s time to execute on whatever dish (marketing strategy) you’ve decided on, make sure your tactics are lined up to be well executed. I use airtable to setup ad creative and define audiences etc. for things like Facebook ads. All my tasks are setup with due dates and subtasks in Asana. This saves such an incredible amount of time.

-Be great at one thing. Not mediocre at everything. What’s the best taco place in your city? Best pizza place? Now what’s the best place that serves, tacos, and pizza, and fried chicken? The top 1% of marketers in any discipline reap disproportional rewards as compared to others and you should usually strive to go deep rather than wide especially if you’re a 1 person show.

Ultimately, any services business where you have a client and it’s a creative process to some degree you’re going to have similarities. Marketing and cooking have a ton of overlaps. In general, I think it’s useful to see what another industry is doing to learn and apply it to your own. What other industries could marketers learn from?

Stop looking for hacks.

I had a really interesting exchange with someone who is fairly well respected in the Facebook marketing community today on Twitter named Andrew Foxwell.

For those that don’t know Andrew, he runs Foxwell Digital all with his partner (in more ways than 1) Gracie Foxwell. They’re a stellar team that has earned his praise from industry leaders such as Jon Loomer and has worked with some really impressive brands. More than that though Andrew is always giving out pretty stellar advice on Twitter, and for those of us in the digital advertising world, it’s clear he is one of the better Facebook advertisers out there.

The exchange we had today is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. First, we hit on a recency bias that is prevalent in the digital marketing world. Which, to some degree, I understand. You want to get in on the next Facebook before it’s overrun with advertisers. In addition being the first or an early mover into a promising new area is a great way to build authority. People crave it, and it’s hard to keep up with demand, but it is what it is. I think one thing though that I thought of when I saw his original tweet was something else entirely. It was a trend that I absolutely hate and yet have no idea how to handle as both a marketer and a content creator. That trend?

The bias towards “hacks”

There have existed, do exist, and will exist system exploits. Whether that’s in advertising or anything else, they are there and someone will use them to make money. My rant isn’t some sort of denial of their existence. My rant is about this very unfortunate trend towards marketers caring primarily, or only about finding the next hack.

First, what do I mean by “hack”? So I’m defining hack as something that primarily finds some sort of loophole or unfair advantage inside of a system, and in this case a digital advertising platform. Typically it will look something like a video game cheat code but IRL. Basically, you do some out of the box, odd, or downright counter intuitive practice, not because it per say makes sense or it follows advertising best practice, but because it takes advantage of some weird platform quirk. An example might be bidding $500 cost per click because the platform over prioritizes high margin bids over other factors to some absurd degree that means you always get the best inventory for the same or a lower price. Maybe it’s that if you run a video in a lead campaign where you pay by the cost per lead, and you make the form super overly complicated so that your video is seen millions of times but no one ever fills out the form so you get tons of impressions for nothing. Things like that.

People crave these, and it’s easy to see why. When we all only talk about our biggest wins, and never about our losses, it creates a culture where everyone, even true experts, mostly feel inferior all the time. So you start wondering what you’re doing wrong, abandon your experience and skills, and start looking for the quick fix to save your clients and your business. It’s to some degree understandable, but it is almost always counter productive for a number of reasons.

Here’s the hard truth.

  1. No guru is going to sell you a course or tell you for free about an exploit like this until it’s no longer useful to them.
  2. Finding and chasing hacks doesn’t make you into a better advertiser. In fact it actively makes you worse. Rather than honing your skills and learning advertising fundamentals you never have time because you’re panicking about finding the next hack.
  3. Finally, you’re building a house of cards. You will eventually run out of hacks and when you do clients will bail. You’ll be basically playing an anxiety inducing confidence game where you can never get ahead because your retention is shit. You will be on the treadmill forever. The big win that you think will get you out will never come.

So I now find myself in a predicament. I love making content. It’s my favorite thing. Honestly if I could I would probably just make content about marketing all day every day. I want to make great content that helps people learn, and grow, and live their dreams. I try my best to make that sort of thing. The truth is though is the handful of “hack” videos I have out there drive probably 80% of all my reads, views, engagement etc.

It’s a sinking feeling. I want to teach people to be better marketers, but they all just want the secret shortcut that doesn’t exist. Ultimately I want to create cool stuff, but I also want to meet people where they are and produce content they want. I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile these things. Maybe it means I need to step up my content game, find some sort of middle ground, spend more time on production value. I honestly am not sure.

I also want to be clear I know this isn’t something that is just in the marketing industry. It’s endemic to everything in life and in every industry. Hell, my kid wants to eat more chocolate chip pancakes but he needs broccoli. All of us, at least until we change our mind set, want to cheap win until we become disciplined enough to go for the hard but valuable wins.

I’m being genuine when I say I want to hear your ideas. Let me know what you think in the comments. As with all good things testing is probably the best way to figure out this balance. My first instinct is to take the “spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down approach.” to this issue. Figuring out ways of showing the hacks, but then explaining how this isn’t sustainable and if their goal is “X” where X could be cheaper media, higher click throughs, more leads, whatever, I would focus on these other things instead. Showing the fundamentals but teaching the core skills. Basically being a high school science teacher who has the power of fire to compete with iPhones so he can try and teach people what an electron is in between explosions. Not sure if it will work, but on some level I have to be true to myself, and myself wants people to become better marketers and not run on the digital hedonistic treadmill. I want to be known for my content and frankly I want my content to directly or indirectly propel me to the place I want to be professionally, but not at the expense of substance.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

Introducing ROMS (Return on Marketing Spend)

Now I’m not some sort of fancy professional quote maker, but I do appreciate accuracy in my industry jargon. This is probably more “old man yells at cloud” than I’m willing to admit, but I think that we need to expand the marketing sayings lexicon when it comes to talking about business outcomes versus marketing expenditure.

Right now, I hear 2 terms thrown around a lot when people are trying to measure the effectiveness of their marketing program.

  1. ROAS (Return on Ad Spend)

  2. ROI (Return on Investment)

Neither of these are perfect terms, and are often used as stand ins for a term that I want to deem ROMS (Return on Marketing Spend)

ROAS is useful in a certain context. I spend $500 on ads and get $1500 back. That’s a 3x ROAS as the revenue was 3 times what I spent. Simple and useful, but utterly lacking from a high level KPI perspective. Marketing is so much more than just ad spend. Labor, tools, brand building, etc. This isn’t even to mention all of the types of marketing that have no ad spend associated with them. Organic social, content marketing, SEO, etc. ROAS is clearly useful, but lacking at a high level.

ROI is really an investors term in my mind, and not a particularly useful one for marketing. ROI, to me, is basically short hand for what’s the profit on this activity. However, there’s so much more than marketing being included in that definition. What if there were sales people involved, what if a marketing activity was a perception exercise, or brand building, or built around increasing customer loyalty? How do you measure that? Let’s set aside for a second that analytics and reports aren’t nearly a accurate as we all believe they are. ROI is clearly a much broader term than is useful for a marketing department to be able to reasonably control or be concerned with.

ROMS on the other hand is inclusive of labor, and ad spend, and tools, and brand building etc. It takes into account the total amount of money spent in every facet of marketing, and then contrasts it with the revenue over the long term that marketing has brought in. To that end I would suggest that ROMS be measured on the basis of 1 month, 1 quarter, and 1 year to get an accurate idea of the direction that you’re heading in. While I’m not claiming ROMS is a perfect metric, I think that it can help better frame the conversation around the questions that executives are actually trying to get answered.

Prior Idiot CMO Phenomenon

persone wearing a shirt that says dumb

There’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed that happens when a new marketing team hire joins, or a new agency is hired, or a consultant is brought in. Universally, the person that was doing the job before you was a complete and utter idiot.

They had no idea what they were doing. They made baffling decisions that seemingly undermined the company and the marketing mission. They spent way too much money, didn’t achieve anything, and left things worse than when they showed up.

Only, they weren’t idiots. Or at least not all of them are.

See, I’ve been quite guilty of this myself in the past.

I’d rush in with my cavalier attitude, completely ignoring all context, declaring everything dumb, and I set to work building my vision, and only my specific vision, of what right looks like. I implement a perfect and flawless plan and everything becomes sunshine and rainbows. I save the day and am a hero. Everyone loves me. Albert Einstein gives me $100 while everyone claps.

In reality, what actually ends up happening, is I don’t understand the company dynamics all that well, I’m arrogant about my knowledge of the market, I get tunnel vision on my own way of doing things, I don’t take into account all the stake holders, I fail to realize that just because something worked somewhere else doesn’t mean it’s a fit here, and I get frustrated and sloppy.

The result? I make a series of seemingly baffling decisions that undermine the company, the marketing mission, and leave things worse than when I was originally brought in.

Sound familiar?

Look, we all do it. Most of us, I believe, pride ourselves on our abilities and genuinely want to deliver a win to the people we’re working with. It comes from a good place, but is tinged with just enough arrogance and ignorance to make things a disaster.

Here’s what you should do instead.

Go in and say nothing. Ask a ton of questions to all the stakeholders. Understand the company dynamic. Spend more time than you think you need on customer empathy. Understand not just the stated mission, but the real mission of the company. Learn what has been done and why it’s been done that way.

Then, and only then, start slowly changing things towards your new vision, the vision that’s inclusive and actually tailor made for the company and their customers. Introduce things one by one. Listen to what people think. Bridge the gap between your knowledge and best practices with what the present reality is for the company. Use data to make decisions and test in a thoughtful and deliberate way.

I promise you things will go much better, and not just for the marketing outcomes, but for the relationships as well. Don’t be the next prior idiot CMO.

There are no hacks for hard work.

One thing I’ve noticed, and been deeply guilty of myself, is that there are no hacks for hard things when it comes to marketing. 

What do I mean?

I mean that you can get every industry report there is, and marketing is still work. You can have the most comprehensive, seamless, and automated reporting system there is, and marketing is still work. You can have cutting edge AI tools that will optimize your bids, audiences, placements, and creatives, and marketing is still work. You can outsource large parts of your job to agencies or the greatest experts in every kind of marketing imaginable, and marketing is still work. You can be absolutely dominating on a specific platform with a fantastic ROI that requires very little upkeep, and marketing is still work. 

There is no way around hard work when it comes to marketing. This shit is hard. 

No tool is perfect, platforms are always changing, what works today, may not work tomorrow, agencies need direction and collaboration, etc. etc. etc. 

There are, of course tools, processes, and systems to make your job easier. There’s no doubt.

There are however no hacks, or tricks, or tools to make the job easy. 

You see, marketing is an inherently self destructive field. What do I mean? Anytime something gets popular, a marketer comes in and ruins it. 

Media companies inherently trade on people’s attention. It’s the business model they’ve been in ever since the first billboard went up in the Colosseum (I have no idea if this is true, I just made it up. Sounds cool though right?) They create something people want to watch, and the price is they’re forced to watch something they never would otherwise. Us marketers? We’re that otherwise bit. 

So, then a new medium, or channel, or site, or whatever becomes popular it’s a race against time before it becomes so saturated with marketers that people, frustrated and disillusioned, move on to some other form of entertainment. Any time you find something that works, there are 10s of thousands of other marketers chomping at the bit to take what you’ve found and use it for themselves. In the process the fierce competition for consumer eyeballs is every so slowly wearing down the credibility and the usefulness of whatever trend or authenticity the mediums we market on have managed to build. Repeat ad infinitum. 

I say all this not to be cynical about my profession, but to point out that the work never stops. You can never have it all figured out. At best you can have it all figured out for today. A platform changes a feature and you’re dead. A competitor rolls in swinging their weight around with 1000x the ad budget, you’re dead. People realize your product is accidentally killing all the sea turtles one day.

No matter what, you have to do the work.