Fun rant Umair. But I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. I think it was an unwitting collusion between several different players.

Rewind to 2005–2010 and a lot of agencies were doing the kind of work you’re talking about. Led by creative agencies like Poke, lots of digital advertising back then was strategic, ambitious, thoughtful, creative and crafted. And so it cut through, and said something to people, and so it worked. And, while much of it was of the ‘dog walking app’ genre, they even took care over banner ads.

What happened to change that probably wasn’t one thing but many. Adtech companies automated the bit they could (media targeting) and so took the focus off the bit they couldn’t (creative that meets customer needs). As media owners increasingly came under pressure, they chose to do the easy thing (embed generic adtech) than they difficult thing (work on bespoke campaigns with good creative agencies). Agency holding companies tried to scale their digital agencies, in a way that could meet quarterly shareholder demands, and respond to ‘disruption’, and so copied or co-opted what the adtech companies were doing. Marketing clients also came under pressure for short term results, and believed what they were being promised by the adtech companies. Becasue of this the whole narrative became about targeting, data and efficiency, and anyone who thought to challenge this by thinking of customers and context would be dismissed as not being ‘business’ enough.

Those original digital agencies either got scaled into undifferentiated operators of adtech, or stayed smaller and pivoted into something more like product and service design consultancies, where they can still do work that is strategic, ambitious, thoughtful, creative and crafted — and that makes a real, long term difference to customers and businesses.

As my collegue Simon Andrews constantly points out, there’s an enormous opportunity to get back to doing good quality digital ad creative. The stuff that the dropshippers do isn’t exactly creative but does exhibit understanding of people’s needs and desires, and so cuts through and works.

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Leading a customer-led transformation at a PE-backed #SMEtech. Previously CSO at Albion, a business innovation consultancy.

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