Two and a half years ago I did two things: I left the agency business, and I stopped lying.
Several years ago I was in a client meeting. We were presenting a Powerpoint deck with the results of an online ad campaign.
Midway through the meeting we got to the slide with the click-through rate -- which we had buried nicely in a very complex table.
We quickly went through the table and moved on to the next slide.
The client interrupted, "Excuse me, can you go back one slide." We held our breath and went back to the slide with the click rate, which was .02%
"Two percent," the client said, "that's not bad."
Nobody said a word. Nobody said, ".02% is not two percent. It's two hundredths of one percent. It's not two clicks in a hundred. It's two clicks in ten thousand."
And we quickly moved on to the next slide.
Anyone in the agency business with a functioning brain has known for years that display advertising is, to a disturbing extent, a corrupt flimflam and that social media marketing is substantially an infantile fantasy.
But we've been afraid to say so. We may not have been lying by commission, but we told little white lies by omission.
We neglected to mention the problems of "viewability."
We forgot to bring up traffic fraud, and click fraud.
We didn't discuss that virtually no one was interacting with "interactive" advertising.
We didn't talk much about bots, or "volume-based incentives."
We didn't spend much time on engagement rates for social media.
We were afraid of the truth for two reasons.
First was self-preservation. Anyone in an agency who questioned the orthodoxy of digital supremacy was immediately labeled a Luddite dinosaur, and was marked for extinction. Try telling ISIS you don't believe in their God. You'll soon be ten inches shorter.
Second was client relations. Clients wanted to believe in the miracle. Agencies who told the truth soon found themselves competing for their long-held accounts against uber-trendy agencies with fast-talking hustlers equipped with a sackful of digital miracles.
The astounding part of all this is that the dissembling continues. It's still very perilous to say out loud that the emperor's wardrobe is...um...insufficient.
We used to be able to pretend we didn't know. We could throw out sociology numbers and pretend they were marketing numbers.
But these days we can't pretend we don't know. We know the facts about display, and we know the facts about social.
It's easy for me. I don't have anything to protect any more. But it's not so easy for many in agencies.
Our learning has evolved, but the perils of acknowledging what we've learned remain the same.
So the truth remains dangerous, and the consequences remain daunting.