Fascinating to see ad industry reaction (or rather, the lack of any coherent critical reaction) to the launch last week of The Bakery – a joint initiative between the ad industry and the Government (The Tech City Investment Organisation and UK Trade and Investment). The ultimate aim: to develop new advertising technologies.
And yes, I’m partly to blame. I’ve written a (belated) piece about it for this week’s Campaign: but it’s a rather basic article explaining who’s involved and what they hope to get out of it. There was no room to look at the many curious issues arising. True, even had there been space, there would have been mild political difficulties: The Bakery is an initiative that has the backing of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising: and Campaign, is, unashamedly (and rightly so), the provisional wing of the IPA.
But there are those who will wonder what the blue blazes the Government is doing pitching its tent in this neck of the R&D woods. This sort of future-facing business is exactly the sort of thing that advertisers and their agencies are already, supposedly, really rather good at.
Meanwhile, Governments almost always get involved in this sort of thing for all the wrong reasons – and let’s not forget that many critics (most notably James Dyson) continue to argue that the whole notion of Tech City is misguided both in theory and practice.
One ad agency source close to The Bakery project told me last week (somewhat ambiguously given his tone of voice) that it “was no mere public relations exercise”. And, he added, even if it were (I flatter him with the subjunctive here), that would be no bad thing. Surely?
Well, strange he should say that. But yes. Yes it would. In more confident times, during the late Noughties, ad agencies employed what they called “creative technologists” to cover off this sort of territory. Their remit was to seek out budding entrepreneurs – bright sparks with big ideas – to develop specific bits of technology (and for “technology” read “software”) that might lend a bit of futuristic gloss to specific campaigns for specific clients.
I interviewed (for a magazine feature) a whole lot of them a few years back. Not one of them had an A-level (or equivalent) in mathematics; not one of them could give me, off the top of their heads, a satisfactory definition of the word “algorithm”. Which was strange, because this was a word that creative technologists tended to throw about with gay abandon. And yet… unconvincing though they were in the round, it had to be admitted that they were unequivocally out there doing their bit.
Clients have an even better track record in this space – and, needless to say, they put less-than-wholehearted faith in the sorts of clowns who tend to get ahead at UK Trade and Investment. They tend, rather, to be terribly keen on the notion that you’ll steal a march on your competition if you develop your own killer apps in secret.
So… what to make of The Bakery? Well, the truth is that, in distracting a few people from somewhat dark musings, it may achieve a couple of rather important short-term goals. It may help deflect attention from the realisation that, for instance, in over 15 years of the digital advertising era, the UK industry has yet to produce a truly memorable digital display advertising campaign. Or, more broadly, from the notion that (and contrary to the sort wittering nonsense you still get from those who should know better), we’re actually enduring the most technologically stagnant era in well over a century.
Sometimes it’s the thought that counts. It really is.
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