End of culture

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This post on the end of culture as inspired by a presentation. Pip Bingemann of Springboards.ai presented at Cannes in Cairns – a marketing festival for Australians who wouldn’t be able to go to the Cannes Festival of Advertising. Pip’s presentation touched with things I had seen about the end of culture and had some interesting points within it. I didn’t agree with a lot of Pip said, some of it was down to nuance, but appreciated the journey that it took.

I have built the main headers around Pip’s slides, strap in for the end of culture.

What’s wrong with advertising?

Bingemann’s presentation as in praise of the disruption that (generative) AI was bringing. The thesis he put forward was that ‘machines’ had already messed up the advertising and media industries. 

  • Advertising became self-service in nature. 
  • There had been a move in online media to relevance over distinctiveness
  • We became slaves to numbers

Let’s look at those elements first. 

Advertising became self-service in nature

Like the technological disruption of banking in the past with: 

  • Postal banking
  • Automatic teller machines
  • Telephone banking 
  • Online banking 

Meta and Google’s advertising platform democratised media buying. Years ago a guy I have lost touch with used to be a manager at a McDonald’s branch in the west end of London. 

Before cellphones became commonplace he had a side hustle. He used the restaurant telephone to phone up the newspapers, to book small ads. The newspapers had advertising sales teams, that he would speak to. He did it once for a friend and then word got around. Eventually, he was calling for businesses across Soho. Premium line suppliers, porn publishers and adult mail order catalogue companies. Eventually they needed the ads to be designed. This work was done alongside creating porn DVD covers and other marketing material. 

Ovid was a pimp

He built a small successful agency off the back of it based in Soho. The agency remained in Soho until it was priced out by the fund management firms who moved in. Lots of other small businesses did the same for their plumbing business or hair salon. Their adverts would run in local newspapers across the country. 

newspaper ad...

For more sophisticated ads like large print ads, television or cinema advertising; help was needed. This help got the ad ready, made sure that the publication received the artwork on time and in a format that they could use. They made sure that the artwork was presented in the manner agreed. With the likes of television, the advert might have to go through regulatory approval prior to publication. 

If you were a larger brand with a national or international campaign, further help was needed in pre-testing and orchestration. Expertise might be needed to access more regulated markets while remaining on the right side of the law. 

Technology allowed newspaper type adverts to be easily accessed by both agencies and brands. 

TLDR: Advertising has been self-serving for decades, but I will grant that online allowed more sophisticated formats such as videos, colour photos and carousels. AND regulation has been slower to police advertising online, for instance YouTube ads don’t get the scrutiny that TV ads get.

Relevance over distinctiveness and slaves to numbers

The move to relevance over distinctiveness in online media was down to where online media was in the customer journey. It was (and for the most part still is at the bottom of the funnel).

Relevance made sense, particularly in search advertising. The first online adverts such as Craigslist classified and display ads were conceptually similar to their equivalents in the back pages of newspaper advertising. Newspaper ads were served in sections: cars for sale, homes for sale, local businesses, cinema listings, vets or pharmacies with a late closing time.

Search and many banner ad campaigns for that matter are about the last step (hopefully) before purchase. In the old pre-internet world, they would be direct mail or the direct response adverts that used to appear in magazines or the special offers beloved of shopper marketing.

Vintage 1960s Columbia Record Club Ad Double Page Advertisement 1962

Distinctiveness appeared further up in the funnel building long term memory models through brand building. It was TV advertising, radio jingles, magazine print advertising and billboards that evoked emotion and still evoke nostalgia decades later.

Silk Cut cigarette ad
Saatchi & Saatchi for Gallaher

I would argue that the issue is less about relevance at the expense of distinctiveness, instead it’s about short-termist mindsets facilitated by numbers. The media industry is about to double down on this error, with initiatives like the European Programmatic TV initiative. And so I can empathise with Pip’s last point about becoming slaves to numbers. It’s ironic that the PowerPoint-friendly charts used by Google search advertising to explaining its value for marketers took off and drove marketing thinking.

Technology marketing itself came from broken origins and still is basically sales strategies by another name. A good deal of what data is created is based on what technology companies can see; rather than what marketers need to measure to get the balance between long term and short term marketing needs.

This MIGHT BE about to change if marketing expert Mark Ritson is to be believed. He posits that marketing technology start-up Evidenza.AI will provide business-to-business marketers with the kind of insight previously driven by market research, but much faster. From then on he sees it doing a better job at communications and media strategy. I am trying to keep an open mind on this at the moment.

TLDR: Advertising hasn’t become about relevance at the expense of distinctiveness, but instead about short-term at the expense of long-term marketing effects; partly down to technologists having a poor understanding of marketing.

Technology outputs data which marketers paid an inordinate amount of attention to; reinforcing the short term bias. Machine learning techniques now becoming available might turn this around by providing better marketing insight.

Machine learning tends towards the mean

Pip’s presentation went on asserting that machine learning tends towards the mean. Generative AI synthesises content based on what has already been done, which why Pip assumes that everything tends towards the mean. But that depends on how one uses these tools that we’ve been given.

As a strategist, I have used generative AI to knock out too obvious propositions, so I give the creative teams something interesting to work with in the creation of distinctive assets.

Apparently creative teams have been taking a similar approach in terms of ideation.

One thing I’ve heard more than once recently is how creative teams are using LLMs for brainstorms. But not quite how you’d expect… Because these algorithms answer back with the most likely predicted outcomes based on available data, you get the mean. The average. In creative terms that means the well worn “cliches”. So when starting a brainstorm or ideation session, quizzing the LLMs leads to a list of suggestions of what creative teams are generally most likely to suggest. At which point the team knows what NOT to do. The already well trodden ground. The list of the obvious. That also somehow gives a wonderfully smug angle on the use of AI in the pursuit of original work.

Nic Roope on LinkedIn

TLDR: generative AI will tend towards the mean, BUT that can be used creatively.

Agencies and clients screwed advertising

Pip’s slides don’t necessarily dig into the reasons why this happened. But I can put together some hypotheses and provide evidence that may indicate their validity or lack of it.

Clientside factors

  • Shareholder value ethos – Shareholder value the way we understand it now can be traced back to the 1960s. While Milton Friedman popularised it in an essay A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits, the idea had surfaced years earlier in an opinion editorial published in Fortune magazine. The so-called Friedman doctrine became a lode star for investors and boards including the likes of ‘Neutron’ Jack Welch at General Electric. While this thinking still dominates the tyranny of the quarterly numbers that CEOs of publicly traded companies operate under; it is not the only perspective in the c-suite.
  • The financialisation of businesses – related to the Friedman doctrine, businesses became increasingly financialised thinking about short term financial decisions. A classic example of this is how post-regulation, legacy airlines in the US have been managed. Another example is Brazil’s private equity firm 3G Capital who managed to destroy billions of dollars in shareholder value with marketing cuts. Financialisation has definitely had an impact, but it varies from company to company. We also see it showing up on the agency side, with the move to using more freelance staff and burning out those staff that they do have. They have a fig leaf of mental health care in their talent acquisition literature, but it’s largely BS.
  • What gets measured gets done – Google advertising’s success was as much down to it being easy to tell a story about the marketing spend conducted on the platform as it was about effectiveness. The dashboards lended themselves to being easily reproduced in PowerPoint and spoke in the universal c-suite language of line graphs and pie charts. This was really important for Google to survive and thrive in the post dot com bust and the 2008 recession.
  • Marketing literacy – since before I have gone to college the c-suite was largely marketing illiterate. It doesn’t matter if they are a self-starting boy or girl made good, or minted from an Ivy League business school with an MBA. I have worked with both and they had a similar marketing knowledge level, the only thing that varied was the level of self confidence despite this gap. Neither do the management consultants that they may employ. Which is the reason why the team at 3G Capital were surprised when they cut marketing costs and destroyed brand and shareholder value.
  • Procurement – practices to systemise purchasing and avoid issues like nepotism and corruption have introduced a muscular procurement function who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Margins across disciplines have been squeezed to breaking point. This has led to a decline in entertainment and side benefits, my LinkedIn feed had advertising folk explaining that the cost of attending the Cannes Festival of Advertising was likely paid through budget cuts in: training, subscriptions for tools and publications and even head count. We might not have had an end of culture, but this is no longer the industry portrayed in Mad Men.

Agencyside factors

  • Splitting creative and media – prior to the mid-1970s creative and media buying were two departments in the one advertising agency. That allowed the free flow of research between the departments and the creative use of context as well as content. It also meant that margins had to support two management teams. Secondly, the options to best defend margins was in the media-buying side of the house, depending on how integrated into the media technology stack the the media buying agency became.
  • Change in north star from FMCG to technology companies – the rise of the internet completely changed the nature of marketing. Prior to the internet becoming mainstream, having FMCG experience as a marketer helped your career. In the early 2000s, Google, Yahoo! and later Facebook became the brands marketers wanted on your CV. The difference was that FMCG brands had subscriptions to the likes of the Ehrensberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. Yet American and British academia saw that most thinking from even the most prestigious schools can be boiled down to being the considered common sense opinion of tenured professors like David A. Aaker and Philip Kotler. Kotler was reportedly not interested in engaging with marketing science as consumer behaviour was too complex and difficult to model.
  • Relative recent awareness of marketing science. For reasons that I don’t fully understand marketing science is both old and a new phenomenon. The late Andrew Ehrensberg originally founded his Centre for Research in Marketing in the early 1990s and had been turning out marketing science academic papers for decades before that. Ehrensberg eventually moved to His work on the myth of ‘heavy consumers‘ and polygamous brand buying (smaller brands suffering a double jeopardy of fewer people purchasing them, and those that did purchase them, did so less often) was done back in the 1950s for Attwood Consumer Panel (would eventually become part of TNS). Some agency strategists knew about Ehrenberg, such as Stephen King of JWT. Some of this thinking was likely hidden by the decline of market research projects in agencies and the split between media buying and creative. In addition, Andrew Ehrenberg theorised why marketing science had a low adoption outside his center’s FMCG clients, which also encapsulated the gatekeeper role American academics played in overall mainstream academic adoption:

I also realised slowly that our kind of theorising – which at base describes and explains already-established and generalised empirical discoveries and which thus post-dicts them – was anathema to many American academic marketing colleagues. They espoused much more ambitious and complex-looking econometric procedures which never worked in practice, with the recent citation for a Nobel typically not referring to any established empirical patterns

My Research in Marketing : How It Happened by Andrew Ehrenberg
  • Channels – I don’t know who thought that a video view could be just a couple of seconds, but digital platforms benefited from it. Some of the wisdom from this years Cannes Festival of Creativity was that short adverts don’t work that well as they fail to build memory structures. Somehow agencies, platforms and brands suspended belief to develop marketing campaigns that only made sense in 1980s cyberpunk fiction like Max Headroom. Even at Cannes, platforms like Tiktok believed that they operate like, and a have similar impact to a TV advert…
  • Research – like most strategists I have found that I am often operating with less qualitative research than I would like. One of the biggest programmes I managed to work on the research for was the global launch of a now famous weight management product. Even then we didn’t do enough interviews around the world to understand cultural nuances in play. I remember reading about strategists in the 1970s spending a good deal of time listening to focus groups hosted around the country. There was a mid-week ritual of taking a drive or a train to a city or town outside London for this research. Social listening has been touted as a possible research for product tracking and can be a useful source of consumer soundbites sometimes.
  • Testing – hand-in-hand with a decline in research has been a decline in types of testing. Content still gets tested, but brands and agencies didn’t test channels to the same degree. Which is why we’ve had short form ad formats for years, yet the knowledge that they’re not as good at building memory structures doesn’t seem to be embedding into clients and agency teams.

OK, but that’s advertising, what about the end of culture?

Pip claims that advertising is just one part of our world that has been under attack (from technology). Alex Murrell’s essay The Age of Average was cited as the source of this insight. Murrell makes his case on the common looks in car designs driven by developments in aerodynammic design over time, architecture and cityscapes, coffee shop styles, logos, book covers, video game franchises, packaging design and product design.

Part of the reason for the architecture was Le Corbusier and his his function over form theory of design and architecture (modernism) captured in Towards a New Architecture.

Murrell harked back to a time of distinctive cities like Victorian London. However what Murrell’s explanation overlooked was that even back in Victorian times London was becoming ‘standardised’. Chimney pots, bricks, cast-iron beams, windows and even church stained glass windows came out of catalogues. The same designs repeat over-and-over-again. The church stained glass windows went around what was then the British empire. It is a similar situation today. Buildings are made of standardised materials and design tools as we understand more about engineering.

Technology over time allowed buildings to get taller and let in more light thanks to improvements in construction, lifts (elevators) and environmental control. Where things get interesting is when governments and societies make decisions on what they want to keep or rebuild. Shanghai has preserved only a little of the Bund and few of its hutongs. Hong Kong has so far managed to keep some examples of its composite buildings. However once you get to street level you see a distinct evolving local culture despite their apparently similar skylines.

This mix of standardised components bought from a supply chain, improved engineering and regulation has also driven similarities in other products, such as motor cars which Murrell cited as an example. But again those similarities are more about operating at a macro-viewpoint. On closer examination, diversity in car culture and driving experiences start to build clear lines of distinctiveness.

And the car industry for decades has indulged in badge engineering where one vehicle truly does look like another.

Wolsley Hornet
Wolesley Hornet
PBWA Hammersmith and Fulham
Austin Cooper Mini
1975 Innocenti Mini 1300
Innocenti Mini
1967 Riley Elf
Riley Elf

The examples I used above were all based on the Austin Mini. Wolesley was a luxury brand owned by BMC at the time. Italian care manufacturer Innocenti licensed the Mini from Austin until the agreement was cancelled by British Leyland. Lastly, the Riley Elf was a slightly more expensive alternative to Wolesley, both were owned by BMC.

General Motors were the masters of badge engineering using ‘common platforms’ as far back at 1909.

As for the complaints about logo design, books and later the web allowed influential design motifs like Neville Brody’s work at The Face, Arena and The Guardian went around the world, collected in three volumes by Thames & Hudson. His cover designs were in Tower Records stores from New York to Tokyo. Design is an industry sensitive to global influences that you see spread around the world. A second reason for the simplification and flattening of logos is the world that we now live in. Before the web logos only existed in the physical world. Digital brings common requirements:

  • Works in a website template that can be used globally.
  • Works in email headers and footers.
  • Works in a favicon and in a mobile app button.

One interesting point came out when Murrell (and Bingemann) looked at media where there was a coalescence of homage images and content based around a success. But these in turn created their own genres like the sweary covers on self-help books. How is this marking a low point in culture was beyond me.

I thought of genres like the European ‘gallo’ films or the European takes on the western films of which spaghetti westerns are the most well known. A lot of the films were dreadful. In the case of European westerns many of them borrowed a characters name from more successful films. So you saw ‘apparent’ franchises around ‘Ringo’, ‘Django’ and ‘Sartana’.

Western saloon, cinema studio tabernas (Almeria)

(Film director Alex Cox published one of the best works on the Italian western film genre 10,000 ways to die. It’s based on his university thesis and a fascinating read, if you choose to jump down that rabbit hole.)

You had a similar experience in the Asian martial arts film industry with countless variations on the the star name Bruce Lee, as the industry coped with the loss of most famous star.

To quote Sturgeon’s revelation:

90 percent of anything is crap.

This doesn’t mark the end of culture, but the manufacture of culture. What’s good or great is then strained through the filter of time and changing social attitudes.

As for the cinematic superhero cul-de-sac, there are clear parallels with the end of the western and the New Hollywood movement. This time its distribution in the driving seat rather than a new generation of directors. Like the New Hollywood movement there will be both successes and car crashes along the way and I am largely excited by it.

Bingemann also cites Adam Mastroianni’s essay Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly. Mastroianni hits on what is called a long tail. In scale-free networks with preferential attachments, power law distributions are created, because some nodes are more connected than others – so Taylor Swift will sell more because of the size of fan base she has grown over time. They have been studied since at least 1946 and Benoit Mandelbrot who is better known for his work on fractals was one of the main researchers. Wired magazine touched on it in 1998 when it published The Encyclopaedia of the New Economy written by John Browning and Spencer Reiss and the influence showed up in Wired contributor Kevin Kelly’s work New Rules for the New Economy. So one can guess that the ideas were being thrown around then.

Wired editor Chris Anderson wrote about it in a magazine article for Wired in October 2004, and turned it into a book. Algorithms in online services create bubbles and rabbit holes in different areas and surface media winners like MrBeast. But again culture has thrived despite of popular culture out of sight of the general public for decades will continue to do so. Examples include Northern Soul, punk, the Chicago house music scene, UK garage, grime, drill and donk, the long tail does not mark an end of culture.

TL:DR: Could the current culture eco-system be better? Yes, absolutely. But it isn’t broken in the way and extent that Bingemann believes. We definitely aren’t at the end of culture and it doesn’t need to be ‘saved’ by generative AI.

So what can AI do?

Bingemann believed that generative AI offers society a way out of the end of culture. So presumably it offers a way to enhance and create culture. He believes that it creates, I would finesse this a bit to say that it emulates, synthesises and combines elements to meet consumer instructions – since it is the sum of its training data.

Ironically, Bingemann bases his thesis on how surreal and abstract art represented the ‘death of traditional art’ and reinvented the meaning of art and unleashed a large amount of creativity. Traditional art didn’t die per se, there are still several artists selling realistic pieces including painting and sculptures alongside the ‘new art’ movements.

Generative AI puts tools in the hands of creatives that previously would have meant a lot of work. In the same way that desktop publishing and Photoshop reduced the cut-and-past compositing on layers of glass panels which were then photographed and image retouching done by hand in the past.

In advertising Bingemann sees five opportunities enabled by generative AI:

  • Move to value-based pricing (presumably based on substantially reduced cost of production). It’s what Huge tried to do with their pivot and what thinkers like Michael Farmer have been recommended. We’ll see what happens when this aspiration meets client procurement teams. I hope Bingemann is right.
  • Design AI around people. So far the progress has been mixed around this. We have been some companies like Klarna using ‘good enough’ generative AI to automate jobs out of existence. Adobe have taken more of a creative enablement approach. Based on my experience working on ads in the past with collaged backdrops and photoshoots for global campaigns, this could save tens of hours or more in art working.
  • Embrace the newcomers. Just like social and digital before it, when we had new agencies like Crayon, AKQA and Poke; Bingemann thinks that generative AI is likely to bring new businesses to the advertising eco-system.
  • Spend 10x more effort developing the next generation. Given that the advertising industry manages to continually churn experienced people out of the industry and no one was found to have retired last year from the industry according to the IPA – this is going to be a tall order. It would make more sense if AI was used to make advertising more representative.
  • Unite. Clients, agencies and technology. It’s a nice aspiration, but when clients are looking for good enough and efficient content, agencies looking for a margin and trying to put effectiveness in there as well and technology companies trying hold back their natural instinct to suck all the value to themselves, it will be a hard feat to achieve.

Bingemann argues that this is necessary for advertising, but also for creativity and considers advertising’s role to break culture rather than just reflect it. Culture and creativity will exist without advertising. Even during the Soviet Union, there was still creativity, art and culture – both mainstream and underground.

A Final Thought To Leave You On

GZero Media quoting Douglas Rushkoff (of Media Virus fame) on what generative AI means for culture moving forward.

While its not the end of culture as we know it, Springboard.ai are putting out some interesting tools that I could see competing with the likes of Julian Cole, Mark Pollard and others who are filling the ‘how to strategy’ gap for brand planners.

More related content can be found here.

More information

The ‘Pernicious Nonsense’ Of Maximizing Shareholder Value | Forbes.

Customer Value, Shareholder Wealth, Community Wellbeing: A Roadmap for Companies and Investors by Denis Kilroy and Marvin Schneider

CIA appoints ex-MindShare chief de Pear | MarketingWeek

Vici – The evolution of display advertising

Profit squeeze for ad agencies | MarketingWeek

3G Capital discovers the limits of cost-cutting and debt | The Economist

My Research in Marketing : How It Happened by Andrew Ehrenberg

Creative Impact Unpacked: 11 effectiveness trends from Cannes Lions 2024 | WARC

The Age of Average by Alex Murrell

Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow by Anthony Flint.

10,000 ways to die by Alex Cox.

The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars by Peter Kramer.

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly | Experimental History.

New Rules for the New Economy by Kevin Kelly.

The Long Tail: How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand by Chris Anderson.

AI and creativity | renaissance chambara.