Public Frenemy

One day the internet rocked the ad industry’s boat and spilled everyone’s champagne
Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta
Penquin Press, $30

Back when the World Wide Web was a mere inkling, the ad agency world was blissfully straightforward. Clients would be served ads for TV, radio, and print. These well-crafted campaigns would then be broadcast to a captive consumer who was watching television, listening to the radio, or reading the newspaper.

It was “full-service” advertising, from soup to nuts, and it was all the rage. A glut of famous agencies was born, where officers in chief could sleep well at night knowing their clients’ every need was being tended to. Add to that the fact that all the creative thinking was happening under one roof — it was heady stuff.

That was my blissful world from the 1980s into the new millennium. I was a creative director at M&C Saatchi and BBDO, both multinational agencies, where I was paid an exorbitant wage to make ads for blue-chip clients like British Airways, Pepsi, FedEx, and HBO. It was a fun, entirely indulgent period when ad agencies, and especially the creative head honchos, could do no wrong. 

Then one day the internet rocked the boat and spilled everyone’s champagne.

The prolific Ken Auletta, a media reporter, critic, and best-selling author, delves into this tectonic shift and the Darwinian battle that ensued in “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else).”

It is an excellent account, superbly researched, and Mr. Auletta presents his findings in his usual engaging style, along with a fascinating cast of characters who emerged in the early 2000s to rattle the world of advertising.

“Goodbye, Don Draper,” reads the book jacket description. “A ‘Mad Men’ world has turned into a Math Men (and women — though too few) world, as engineers seek to transform an instinctual art into a science. The old lions and their kingdoms reel from fear, however bravely they might roar.”

It is not simply book jacket hype. The marketing and advertising industry truly descended into a Dante-ish hell created by the advent of digital and social media. All of a sudden consumers (i.e., people) were wildly disobedient, moving their eyeballs about in ways that were almost impossible to track. Brands shifted to lower-cost, quick-turnaround digital campaigns, while the use of technology muscled in on job roles and budgets. The full-service agency couldn’t really offer the full service anymore. The industry saw the birth of many specialist shops offering expertise in niche mediums, social or mobile. For traditional agencies, it was a time to adapt or collapse.

“Frenemy” is a word popularized by Martin Sorrell, formerly the chief executive of WPP, the world’s largest advertising and marketing holding company. He became Sir Martin Sorrell in 2000 when he was knighted by the Queen. According to Mr. Sorrell, Google is a “frenemy” of WPP’s, as are Amazon, Netflix, and Facebook, in that they form close partnerships with agencies by selling ad space, but at the same time compete against one another by eradicating interruptive advertising and shrinking ad revenues.

Through extensive interviews — some 450, apparently — the author follows the money trail as revenues began to be siphoned off from ad agencies and funneled into Google, Facebook, and a “myriad of other new digital enterprises.” 

From Shoshana Zuboff, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, the author relates this insightful summation: “The game,” she wrote, “is no longer about sending you a mail-order catalogue or even about targeting online advertising. The game is selling access to the real-time flow of your daily life — your reality — in order to directly influence and modify your behavior for profit.”

Ultimately, however, and rather unfortunately, the book relies heavily on interviews with Mr. Sorrell, who is quoted as telling the author “I will stay here until they shoot me!” in describing the likelihood of his stepping down from the helm of WPP anytime soon. But he did, in mid-April, ahead of the findings of an investigation into alleged personal misconduct. 

Since Mr. Sorrell is such a central figure in “Frenemies,” it throws into question the sincerity and accuracy of the information imparted by the other key players featured — Irwin Gotlieb, Rishad Tobaccowala, Carolyn Everson, Beth Comstock, Anne Finucane, and Gary Vaynerchuk — all marketing agitators caught adrift on the tumultuous tide. 

But luckily Mr. Auletta has Michael Kassan, who serves as this book’s omnipotent protagonist. The author follows Mr. Kassan’s trajectory from disgraced lawyer in California to his seizing an opportunity in an industry fraught with chaos and disruption, and therefore full of clients in need of more advice, by founding MediaLink in 2003. A strategic advisory group that partners with major companies around the world, MediaLink prided itself in offering pragmatic insight and strategies by simply being “in the room” when deals are done.

All the chaos and disruption bred enormous opportunity for MediaLink, and by the book’s end Mr. Kassan has sold his company in a $200 million deal.

Mr. Auletta has written more than a thriller here on the media’s new frontier, and even leaves us on a cliff when it comes to where it will all end.

Harking back to the 1979 lyrics from the new wave band the Buggles — “Video killed the radio star / In my mind and in my car / We can’t rewind we’ve gone too far” — we live in a world in which Google, Netflix, Amazon, and technology generally killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Maybe advertising’s future lies with Amazon’s Alexa, the creepy in-house system that not only knows your purchasing history but your sleep habits, music preferences, and food choices. Whatever the future, we have indeed gone too far to look back now. 

With this Mr. Kassan agrees, as he notes at the end of this book that if he were ever to write a memoir, it would be titled “No Rearview Mirror.”

Ken Auletta lives part time in Bridgehampton. He will read from “Frenemies” at Fridays at Five on Aug. 3 at the Hampton Library there.