Google versus Madison Avenue: no contest here

Google_ads_1 Seeing an opportunity to expand that expertise into traditional media, Google in recent months has purchased ad pages in two technology magazines and made the space available to some of its advertisers. Google has also indicated that it is thinking about extending its ad-placement services to other areas, possibly including TV. (Brian Steinberg, WSJ)

The WSJ says that Google’s move has Madison Avenue trembling. For God sakes, why? Google doesn’t know anything about advertising.

All Google does is provide a channel for the delivery of what might just as well be classifieds. Everything in this pipeline is information. None of it is meaning. And meaning is what Madison Avenue makes. Meaning is what Madison Avenue does.

Of course, this does not mean that Google won’t stride into the advertising business and make an ass of itself. Most smart people look at marketing and say, with a patronizing smile, "How hard can this be?" They then try to do it themselves, in the process giving the world a most convincing demonstration of how hard it is.

It’s as if smart, numerate people believe that their qualifications are not so much skills, as secret passwords to any part of the business world they care to enter. And indeed, as long as the part of the business world they want to enter is governed by economics assumptions, this is largely correct. But the moment, they want to enter the part of the marketplace governed by culture, new rules apply, and now even very smart, and very numerate people are inclined to screw things up royalty. (This would be where the Google founders founder, I guess.)

What should Google do? I have a deep intuition that the right thing to do is to buy everyone in the corporation a copy of Culture and consumption II. Make that two copies. Mind you, that could just be me. 

What will Google do? Chances are, it will try to enter advertising on it’s own and make a proper hash of it. Then it will buy an advertising agency and try to reverse engineer it to see how it works. (And wouldn’t we all like to be flies on the wall to witness this exercise in the inscrutable.)

What should Madison Avenue do? Tremble? Hah! There is a whapping great difference between computer science and cultural science.


Steinberg, Brian. 2005. Google Weighs on Madison Ave.: Ad Firms Watch Closely As Search Engine Ponders Move to Traditional Media. Wall Street Journal. Oct. 31, 2005. here. (subscription required).

11 thoughts on “Google versus Madison Avenue: no contest here

  1. Mr. Holdem

    Given the sorry state of most output from advertising agencies, how can one blame Google, or anyone else, for thinking that advertising is simple? Ad agencies are not exactly doing themselves any favours in the meaning-construction department these days. Unfortunately, agencies seem just as clueless in the cultural science dept.
    But you’re right: Google will do their best to rewrite the rules on the back of getting the most information out to the maximum number of people, and royally screw up any attempt at advertising proper.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Once again, Grant, I chuckled over one of your entries. Earlier today I was in a client meeting in which we are preparing for an “all hands” meeting on Friday. We are using several commercials in the presentation to make “meaning points” about the company’s current circumstances. Mind you, we’re not showing the commercials because of the products, but because of the meaning barometers the commercials prove to be.

    Needless to say, we won’t be showing any 12 word Google AdSense pieces.

  3. Ennis

    Well, Google isn’t trying to do things the old way. They’re not trying to make meanings, but then again, much of Madison Avenue fails at that too. I think it’s not an unreasonable position to take to say that the product should create the meaning, the brand, but that Google will be able to measure the impact of information about that product. Google’s big advantage is measurability, so they’re not interested in selling anything that isn’t measurable. I still think that Madison Avenue has a lot to lose, but that Grant and others probably have a lot to gain. I suspect that much of advertising is of the classified variety, and that will leave Madison Avenue. However, what’s left will probably be more of a branding pure play, leaving the field less cluttered for Grant and others of like minds.

  4. Peter

    Interesting, Grant. What is (was) your opinion of CAA’s forays into advertising a few years back with Coke and others under Michael Ovitz? Arguably, an agency such such as CAA, which created movie and other ideas for its artist clients, may have been quite good at meaning-construction.

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  7. ben

    I think saying Google is just “computer science” is a fairly large understatement. They have access to a rather large amount of data –much of which is of an entirely new form– and I would assume some fairly amazing tools to analyze it. Given that the ad industry was borne out of the science-ization of psychology combined with the need for such an industry from big corporations, I would be less than surprised if Google turned the industry on its head.

  8. Venu Gopal Nair

    Well, if Google does not know anything about advertising, they have managed growth that would make advertising agencies drool.

    How do advertising agencies find consumers? They don’t. They just hope that according to the stats provided by a publication or channel, their target will eventually get around to the page they are on. If they are lucky and if the target is not distracted and if the message is compelling, they will tuck away the information in some tiny corner of their mind.

    Now, if a guy is searching for ‘Flatscreen Televisions’ and you can present him with options, chances are he will bite.

    We are just beginning to see how interactivity will influence advertising.

    I don’t think Google can help with Branding or create a favorable impression. That is still in the realm of old school advertising.

    But agencies had better figure out what to do when the customer comes calling. I doubt if they are ready with answers.

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