Blockchain – slow and steady wins the race

Members of the IPA's Brand Technology Group provide an industry view on the impact technology is having on brands, consumers and agencies.

Every time a new technology emerges, we see a bubble of hype around it and claims are made that it will solve everything.

Hailed as being as transformative for business as the internet was for communication, blockchain is no exception. From fairer gym memberships to more transparent media buying, fresher tomatoes to safer trucking, everything – it appears – can benefit from blockchain.

Type “blockchain” followed by any random word into Google, and I bet you 0.00015 BTC that a relevant result will appear.

Don’t believe the hype (cycle)

Gartner’s terminology for this on its technology hype cycle is called ‘The Peak of Inflated Expectations’.

Eventually, Gartner posits, we reach the “slope of enlightenment” before a “plateau of productivity” – where we crystallise our understanding of a technology’s strengths and allow mainstream adoption to take off.

The hype cycle is a fairly blunt instrument, but it has been proven to be fairly accurate. It’s therefore a handy little barometer for innovation and strategy folk to predict and assess technology’s impact.

Crucially, having a basic roadmap of how tech gestates allows business to estimate the risk, opportunity and likely success of a new technology.

For blockchain, however, I am not so sure we can assign such a predictable path of success (or failure). As I see it currently, blockchain may spend far longer in the “trough of disillusionment” than most other technologies if we aren’t careful. Here are a few reasons:

Every person and their dog thinks blockchain is the answer

Anything that looks or functions like a list, asset transfer or trust agreement can be managed with blockchain, opening it up to almost infinite possible applications.

Blockchain looks like a golden goose

Blockchain is unique in that it can generate its own value via cryptocurrency. This is creating unprecedented gluts of VC and private investment money for anyone with a blockchain product, leading some to implement blockchain purely to boost market caps and investment opportunity.

Blockchain’s technical overhead is far higher than other technologies

Blockchain is based on cryptography, an impenetrably complicated technology for most people. This means that its key efficiency benefits are often undermined by bringing in intermediaries to manage the complexity of it all.

Blockchain still has many maturity issues to solve

For example: as it stands, blockchain’s ability to change the world is primarily centred on the assumption that the whole world won’t be using a particular implementation of it all at once – which is a bit of a contradiction in terms. Currently, if a blockchain application got as big as, say, Facebook, the network would have so much work to do that it would most probably grind to a halt.

Who cares? Let’s blockchain this mutha!

This heady cocktail of overhype and naivety is problematic; from a genuine desire for real innovation, an irrational and dangerous exuberance for blockchain has developed in some marketing and advertising circles.

Add to this the fact that businesses are, according to Forrester, more likely to seek help from their agencies (24%) than from specialist technology firms (22%) when implementing blockchain, and a picture develops where we have started to drink our own Kool-Aid.

As a rule, we are an enormously impatient lot, so when agencies are charged with delivering ‘world-first’ blockchain campaigns that will furnish next summer's Innovation Lions, expectations are going to be high and ‘speed-to-value’ will inevitably be disappointingly low. This will undoubtedly result in despondency all round.

Knowing our place

Despite the admittedly sceptical tone in the first half of this article, I truly believe that blockchain will be as transformative for our lives and work as the internet has been, and I also don’t necessarily believe that it is solely the domain of cryptographers, enterprise businesses and tech firms.

I am in reality hugely optimistic about the future for blockchain and all of the exciting things that our industry will create with it. Just like we went from TCI/IP protocols to the web, to new media, to web 2.0 and now to digital, our industry has built some of the most exciting applications that live through that technology; just ask yourself if Facebook, online publishing or search could have existed without advertising.

My fear, though, is that like Lennie (the prodigiously strong yet childlike character from Of Mice and Men) we may crush blockchain to death in its nascence through our own reckless enthusiasm for it.

If we rush in too early, timing plans and budgets will have to be re-written, scopes reduced, and with reality biting at the heels of innovation, the first tranche of exciting blockchain campaigns, products and joint ventures being cooked up in agencies all over the land will be mothballed.

If the good name of blockchain gets consigned to the ‘expensive, risky and slow’ pile now, it could be much longer than necessary before we pull it back out again.

To quote Amara’s Law: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

I just hope we don’t overestimate it so much now that we undermine its effect for our industry in the future.

Ringo Moss is strategy director and Innovation Lead at McCann Central

Search The Drum Jobs

Explore the best jobs in Marketing and Media industries
View all open jobs