Agencies Business Leadership Social Media

‘A steady trajectory toward hell’: Marketing leaders’ digital utopias and dystopias


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

April 24, 2023 | 11 min read

We asked 10 leaders in digital and social to give it to us straight: is everything going to continue getting worse, or is there room for optimism in the digital world?

A spooky figure in what looks like a dystopian washing machine

Digital heavens and hells: should marketers be optimistic or pessimistic? / Denys Nevozhai via Unsplash

Disinformation, hate, bullying, walled gardens, dwindling attention spans, misfiring legislation, political interference, job losses, tracking and targeting (and their absence), and the continued popularity of family vlogs: there’s plenty to be said for a pessimistic lens on the digital future. Then again, many can’t help but hope that there’s emancipatory power in tech after all. But what do marketers think?

Simon Spyer, CEO of data-driven Futures, Iris: “Mercenary brands aided and abetted by big tech to coerce and monetize their audience. Toothless legislation, complicit politicians and political parties interested in manipulation and shutting down debate. Consumers are the product, data the manufacturer, and Pedro Pascal isn’t riding to the rescue.

“This isn’t a grim glimpse into the future; it’s 2023. A world where the new rules of data don’t count and the use and abuse of personal data are the norm.

“It will only get worse.

“As this model gets less effective, it becomes a race to the bottom with more egregious targeting, more brands stalking consumers around social, and more AI-led ‘personalization’.

“A glimmer of hope is those brands willing to act with humanity, interested in building long-term value and recognizing that truly participative customer relationships are the only way to make this a reality.”

Michael Dean, head of digital, Fox Agency: “Once upon a time, we talked to each other in the real world. Then the world became smaller, and our desire for long-distance communication changed our horizons. This change was good; we gained a thirst for knowledge of alternative perspectives and began to understand different people and cultures.

“… Until the ‘now’ culture arrived. We started to want everything today. No more saving and waiting. Buy-now-pay-later became the norm. Our communications followed suit. Hotmail, MSN, MySpace, Friends Reunited, then Facebook. The price we paid for free instant access was our personal data. This data then became the currency of the DotCom. Fast forward 20 years, and we’re paying the price for this Rumpelstiltskin exchange. We’re in debt to the likes of Zuckerberg and Musk. Ego has trumped benefit, and money has overthrown tolerance. Social media as we know it is dead.”

Mike Spencer, founder and chief operating officer, Fluency M&C Saatchi: “Everyone is creating atoms of data that form an immense global value chain. We’re producing data equivalent to 1bn books worth every second.

“The dystopian view is that many are unwitting participants in a race to make sense of and profit from this goldmine. Most of what we do in the digital universe presents an opportunity to someone, whatever their motive – the whispering shadows gently shaping your views, exploiting your weaknesses, or changing your habits.

“Dystopian caution for the future, like the past, is healthy. It makes us ask important questions. Data is an immensely powerful change agent for a new era. The ethics and transparency we practitioners bring to the table will be the difference between a world where we trust no one and suspect everything, or where we reap the rewards of a happier utopia that’s well within reach: data-fueled automation, personalization and high-value exchange for all.”

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Andrea Villa, paid media analyst, Brave Bison: “Social media and digital in general are neither good nor bad. It all depends on how they are used.

“To make virtuous use of something, you need to understand how it works. Imagine giving a five-year-old the key to a car, then demanding they drive it properly: we can guess how this will end.

“Educating people about using the internet is exactly like that. We got our smartphones and jumped straight onto Instagram, TikTok, and ChatGPT without understanding their potential or their threats.

“Platforms and lawmakers must invest now to educate the current generations and make the digital environment a better place for everyone. This vision might seem very utopian, but it’s achievable. Where to start? Test, learn and have confidence in the results.”

Gary Stubbenhagen, head of data, Builtvisible: “The digital landscape is on a steady trajectory toward hell. AI pushing more extreme content, lackluster content moderation, and the ongoing Twitter social debacle are all driving us there. This trend can only be stopped by the user base going somewhere else, a la the demise of MySpace. Sadly, the damage these platforms have done to nuanced debate makes this seem ever less likely.

“However, there are some glimmers of hope in the form of tighter regulation. The showdown between Twitter and the EU’s Digital Services Act is on the horizon, and ChatGPT is next. The increasing weight of data privacy legislation means we have a better idea than ever of who social networks think we are and what they think we’re interested in. Knowledge is power, and the ongoing debate in all these areas sparks some hope in balancing innovation with the public good.”

Lindsey Flanagan, lead analyst, Genuine, a Jack Morton agency: “Brands and marketers have feared the great cookie purge, but increased privacy regulation, combined with advancements in machine learning and AI technology, will lead to a more utopian data future.

“Instead of relying on crude demographic assumptions that ignore who consumers are as individuals, we’re facilitating the creation of online identities that understand what each person likes and how they like to engage, creating a more authentic and resonant experience overall.

“Not only is it good for brands and marketers when allocated budgets reach people who truly care; it’s great for users to see relevant and interesting content. By empowering people to have more control over what they are willing to share, brands can increase trust and seed more intentional and potentially meaningful connections.”

Neil Barnes, head of analytics, RocketMill: “The deprecation of third-party cookies should be greeted with positivity and excitement by marketers, not with doom and gloom. It means the rules of data are changing for the good.

“A cookieless future will bring craft, mastery and strategic thinking back into our hands – through the opportunity to adopt (and better use) exciting technologies like customer data platforms and to perform advanced analysis bridging the gap between statistics and marketing (such as mix modeling).

“Businesses that will be successful in a cookieless world will be those that combine their breadth of capability and depth of expertise across the disciplines of audience, analytics and technology, all underpinned by a robust first-party data acquisition strategy.”

Doron Faktor, group director, connections, head of social media, VMLY&R New York and Miami: “As long as disinformation, hate, and bullying exist in the real world, they’ll exist virtually. It’s a problem that society and brands will always wrestle with. As social media and marketing experts, we try to remove ourselves from the social networking aspect of the platforms and advocate for rules, policies and new platforms emerging that will address the ‘dystopian’ possibilities and help drive a brighter future.

“We’ll continue to approach the platforms with a marketing mindset to drive brand love and sales and use the platforms where our audience enjoys playing – which incentivizes them to create a place where consumers feel safe. By participating in the platforms from a brand perspective we can ensure that we’re doing what we can limit or counteract the amount of hate speech, bullying and disinformation that is at least in our control.”

Adam Connett, head of digital, AgencyUK: “Social media has long been plagued by issues of disinformation, hate speech and bullying. Although many platforms have taken steps to address these problems, issues persist.

“However, there are platforms and trends that may offer a brighter future. Nextdoor and Clubhouse have adopted more proactive moderation policies, prioritizing community-building and positive interactions. And users are increasingly taking responsibility for their online behavior (and holding others accountable).

“Advancements in AI also make me hopeful. These tools, if used ethically, can identify and remove harmful content, creating a safer and more positive environment for users – something that otherwise could impact platforms’ bottom lines, leading to fines or negative press, which can have seismic implications.

“As technology continues to evolve, there is potential for social platforms to become safer and more welcoming spaces for all. Digital marketers can play a part in supporting that.”

Elijah Kleinsmith, technology & innovation director, Signal Theory: “While legislators struggle to grapple with how to regulate the bad out of social media, a new technology emerges with even more dystopic glimpses into the future. AI, while showing incredible promise of bringing a lot of good, also carries with it a host of existential questions for humanity. We’re entering a world of synthetic relationships. With social media, we found ourselves redefining privacy – but AI is already able to read your mind. We’ve never needed to protect our thoughts before. All TikTok has to do to disrupt a future election is release a Trump or Biden voice filter (something that’s already possible with just three seconds of training data). Imagine the division that user-generated disinformation could create.

“I’m excited for the potential AI brings to humanity. But I think we should carefully discuss as a global community the many challenges with regulation and safety before introducing something to humanity that we can’t put back in the box.”

Agencies Business Leadership Social Media

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