Commercial Break

Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) BY Ken Auletta. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 368 pages. $30.

The cover of Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)

Not since William Steig’s C D B! have I read a book with as many capital letters as Ken Auletta’s Frenemies. Sometimes they appear, without warning, in the middle of names—the “L” in MediaLink, the “M” in VaynerMedia—but mostly they arrive in great alphabet-soup spoonfuls. In the first chapter, we learn that AT&T has dropped WPP, which owns JWT, AKQA, and KBM; later in the book we meet the CEOs of agencies like BBDO and DDB. Auletta sketches out the difference between a creative agency like IPG’s FCB and a media agency like WPP’s MEC; he teaches us that the media agency GroupM—the “M” arising like the shock ending of a horror movie—is paid off SOW (scope of work) based on a KPI (key performance indicator). In the opening pages, the ANA (Association of National Advertisers) issues an RFP (request for proposal); the agency it ends up hiring is called K2. (Numbers are encountered less frequently, but no less thrillingly, than capital letters, as in Droga5, styled in its logo “dro5a.”) Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the capital letters are broken up with a stray typographical symbol: R/GA. CP+B. TBWA\Chiat\Day.

I kind of loved it. On a page with enough capital letters, I could fool myself into thinking I was reading a lower-stakes Tom Clancy novel, since the only people who concoct mysterious acronyms as much as the advertising industry does work at the Pentagon. My theory is that, like their bureaucratic counterparts in the “intelligence community,” advertising executives have learned that the best strategy for convincing clients you’re worth million-dollar contracts is to bluff your way through meetings with a torrent of initialisms whose meaning everyone pretends to know. Then again, maybe it’s just an attempt to scale down to tweetable length the names of the few agencies left after a half century of mergers and takeovers.

Neither theory implies a particularly optimistic forecast for the advertising business, but then there is not a lot for advertising agencies to be optimistic about right now. This is the subject of Auletta’s book: “the epic disruption of the ad business (and everything else).” An existential cloud currently looms over an industry surrounded by what WPP CEO Martin Sorrell calls “frenemies”—“companies that both cooperate and compete.” The biggest of these frenemies are Google and Facebook, whose immense digital ad inventory makes them valuable partners. That loose partnership is destroying the ad business as we once knew it: Digital companies are increasingly supplanting the services agencies once provided. (They’re also making most of the money on the digital-ad frontier: Between the two of them, Google and Facebook collect seventy-seven cents on every new dollar spent on advertising online.) You don’t need an agency to broker a major media buy when you can call up Facebook and Google directly and get your product in front of an audience of the same size in an afternoon. As one CEO puts it to Auletta: “If you and I find out we speak the same language, why do I need a translator?”

Google and Facebook might be the most immediately threatening of these frenemies, but they’re not the only ones. There are consulting giants like Arthur Andersen, onetime comrades in the expense-account game, who are building out their own advertising and marketing businesses. There are TV networks dabbling in ad-free subscription models like Netflix’s. And then, scariest of all, there are consumers—that’s dipshits like you and me—engaged in a “wider and more ominous revolt . . . against all advertising.” “They really don’t like ads?” MediaLink vice chairperson Wenda Harris Millard asks, following a presentation on the preferences of “Generation Z” by a company called, no joke, AwesomenessTV. Does she think preceding generations are particularly fond of them?

To set the scene for this existential crisis, Auletta opens his book with a dramatic moment of truth: a former media-industry executive named Jon Mandel standing in front of a crowd of advertisers at the annual ANA Media Leadership Conference and accusing the big-six advertising-and—marketing holding companies—WPP, IPG, Omnicom, Publicis, Havas, and Dentsu—of “pervasive” corruption. Essentially, he claimed, they’d been accepting kickbacks, but the specific nature of the accusation, the truth of which is never really ascertained, is less important than the excuse it provided to clients to examine their advertising contracts more closely. Dozens of major advertisers put their accounts up for review, and many left their longtime agencies—for other agencies owned by the big six.

Mark Flood, Google Murder Suicide, 2017, ink on canvas, 11' 3 3/4" x 6'.
Mark Flood, Google Murder Suicide, 2017, ink on canvas, 11' 3 3/4" x 6'.

This is not quite the “perfect storm” that Frenemies leads readers to expect. We learn that WPP has dramatically lost Bank of America and gained General Mills, while Publicis has dramatically lost General Mills and gained Bank of America. A game of musical chairs in which no chairs are ever removed is hardly the stuff of existential crisis, which is a problem Auletta struggles with throughout the book. We’re promised a tale of massive disruption at the heart of an enormous and hugely consequential economic engine, one that sustains a wide swath of essential cultural institutions. But so far the supposed disaster hasn’t evolved much past holding companies swapping clients. Based on the evidence proffered in Frenemies, none of the big six are teetering on the edge of collapse. A story of hugely profitable multinational conglomerates feeling a bit threatened is not quite a page-turner.

Perhaps sensing that the crisis he’s predicting hasn’t hit shore yet, Auletta, a writer of profiles by trade, chooses to focus on characters rather than institutions and processes, and Frenemies follows a loose structure around the introduction of those characters, each theoretically illustrating some facet of the advertising world, every chapter or so. Unfortunately, many of the advertising executives we meet are exactly as interesting as you might expect. Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions at Facebook, is the face of what should be the book’s most fascinating, or at least most important, exploration—the Google-Facebook- duopoly threat—but she says nothing new or surprising about either company, and the story of her career is mostly just a plodding narrative of an ever-widening professional network.

Even the more memorable characters under-deliver. Michael Kassan, the CEO of consulting firm MediaLink and the person that Frenemies follows most closely, is undoubtedly interesting, a lawyer convicted of a felony for misuse of company funds who has since refashioned himself as the ultimate advertising-industry macher—the guy you call to get advice, to set up meetings, to find new executives or vet new firms. But that’s all he is, interesting, an engaging subway-commute New Yorker read. (He was instrumental in the original franchising of El Pollo Loco!) He has nothing illuminating to say about the state of the advertising industry or the future of media.

It’s tempting to chalk this up to a problem with the advertising industry, which, Mad Men notwithstanding, is generally an industry of boringly ambitious joiners, not tortured and compelling geniuses. A writer with sharper edges might have made more of the supremely bathetic scenes Auletta is lucky enough to witness, like the moment when Publicis’s top futurist, Rishad Tobaccowala, tells a group of Bank of America executives that “no one is as close to aligning” with the message of Bernie Sanders as they are. But Auletta’s hate is not pure.

Really, it’s a problem with Auletta’s focus on advertising-agency executives, possibly the least compelling constituents of a $2 trillion industry. The book is both more interesting and more enlightening when Auletta turns away from media titans and pokes around the weirder, newer corners of the business, as when he explores the expansive data-collecting operations increasingly driving advertising. It’s here that we’re introduced to my favorite mysterious initialism—“PII,” for “personally identifiable information.” Of particular note is WPP agency GroupM’s effort to create its own enormous consumer-profile database to rival Google’s and Facebook’s—what GroupM CEO Irwin Gottlieb calls the company’s “secret sauce.” Gottlieb tells Auletta that GroupM and another WPP company, KBM, have “anonymized data on almost all” of America’s two hundred million adults, gathered through partnerships with retailers and other data-collecting companies like comScore; that data, Gottlieb claims, can be used not only to target specific consumers but to learn if the consumers saw the ads, and if they actually purchased the advertised product. “We know the family. We know the income. We know the credit score. We just don’t know the name and the address. KBM does,” Gottlieb explains. “It’s not the law in the U.S. that prevents us from knowing the names, it’s WPP’s internal policy.” Comforting!

It’s probably not news to anyone that we’re being surveilled and sorted by KBM and WPP as well as the NSA. But it’s clarifying to see how far we’ve allowed the industry to go. Over the past twenty years, advertising has transformed from something we see everywhere into something that is everywhere watching us. And as it’s increased its scope, it’s increased its importance. Advertising was already the foundation of independent journalism, for better but mostly for worse. It’s now also the driving force behind the contemporary internet: Colossal tech companies like Facebook not only fund themselves through advertising, but design themselves entirely around the efficient provision thereof. In some sense advertising is more than an industry; it’s infrastructure.

I don’t mean this as praise. It was an attention-driven media environment built on advertising that gave us President Donald Trump. But those infrastructural qualities are also why it’s hard to imagine a world without advertising. Agencies may be threatened, in the long term, by the rise of Google and Facebook, but “the advertising industry,” understood as the hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on wheedling consumers, has become essential to the version of a public sphere we’ve cobbled together. This most recent alignment of agencies and clients and holding companies might disappear, but whatever happens to WPP and Omnicom, we will still be advertised to, in all the same irritating ways we’ve come to expect. How else would we pay for all these great websites? Ads will be bought by the same doddering companies. The only difference might be the names on the checks—“Google” and “Facebook” instead of “BBDO” and “DDB.”

Max Read is the editor of Select All, New York magazine’s technology website.