Manjoo: The global economy runs on parties you're not invited to

Manjoo: The global economy runs on parties you're not invited to

July 1st, 2019 by Farhad Manjoo / New York Times News Service in Opinion Times Commentary
In an undated photo, the Dentsu Aegis Network's pier at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity Awards, in Cannes, France. The annual event, established in the 1950s, honors the best in marketing, attracts executives from the world's biggest brands and advertising agencies, as well as the top players from technology, entertainment and media. (Sapna Maheshwari/The New York Times)

In an undated photo, the Dentsu Aegis Network's...

Photo by SAPNA MAHESHWARI

I was on a party yacht in Cannes recently when I found myself locked in one of the classic quandaries of life on the French Riviera: canapés, crudités, or rosé?

I'm joking, of course! Why choose just one? As I stuffed my face, I mingled with a posse of slobbery, middle-aged American dudes bedecked in wrinkled linen. They were discussing the highlights of Cannes Lions, the annual advertising industry confab that brought thousands of marketers, armed with expense accounts, to the south of France for the week. Their conversation moved easily, if bizarrely, between hip-hop and ad tech.

I found it hard to partake in the mirth. For much of the glamorous week in Cannes, I was plagued by a nagging question about the ad business and the global economy: What were all these people doing here?

Why had their bosses paid for flights, hotels, yachts, private villas, helicopter rides, sponsored beaches, hip-hop stars and enough food, drink and fancy swag to sustain a small village? And why schlep all the way to Cannes rather than to, say, the Marriott in Atlantic City? All week, as I traipsed from rooftop party to beachfront party to Michelin-restaurant party (I'm hoping The Times puts me in one of those ads showing its journalists braving harsh conditions to uncover the truth), I was struck by the incongruence between the story that the ad industry tells about itself and the story playing out before my eyes. Wasn't the ad business supposed to be ruled by data now? How could anyone justify this expense-account boondoggle — or any of the similar annual corporate excursions to Aspen, Davos, Sun Valley or Jackson Hole?

Then, over the course of my very tough week in Cannes, in conversations with people from every corner of the business, a truth dawned on me: The global economy runs on parties.

The internet was supposed to pull down gatekeepers and middlemen. It was supposed to make decision-making rational, data-driven and cost effective. But that really hasn't happened anywhere. Instead, as the world digitized, we just got new gatekeepers, new middlemen, and new hangers-on. We got new cool kids running the show.

Even though we have all given ourselves over to data, human relationships lubricated by human pleasures still matter to every industry. Indeed, they matter more, because the few humans not replaced by machines have more power now than ever before. As went the ad business, so will go the rest of the economy: The robots may take over — but for a certain class of moneyed titan, the beaches will always remain topless, the drinks bottomless and high-end schmoozing will never die.

Few industries have been altered more completely by the internet than advertising. In the popular telling, advertising went from a "Mad Men"-style business built on cocktails and intuition — a business where half of your money was wasted, you just didn't know which half — to a scrupulously measured, data-driven industry ruled, above all, by spreadsheets tracking three magic letters, ROI: return on investment.

And yet in every conversation I had at Cannes, I caught a major whiff of skepticism about whether the data that lies at the heart of the ad business were really telling the whole story. As Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and other ad-driven tech platforms weather scandal after scandal, the people who run major brands feel increasingly adrift. They need to make gut calls about where to spend their money, about what their brands should stand for, and about how to navigate sensitives like race and gender inclusiveness in a world ruled by social media outrage. That's where the schmooze, consultants, middlemen and intuition come in: to help companies make high-dollar gut calls about data. A certain amount of fear-of-missing-out also holds sway: If your competitor is sending a lot of folks to Cannes, then shouldn't you be there, too?

It's not true that the internet is eliminating every job for humans. There are humans everywhere in the social media supply chain. Some of them suffer. Others get to schmooze. The internet changed everything. It also changed nothing.

The New York Times

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