The Riddle

It makes no sense that television works—and yet, $18 billion says it does


Adweek’s front door in Manhattan’s East Village coincidentally opens on Wanamaker Place, named after John Wanamaker, the 19th century retailer, who said the most famous thing ever said about advertising. Since taking up my job at Adweek, almost everyone who I have consulted about the state of the business has found an opportunity to remind me of Wanamaker’s shibboleth and cliché, often more than once. His conundrum seems to inspire both continuing awe about the unknowable magic of advertising and predictable consternation about its inherent waste.

Wanamaker’s formulation has also become, more recently, a rallying cry for those who believe that digital marketing strategies, together with the vast trove of analytics such strategies provide, have solved the fundamental riddle of the business. In the new world Wanamaker can have the 50 percent of his ads that work and cleanly eliminate the half that don’t.

“No reasonable business, I don’t care how successful, would ever put up with 50 percent waste,” yet another new media type was pained to tell me just yesterday, taking righteous umbrage in Wanamaker’s name.

And yet, such businesses—that is, most major consumer products companies as well as innumerable newer service enterprises—will commit during this upfront week more than $18 billion to television, that most wasteful medium. They will do this despite the fact that, in the digital sphere, advertising’s effectiveness can be measured evermore precisely and as well fine-tuned in real time.

Indeed, it has become a stumper of the business, almost on the level of Wanamaker’s own, that finely measured, 100 percent-performing advertising is, compared to the wasteful stuff, much less valuable—anyway people pay much less for it than they do the profligate kind.

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