Accelerated Cookie Licking

For a few months now, I’ve been reading Hardcore Software, a “sub stack book” that’s being written by Steven Sinofsky, about his time at Microsoft. In one of the “episodes” (the book is literally being written in public chapter by chapter, the same way I would go if I were to write another book), he introduces this spectacular concept called “cookie licking“:

Microsoft developed a vocabulary that to this day dominates discussions between alumni. Cookie licking is when one group would lay claim to innovate in an area by simply pre-emptively announcing (via slides in some deck at some meeting) ownership of an initiative.

Cookie licking is one of those concepts where once you’ve seen it you “can’t unsee”. Now that I’m aware of the concept, I keep finding it all over the place. And thinking about it, it is literally all over the place.

And it can happen in many ways. One way is how it happened at Microsoft – where multiple teams might have “been eligible” to work on a particular project, and one team tries to grab the project by “licking the cookie”. It is a pretty common corporate tactic. “Oh, why do you want to work on it when the XXXX team is already working on it?”.

Then, I also see it happening in the startup space. You go to a potential customer or mentor or investor with a certain idea. And then they tell you “why do you want to work on it when XXXX is already doing it?” (usually XXXX is a larger or better known company, but not always). And many a time you fall for the bait, assume that the cookie has been “jooThaafied”, and try to do something else. In a large number of cases, though, the licker of the cookie would have done nothing to consume it apart from the act of licking itself.

I don’t know how exactly to describe cookie licking from a game theoretic perspective, but I can imagine concepts such as “cheap talk”, “game of chicken”, “option value” and “bluffing” coming into play there. The question is if you will fold or call (yay, I made a poker analogy) when you are shown this licked cookie.

And while I was talking about this wonderful concept with someone earlier this evening, I realised that there also exists this concept that I will call “accelerated cookie licking”. Here, you not only lick the proverbial cookie, but also get paid for doing so.

For this, you need to have an independently built reputation (either a successful corporate career, or an exit from an earlier startup, or having been a VC, or some such). And thanks to this reputation built elsewhere, all you need to do is to say that you are licking the cookie, and people will come forward to pay you to do so.

And once you have licked the cookie and raised money for your company, you have an automatic moat – anyone else who wants to eat the same cookie will be told by any potential investors “why do you want to get into this when <this hifunda person with an independently built reputation> is already doing it, and is so well capitalised? Do you really want to take him on?”.

Thinking about it, in poker terms, this is equivalent to bluffing with a really large raise. Even if the opponent knows you are bluffing, it takes a lot for them to be able to call your bluff. And so it is with “accelerated cookie licking”.

Shopping for girls

Maybe this can be my “international women’s day” post.

We went shopping yesterday, after a very long time. We had to shop for all three of us (wife, daughter and I). And we went to a few large stores in Mantri Mall and ended up shopping in the men’s section, women’s section, girls’ section and boys’ section.

You read that right. We shopped in the boys’ section. And no, we didn’t buy anything for gifting. The reason we shopped in the boys’ section was to buy our daughter nice clothes.

Last week, union minister Smriti Irani made this statement somewhere:

The problem is that even if we as parents want to be progressive and want to bring up our daughter without creating gender biases, the world conspires to reinforce gender biases into her. We find that visiting relatives and friends gift her Barbie dolls. There is “pattern recognition” from things she sees around her (last year she shocked us by saying that it was OK for a boy to hit others but not for a girl). Boys her age are not beyond making sexist comments.

But the biggest reinforcer of childhood gender norms, we’ve seen, are clothes shops, and this is a thing we’ve seen both in the UK and in India.

For some reason, clothes manufacturers have collectively decided that the only thing little girls want to wear is bling – every shirt, and skirt, and pair of shorts, and shoes, inevitably have some frills or some bling attached to them. Beyond a point, as we are shopping, it becomes unbearable to even consider such clothes. And we naturally gravitate towards the boys’ section.

Where, for whatever reason, the selection is far more palatable. No-frill (pun intended) T-shirts and comfortable trousers are conspicuous by their abundance. The design on the printed T-shirts are far better (like last year we got her a T-shirt with the nine (clearly a pre-2005 design) planets on it, which she loves wearing). Shoes are comfortable and you can actually run in them.

At pretty much any given point of time in her entire lifetime, the daughter has owned at least half a dozen pieces of clothing that have been shopped from boys’ sections of clothes shops.

There are limitations, of course – that women’s shirts have buttons on the left means that it is easy to identify “cross-dressing” when it comes to polos and button-down shirts. A lot of boys’ clothes are franchise driven, and not the sort of franchises that my wife or I would endorse (there is an overabundance of Disney stuff, such as Marvel, and not enough heavy metal).

And we were worried that once the daughter learnt to read, she would herself start objecting to wearing clothes bought from boys’ section – thankfully, until now at least, that fear hasn’t borne out. She happily selected clothes from boys’ sections yesterday, and even bought a cute T-shirt that said “King of … “.

I really don’t know when children’s clothes designers and merchandisers realise that girls want nice clothes as well – and not just frills and bling. Until then, as long as the daughter approves that is, we’ll be shopping in the boys’ section.

Jio, Amazon and Information Content

A long long time ago I had installed the Jio Cinema app on my Fire TV Stick. I had perhaps watched two movies on that, and then completely forgotten about it. This evening, I had to look for a movie to watch my the wife, and having exhausted most of the “compatible content” (stuff we can watch together on Netflix) and been exhausted by the user experience on Prime Video, I decided to give this app a try.

I ended up selecting a movie, which I later found out has a 4.5 IMDB rating and doesn’t even have a Wikepedia page. Needless to say, we abandoned the movie midway. That’s when the wife went in to put the daughter to bed and my fun began.

So Jio Cinema follows what I call the “Amazon paradigm for product management”. Since Amazon tries to sell every product (or service) as if it is a physical book, it has one single mantra for product management. “Improve selection and they will come”.

The user experience doesn’t matter. How easy the product is to use, and how pleasing it looks on the eye, and whether it has occasional bugs, is all secondary. All that matters is selection. Given that the company built its business on the back of selling “long tail” books, this is not so surprising, except that it doesn’t necessarily work in other categories.

I’ve written about Amazon’s ineptitude in product management before, in the context of that atrocity of an app called Sony Liv. The funny thing is that the Jio Cinema app (on Fire TV Stick) looks and feels pretty much exactly like Sony Liv. Maybe there is an open source shitty fire TV app that these guys have based themselves on?

In any case, I started browsing the Jio Cinema app, and I found something called “movies in 15 minutes“. Initially I thought it was a parody. The first few movies I noticed there were things I had never heard of. “This is perhaps for bad movies”, I reasoned. I kept scrolling, and more recognisable names popped up.

I decided to watch Deewana, which was released just before the start of my optimal age of movie appreciation, and which, for some reason, we didn’t get home a video cassette of.

It’s basically a collage of scenes from the movie. It’s like someone has put together a “highlights package”, taking all the important scenes and then putting them together.

And for a movie like Deewana it works. The 15 minute version had all the necessary plot elements to fully follow the movie. It is a great movie, for 15 minutes. Maybe at 30 minutes as well it might be a great movie. However, I can’t imagine having watched it in the full version.

That was two hours back. I’ve since gone crazy watching 15 minute versions of many other movies (mostly from the 70s and 80s, though they have movies as recent as Jab We Met). It’s been fantastic.

However, I have one crib. This has to do with information content. Essentially, the premise behind “movies in 15 minutes” is that the information content in these movies is so little that the whole thing can be compressed into 15 minutes.  The problem is that not every movie has the same amount of information.

15 minutes was perfect for Deewana. It was also appropriate for Kasam Paida Karne Waali Ki, which I watched only because it gets referenced in Gangs of Wasseypur. Between these two, I “watched” Namak Halaal, and I didn’t understand the head or tail of it. I had to go to Wikepedia to understand the plot.

Essentially the plot of Namak Halaal is complex enough, I imagine, that compressing it into 15 minutes is impossible without significant information loss. And the loss of information was so much that I couldn’t understand the summary at all. Maybe I’ll watch the movie in full some day.

I’m writing this blogpost after watching the 15 minute version of Don. I guess whoever made the summary realised that the movie is so complex that it can’t really be compressed into 15 minutes – and so they have added a voiceover to narrate the key elements.

In any case, I’m feeling super thrilled. I normally don’t watch movies because the bit rate in most movies is too low. Compression means that I can happily watch the movies without ever getting bored.

I wish they made these 15 minute versions of all movies. Jio, all (your Amazon-style product maangement) is forgiven.

Now on to Amar Akbar Anthony.

Signalling quality on Instagram ads

I have mentioned multiple times here before that I love Instagram advertising. I love that whatever Instagram learns from my likes (and not likes) on the platform, and through the various pixels that Facebook leaves all over the interwebs, gets used in showing me highly relevant advertising.

Rather, ever since I started using Instagram, I loved the advertising for its visual quality (that made it hard to distinguish if it was an advertisement or native content), and as things have gotten more relevant over time, I’ve started clicking through. And as I’ve started clicking occasionally, the advertising has become more relevant.

I’m sure some silicon valley marketer has some imagery about flywheels. I’m reminded of that hamster spinning this wheel when I’d gone to this animal farm near Bangalore last year.

In any case, I read this article about “the hard thing about easy things“. The basic theory, if I understand it right, is that by commoditising all the tools of production when it comes to direct to consumer selling, the business of direct to consumer selling has gotten that much harder.

The article goes on to say that unless the brand has a competitive advantage in manufacturing (or sourcing by any other means), it is pretty much impossible to make money off direct to consumer products – you struggle to repel the attack of the clones, and you have to spend increasing amounts of money on online marketing (through Google and Facebook).

While this makes sense (or not?) from an investment and entrepreneurship perspective, it got me wondering – as a consumer, how can I distinguish the quality direct to consumer products from those that have somehow simply managed to get into my feed?

Some advertising is like a peacock’s tail – it doesn’t signal any direct value about the brand being advertised. However, it signals that if the brand can afford to spend such huge amounts of money on this form of advertising, it ought to be a brand with sufficient spare cash flow that it is a good brand.

For example, when Vivo got title sponsorship of the IPL, it not only created awareness (which possibly existed thanks to its retail stores and advertising on Amazon) but also signalled that it is a “good brand” since it had bought prime advertising real estate.

Similarly, when a brand advertises on the SuperBowl, the actual dollars per eyeball may not make sense. However, when you add in the signalling value of having been there on SuperBowl (“if a brand can afford to advertise on SuperbOwl, it ought to be a good brand”), it starts making sense.

This works with a lot of mass media advertising. Front page of Times of India is premium because of peacock’s tail. Advertising in the IPL for the same reason. Perhaps similar with hoardings on the way out of airports. And booking prime time slots on popular television shows.

The problem with online advertising is that it is so targeted (and algorithmic) that this signalling effect goes away. Your instagram feed is like the Times of India where every page is similar to every other page.

From that perspective, it is hard to determine whether an advertisement represents a quality product when it appears on your Instagram timeline.

I bought Vahdam tea after someone recommended it to me on Twitter. I bought Paul and Mike’s chocolates after a friend wrote her appreciation for it on Instagram. When I started buying Blue Tokai coffee, I needed good coffee powder and was in the mood for exploration, but was helped by multiple friends and acquaintances vouching for it .

Marketing solely using digital means runs into this problem of not having the signalling effect. And that means you need to invest in “social” also, however you can imagine that to be. Then again, people have started seeing through “influencers”, like how they started seeing through “endorsements” a generation ago.

Unbundling news and advertising

I’ve written earlier about how once news media became dependent on subscriptions, it started becoming partisan. Thinking about it, it is not particularly correct.

If we think of the traditional (physical) newspaper, it was seldom given away for free (when I lived in London I would pick up free copies of the Evening Standard on days when I needed to line my compost bin). Traditional newspapers relied (and still do) on a combination of subscription and advertising for their revenues.

In that sense, what the New York Times does now (read this nice interview with its outgoing CEO) is basically a digital transformation of what it has been doing for over a hundred years – make money off a combination of subscription and advertising.

So if the business model was the same, why did the online New York Times differ from its previous avatar and become politically partisan? Because the nature of advertising changed.

Nowadays I have this favourite theory that everything is a bundle (maybe I should write my next book about this?).

You can consider this post to belong to this meme.

The traditional newspaper, if you think about it, was a collection of news and advertisements all bundled together. While you could choose what part of the paper you wanted to consume, when you went to a page you would inevitably scan all the headlines. And whether you liked them or not, you would actually eyeball all the advertisements.

The important thing to note is that the paper was a physical product and what advertisement the reader was shown did not depend on that person at all. Whether you were a raving communist or a slaveholder, you would be shown the same set of advertisements.

This meant that physical newspaper advertisements were (and still are) dominated by mass products that were aimed at everyone. And since these advertisements were usually paid for based on an estimate (sometimes highly inaccurate) of how many people saw them, the newspapers wanted to maximise the eyeballs. This meant not taking any extreme political stances, and keeping all parts of the political spectrum onside.

What changed with the move to digital was that this bundle containing the news and the advertisements broke down.

With advertising being sold through data-driven ad exchanges, it was now possible to show different advertisements to different people. And with advertisements now dependent on your search and browsing history (apart from your political preferences), it was effectively personalised. The New York Times did not need to directly sell advertising any more. All they needed to do was to sign a contract with Google or Facebook or both. Job done.

Digital advertising doesn’t make sense for mass brands. Rather, it is highly likely that the availability of data will mean that they will frequently get outbid by highly targeted brands. So whether mass brands wanted to advertise in the New York Times became a less important decision. The paper had no compulsion to be politically neutral any more.

And once their early set of subscribers showed a marked preference for one kind of politics, it made sense to them to go after the subscription dollars of this audience rather than the already uncertain dollars of potential subscribers that preferred another kind of politics. And then there as a self-reinforcement cycle.

Media can crib as much as they want about the likes of Google and Facebook taking away their money. They can lobby, like they have done in Australia, to “levy a google tax“. People can crib about media having become biased.

However, we need to remember that all this mess started with the unmaking of a bundle – once news and advertising had been separated, there was no turning back.

Amazon and brand-building

Sometimes shopping on Amazon feels like shopping in Burma Bazaar or National Market or any of those (literally) underground “shopping malls” where you get cheap imported stuff of uncertain quality. This is especially true when shopping for things like children’s toys and some electronics, where you don’t have too many established brands.

The only times I feel completely comfortable shopping on Amazon is when I’m buying known brands – like last month when I bought a LG monitor or Logitech keyboard and mouse. LG and Logitech have built their brands sufficiently outside of the Amazon ecosystem that I trust their quality even while buying on Amazon.

This is not the case when it comes to other categories, though. One day I was browsing for toys on Amazon and was simply unable to decide what to buy – it all looked so “cheap”. Finally, my wife noticed one brand of which we already had a toy (that we liked), and we ended up buying that (that was a sound decision). Once again, we had used our knowledge of brands that had build their brands outside of Amazon to make our decision.

The thing with Amazon is that it is an “everything store” – one store to serve all markets. That’s not how offline markets work. In offline markets, stores fairly easily differentiate themselves based on the markets that they serve – by their locations, by their price points, by the overall “look and feel” and so on. That way, when you go to a store that you know serves your segment, you can be confident that what the store sells you is what you’re looking for.

This is not the case with Amazon. Since one store serves all, it is very difficult to know upon seeing a product whether it is “made for you”. Well, Amazon has information about your previous purchases on the platform, which should give them a good idea of the “segment” you belong to, but I guess making money from advertisers on the platform trumps making your choice easier?

From this perspective, if you are a hitherto unknown brand trying to sell on Amazon, it makes sense for you to build your brand elsewhere. Here, we run into the “double cost problem” (that I had used to describe long ago why Grofers is not a sustainable business). Essentially, building a brand is expensive and once you’ve spend your dollars on (let’s say) the Facebook ecosystem to build your brand, does it make sense to also pay Amazon to push up your product when it comes to search?

It seems like brands are now choosing one way or the other. Mass market brands (it appears) are sticking to the Amazon ecosystem. Some premium brands are using Instagram to acquire customers, and then using the Shopify-Razorpay-Delhivery ecosystem to deliver. Some other premium brands are using a combination of Instagram and Amazon, but only using the latter as a fulfilment mechanism – not spending money to advertise there.

In any case, it seems to me that building brands on Amazon is not a viable business. Now I’m reminded of my other old post where I talk about how platforms are useful only if they aggregate unreliable supply. And this is a path that Amazon seems to have firmly taken.

And the moment you focus on branding, you are trying to send out the message that you are not “unreliable supply”. And this means that getting mixed up with other unreliable suppliers is not good for your business. Which is why you find that the direct to consumer brands that advertise on Instagram (have I told you I love instagram ads?) usually stay away from Amazon.

(you might think I’m going round and round in circles in this post. This is because it’s been about a month since I thought of writing this but only got down to it today. It’s also funny that I’m writing  this less than an hour after talking to someone who builds her brand on Instagram and then sells through Amazon (and offline shops) ).

PS: I got reminded of when I initially thought of this post. I bought a yoga mat from Amazon a couple of months ago. Quality turned out to be pathetic. And there was no way for me to know that when I was buying.

TV Bundling

This is yet another blogpost to expand on a tweet I wrote yesterday.

Just to remind you, Suprio Guha Thakurta (former Chief Strategy Officer at The Economist) and I have started The Paper, a 4-days a week newsletter that goes in (some) depth into one business story from India each day. We rely purely on “secondary reporting” (collating from news items), to which we add our own commentary.

Subscribe here.

Last week we wrote about a new TRAI order about bundling of TV channels. Essentially the telecom (and broadcast) regulator in India has gone to great lengths to ensure that TV channels don’t get bundled in a way that makes it difficult for the customer to choose.

While the effect of this bundling order might be uncertain, one question needs to be asked to TRAI – why are they only concerned about bundling at one level (across channels) and not at the television channel level itself?

After all, television channels are also bundles.

For a fixed fee a month (and a willingness to see a certain proportion of paid content), subscription to a television channel gives you the opportunity to watch any of the programming that the channel offers. Let’s take a sports channel, for example (IMHO, live sports is the only reason you need cable TV. Everything else can be streamed).

Let’s say there is one Sony channel that offers live coverage of UEFA Champions League, NBA and cricket played in England (I know all these are part of the Sony bouquet, though I don’t know if they are regularly broadcast on the same or different channels here. Let’s assume there is one channel that shows all three).

Assume that I’m only interested in the football, but not in either NBA or cricket played in England. In order to watch my football, I’m forced to buy subscription to the entire TV channel (and thus pay for the cricket and basketball as well). Why am I being forced to do this?

Take any channel, and the outcome is going to be similar. You will subscribe to the channel only because you want to watch a few programs, but you are forced to pay for everything. Is this fair?

Let’s move beyond televisions. Consider the Times of India. I’m mainly interested in the local news and the bridge column (OK, my daughter has taken a liking for the cartoon page as well). Still I need to pay for the whole paper. Is that fair?

Essentially, bundling exists everywhere. And it is going to be incredibly hard to regulate it away. TRAI wants to reduce one kind of bundling (across channels), but its regulation seems  blind to in-channel bundling. Essentially it is impossible to regulate against in-channel bundling as well.

And in any case, there are clear benefits to customers from bundling, the most important of which is the elimination of “mental cost”. If some day I suddenly want to watch NBA, it’s already there on the Sony channel I’ve paid for, and I don’t need to rush that moment to try and buy subscription.

Yes, pay per view exists in certain markets, and it can be profitably offered for certain kinds of premium events whose viewership is so uncorrelated with viewership of other events that bundling is nigh impossible.

Also, isn’t your spouse or partner also a bundle? To quote Esther Perel:

Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?

I leave you with her TED TAlk.

 

Omnichannel retail

About 10 days back I decided that the number of covid-19 positive cases in Bangalore was high enough to recalibrate my risk levels. So I decided I’m not going to go to “indoor shops” (where you have to step inside the shop) any more.

Instead, as much as possible I would buy from “over the counter” shops (where you don’t have to step inside). This way, I would avoid being indoors, and as long as I’m outdoors (and wearing a mask) when I’m out of homeI should be reasonably safe.

However, over the years we have come to need a lot of things that at least in an Indian context can be classified as “long tail”. Over the last three months I’ve been buying them from the large format Namdhari store close to home. Now, that’s a large airconditioned shop which my new risk levels don’t allow me to go to. So I decided to order from their website.

Now, Namdhari is a classic “omnichannel retail” (the phrase was told to me by one of the guys who helped set it up). There is no warehouse – all customer orders are fulfilled from stores. You could think of it like calling your local shop and asking for delivery.

As you can imagine, this can lead to insane inventory issues, especially for a shop like Namdhari’s that specialises in long tail stuff. It is pretty impossible for a store to reconcile how much stock is there in the store with the website (even with perfect technology, you’ll miss out on what is there in people’s (physical) charts).

There is also the issue of prioritisation of customers that they are kept in the dark about. If the shop has a limited inventory of any item (and with long tail stuff, even a small spike in demand can make inventory very limited), how does it allocate it between people who have trudged all the way to the store and those who have prepaid for it on the website?

I wasn’t that surprised, I guess, when half the items that I had ordered failed to arrive. The delivery guy told me that the rest of my money would get refunded.

I wondered why they wouldn’t try to fulfil my order the next day instead. This brings me to my next grouse – there is no real reasons sometimes to provide same day delivery. If you offer next day delivery then you know tomorrow delivery volumes beforehand, and it will be easy for you to stock up. These guys had this process, it seems, where you have to order for the same day and if the thing runs out you don’t get it at all.

In any case, three days after my half-fulfilled order had been delivered I got a mail that refund had been initiated for the items I had ordered but hadn’t arrived.

It was like writing a cheque. Cheques are inefficient because between the time it is written and encashed, neither the giver nor the receiver has access to the funds (online transfer such as IMPS, on the other hand, ensures that the money is in either the giver or receiver’s account at all points in time).

So my order which had been partially fulfilled was in a similar trishanku state – I didn’t know if it would arrive or if I should order the same items from elsewhere. In case I waited I would have the risk of getting the stuff even later (since I’d delay order from elsewhere).

It was only after it failed to arrive on Wednesday (and I got the mail) that I was able to place an order from elsewhere. Hopefully this one won’t get into trishanku state as well.

Advertising

When I first joined Instagram in 2013 or 2014, the first thing that fascinated me about the platform was the quality of advertisements. At that point in time, all advertisements there looked really good, like the pictures that the platform was famous for helping sharing.

It wasn’t like the clunky ads I would see elsewhere on the internet, or even on Facebook – which mostly stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of whatever content I was consuming at that point in time. Instagram advertisements looked so good that I actually paid them considerable attention (though I hardly clicked on them back then).

Over the years, as Facebook has gotten to know me better (I hardly use Facebook itself nowadays. But I use a lot of Instagram. For now I’ll believe Facebook’s claim that my WhatsApp information is all encrypted and Facebook doesn’t learn much about me through that), and the advertisements have gotten better and more relevant.

Over the last one year or so (mostly after I returned to India) I’ve even started clicking on some of the ads (yes they’ve become that relevant), giving Facebook even more information about myself, and setting off a positive feedback loop that makes the advertisements more relevant to me.

Over the years I’ve attended talks by privacy experts about the privacy challenges of this or that platform. “They’ll get all this information about you”, they say, “and then they can use that to send you targeted advertisements. How bad is that?”. If I think about all the problems with telling too much about myself to anonymous platforms or companies, receiving better targeted advertisements is the least of my worries.

As a consumer, better targeted ads means better information to me. Go back to the fundamentals of advertising – which is to communicate to the customer about the merits of a particular product. We think advertising can be annoying, but advertising is annoying only when the advertisements are not relevant to the target customer. 

When advertisements are well targeted, the customer gets valuable information about products that enables them to make better decisions, and spend their money in a better fashion. The more the information that the advertiser has about the end customer, the better the quality (defined in terms of relevance) the advertisements that can be shown.

This is the “flywheel” (can’t imagine I would actually use this word in a non-ironic sense) that Facebook and affiliated companies operate on – every interaction with Facebook or Instagram gives the company more information about you, and this information can be used to show you better targeted advertisements, which have a higher probability of clicking. Because you are more likely to click on the advertisements, the advertiser can be charged more for showing you the advertisement.

Some advertisers have told me that they elect to not use “too much information” about the customer while targeting their advertisements on Facebook, because this results in a much higher cost per click. However, if they look at it in terms of “cost per relevant click” or “cost per relevant impression”, I’m not sure they would think about it the same way.

Any advertisement shown to someone who is not part of the intended target audience represents wastage. This is true of all forms of advertising – TV, outdoor, print, digital, everything. It is no surprise that Facebook, by helping an advertiser advertise with better (along several axes) information about the customer, and Google, by showing advertisements after a customer’s intent has been established, have pretty much monopolised the online advertising industry in the last few years.

Finally, I was thinking about advertising in the time of adblockers. Thanks to extensive use of ad-blockers (Safari is my primary browser across devices, so ad blocking is effective), most of the digital advertisements I actually see is what I see on Instagram.

Today, some publication tried to block me from reading their article because I had my ad-blocker on. They made a sort of moral pitch that advertising is what supports them, and it’s not fair if I use an ad-blocker.

I think they should turn to banner ads. Yes. You read that right.

To the best of my knowledge, ad blockers work by filtering out links that come from the most popular ad exchanges. Banner ads, which are static and don’t go through any exchange, are impossible to block by ad-blockers. The problem, however, is that they are less targeted and so can have higher wastage.

But that is precisely how advertising in the offline versions of these newspapers works!

Something is better than nothing.

Fulfilling needs

We’re already in that part of the crisis where people are making predictions on how the world is going to change after the crisis. In fact, using my personal example, we’ve been in this part of the crisis for a long time now. So here I come with more predictions.

There’s a mailing list I’m part of where we’re talking about how we’ll live our lives once the crisis is over. A large number of responses there are about how they won’t ever visit restaurants or cafes, or watch a movie in a theatre, or take public transport, or travel for business, for a very very long time.

While it’s easy to say this, the thing with each of these supposedly dispensable activities is that they each serve a particular purpose, or set of purposes. And unless people are able to fulfil these needs that these activities serve with near-equal substitutes, I don’t know if these activities will decline by as much as people are talking about.

Let’s start with restaurants and cafes. One purpose they serve is to serve food, and one easy substitute for that is to take the food away and consume it at home. However, that’s not their only purpose. For example, they also provide a location to consume the food. If you think of restaurants that mostly survive because working people have their midday lunch there, the place they offer for consuming the food is as important as the food itself.

Then, restaurants and cafes also serve as venues to meet people. In fact, more than half my eating (and drinking) out over the last few years has been on account of meeting someone. If you don’t want to go to a restaurant or cafe to meet someone (because you might catch the virus), what’s the alternative?

There’s a certain set of people we might be inclined to meet at home (or office), but there’s a large section of people you’re simply not comfortable enough with to meet at a personal location, and a “third place” surely helps (also now we’ll have a higher bar on people we’ll invite home or to offices). If restaurants and cafes are going to be taboo, what kind of safe “third places” can emerge?

Then there is the issue of the office. For six to eight months before the pandemic hit, I kept thinking about getting myself an office, perhaps a co-working space, so that I could separate out my work and personal lives. NED meant I didn’t execute on that plan. However, the need for an office remains.

Now there’s greater doubt on the kind of office space I’ll get. Coworking spaces (at least shared desks) are out of question. This also means that coffee shops doubling up as “computer classes” aren’t feasible any more. I hate open offices as well. Maybe I have to either stick to home or go for a private office someplace.

As for business travel – they’ve been a great costly signal. For example, there had been some clients who I’d been utterly unable to catch over the phone. One trip to their city, and they enthusiastically gave appointments, and one hour meetings did far more than multiple messages or emails or phone calls could have done. Essentially by indicating that I was willing to take a plane to meet them, I signalled that I was serious about getting things done, and that got things moving.

In the future, business travel will “become more costly”. While that will still serve the purpose of “extremely costly signalling”, we will need a new substitute for “moderately costly signalling”.

And so forth. What we will see in the course of the next few months is that we will discover that a lot of our activities had purposes that we hadn’t thought of. And as we discover these purposes one by one, we are likely to change our behaviours in ways that will surprise us. It is too early to say which sectors or industries will benefit from this.