Big Data and Big Brother: Madison Avenue's big moment to decide

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Many of us at Stein IAS are big “Mad Men” fans. We love the melodrama, the characters—even the caricatures. We get a kick out of looking back on advertising's pinnacle moment as the mover and shaper of popular culture. And we aspire to achieve similar glory today (minus the three martinis before lunch). That's why we were really excited when one of our colleagues recently suggested that our generation's “Mad Men” moment had arrived. “Big Data is our biggest and best opportunity to regain cultural rock star status,” he said. “Instead of Mad Men, we'll be Tech Men!” But he also warned how daunting this task will be for advertisers and marketers in terms of Big Data's difficulty to master and, as he so eloquently put it, “Big Brothery implications.” Enter Edward Snowden. And say hello to PRISM (after all, it could be watching/listening to you right now). With these revelations, the surprising power of Big Data and the fear of Big Brother have hit the public stage in stark focus. Interestingly, since the story broke, Amazon has seen several editions of George Orwell's “1984” skyrocket up the sales charts—with one increasing in sales by 10,000%. John Oliver debuted as summer host of “The Daily Show” with the new segment “Good news! You're not paranoid.” If people weren't talking about Big Data before, they sure are now. And the big questions everyone is asking are about personal privacy. How much are we entitled to? What are the boundaries? These aren't new issues for digital marketers. But for me, they reinforce the assertion that this is a “Mad Men” moment. Not only because we, as advertisers and marketers, will redefine popular culture with our choices but also because we will redefine ourselves. We have an important decision to make. It's not a strategic or tactical choice. It's a moral one, and we have to make it now. We watch “Mad Men” with a sense of nostalgia. But remember the Greek definition of nostalgia Don Draper provides when christening Kodak's Carousel slide projector: the pain from an old wound. Even though Madison Avenue has been revered, it was also reviled. “The Man.” “The Machine.” “Liars.” Are these terms the perceptions we want associated with our craft—again? Most of us look back with disdain on how advertisers once spun disgusting half-truths—and mistruths—about tobacco. Is that how we want the next generation to recall how we used Big Data? Advertisers and consumers have no social contract to debate. We can't use national security and public safety as barter for monitoring, analyzing and leveraging people's data and digital behaviors. Some might argue we have to show even greater respect and restraint. Today absolutely is a “Mad Men” moment. Honor privacy and permission to forge stronger, better brand relationships ... or get drunk on Big Data and hope no one discovers us passed out on the couch midafternoon. Let's make the right decision. Michael Ruby is VP-executive creative director at Stein IAS Americas, New York.
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