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2017-06-26 06:47:01
Mediator: At Cannes, the Great Gusher of Content Comes With Warning Signs

CANNES, France — I imagine that covering the annual Cannes Lions advertising festival here is a little bit like covering the great Texas oil boom a century ago — only with better food, cocktails and scenery.

Then, prospectors were chasing the real world currency of crude. Now, they’re after the new currency of the connected world: your attention.

As it was in those early days of oil discovery, there was a sense in Cannes last week that happy days were here or just around the corner. It was a week of seaside fireworks; popping magnum corks; private performances by Eddie Vedder, Solange Knowles, and Stevie Nicks; and behind-the-scenes deal making.

But, similar to Texas in the early 1900s, there was also an undercurrent of lawlessness. And there was the creeping realization that no one really knows where it’s all going — how the new digital media innovations will reshape politics, culture and even the world order.

The great geyser of our times, of course, is the hand-held connectivity that Steve Jobs tapped with his iPhone, and that Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat now so powerfully refine and distribute on their social media platforms.

They’ve allowed more players to rush in to give you the exact sorts of videos, music, news and entertainment you want, exactly when you want them. They’ve also sent the media industry off its moorings. The last remaining tethers — cable television cords — are rapidly snapping.

The evolving media order has created its share of innovative winners and disrupted losers. Generally, though, it has been a boon for the advertising world, giving marketers the ability to make sales pitches to you based on your precise moods and interests — derived by your likes, dislikes, clicks and thumb swipes.

Given that the limit is no longer the number of channels on the television dial but the daily human capacity to consume media, the rush is on to get even better at divining what you want before you even know you want it — and to make sure it’s available in ample supply.

“It’s chaos,” Shane Smith, the brash co-founder and chief executive of Vice Media, told me Thursday afternoon as he sipped wine on the rocks at his sumptuous seaside villa in Cap d’Antibes, Cannes’ even more exclusive neighbor. “But in the midst of the chaos there’s never been more content created, more money being made. There’s never been more stuff being sold, and for me on my end, there’s never been more people buying content.”

Mr. Smith was a coveted dance partner at the festival, which was founded as a celebration of quality advertising but is now overwhelmed by deal making and schmoozing. His young audience — which lives on its devices — is the one that advertisers covet.

Vice opened the week here announcing that it had landed a new, $450 million investment from the private equity firm TPG, bringing its valuation to $5.7 billion. And, Mr. Smith said, in terms of deals being made here, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Mr. Smith is known for his promotional acumen, but others reported similar success. And so, in Cannes, you could see the frenzied activity feeding itself, pitching forward into the abyss.

A clarifying moment for me came Tuesday when Fox’s president of ad revenue, Joe Marchese, joined YouTube executives at Google’s pop-up beach club here to announce that Fox would heed YouTube’s call to reduce the length of commercials to six seconds from the standard 30.

“What’s really scarce is attention,” and people are being more selective with it, the YouTube managing director Debbie Weinstein told reporters. Six seconds, her colleague Tara Walpert Levy said, was “just short enough and yet long enough” to get a story told.

The message is clear. Content costs money, and marketers will continue to subsidize it if it allows them to pitch their wares effectively. But people don’t want to spend time watching 30-second ads, not when information moves at the speed of Twitter.

It made me think of the old joke: Why do the “8 Minute Abs” exercise program when you can do seven? Given that the most important advertising slogan of the past year, “Make America Great Again,” runs just three seconds, tops, the six-second limit may even seem long.

But where does that leave messaging for far more complex issues like health care — a life-or-death subject for millions of Americans — in the coming political advertising season?

The race to grab your attention and hold it is leading to a new era of informational hedonism that’s doing more than shortening attention spans. It has given rise to the online silos that allow people to live in vastly different realities. If you enjoy and engage most with news that supports your worldview — no matter its veracity — algorithms will naturally want to give you more of it.

Though big Silicon Valley players are working to fix that, it wasn’t a topic they really wanted to elaborate on as they made rounds here.

I was hoping, for instance, that the Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey would address the thornier issues of social media that became so apparent last year during a talk he gave at the oceanside cabana of the OMD advertising agency.

He stuck to more self-congratulatory ground, saying, “If there’s one word I had to choose to represent Twitter and our force of good in the world,” it was “the word ‘open.’”

It was too rich when I tried to approach him afterward and his press representative told me to scram. The transparency evangelist wasn’t taking questions from journalists in Cannes, I was told.

Similarly, on the same week that Snapchat was winning the Murrow award for its newscast, “Good Luck, America,” it was insisting its executives’ talks were off the record, and ordering guests at its party — closed to the press — not to take pictures. As Digiday pointed out, Snap “is a camera company.”

Yet there were some signs that our unaccountable yet increasingly powerful social media platforms are coming to terms with the real-world consequences of their algorithmic siren calls.

On Friday, Facebook took what appeared to be a positive step, with a new initiative aimed at bringing disparate people together on the platform more frequently, to share different perspectives.

Nowhere did I find more hope here than on my visit to Spotify, the streaming music service (and — full disclosure — a Times partner).

Its algorithms do an uncanny job of tailoring its music streams for individual users. But it has done an even better job at taking the next step, and subtly drawing them out of their own bubbles by introducing new music they might not have tried on their own.

Too often, data is being used to “distill you to your smallest self,” Spotify’s chief marketer, Seth Farbman, told me. “If we’re leading people into discovering ‘new,’ and being comfortable with the unfamiliar, aren’t we training people to be far more accepting and far more open?”

We’re going to need more of that. As Ben Lerer, a big media investor and a co-founder of Thrillist Media Group said during a seaside stroll here with me, “The cable pipes of yesterday are the social pipes of today.” That means the personalized feed is going to regulate even more of the digital oxygen we breathe.

But the air sure seems polluted these days.

As the caravan prepared to pull out of town here on Friday, I sat down with the chief executive of Vox Media, Jim Bankoff, who wrote an open letter to Cannes attendees warning against trading quality and trust for the easy routes to our attention.

Toward the end of our meeting, Marc Pritchard, the branding chief for the world’s largest advertiser, Procter & Gamble, walked by and concurred. “It’s fool’s gold,” he said.

But I started this column on another commodity, oil, and I’ll end on it, too.

Oil fed and enabled the great advancements that came with the rise of the automobile, and made the jet age possible. But then, there were the consequences: highway blight, ozone depletion, climate change.

The infoboom is taking place in a new environment — the cyber environment — where we’re all spending more time. All the new opportunity it’s bringing will also have consequences. Hopefully we’ll head off the worst of them while we still can.