Paid Attention with Faris Yakob

Our guest is Faris Yakob, the author of Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World, this month’s Bigeye Book Club selection. Faris explains what attention is, what the latest research reveals about how it works in humans, and the important role it plays in advertising. Faris also discusses his planning model, the Media Pyramid. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can claim a 20 percent discount on Paid Attention at by using the promo code BIGEYE20 at checkout.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Faris Yakob: Attention is the foundational idea of advertising. Trying to have a single way of understanding human minds and attention in advertising is just logically wrong because there’s lots of different kinds of attention, different ways they work.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer at Bigeye. Thank you for joining us today. This month, we’re looking at the role that attention plays in advertising and communications. But what exactly do we mean by attention and how do brands attract it? The book Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World offers some answers and fresh insights into how human attention works, illustrated by strategic communications from several global brands. Published by Kogan Page, Paid Attention is our featured Bigeye Book Club selection for April and I’m delighted to be joined today by its author, Faris Yakob. Faris is the co-founder of Genius Steals, a nomadic creative consultancy, and of The School of Stolen Genius, an online learning community for marketers and creative thinkers. Faris is the former Chief Innovation Officer at MDC Partners, EVP and Chief Technology Strategist at McCann-Erikson, and Global Digital Strategy and Creative Director at Naked Communications. Faris is also a prominent international speaker and guest lecturer at a number of universities and has written for publications including Fast Company, Campaign, and The Guardian, and authors a monthly opinion column for the World Advertising Research Council. Today, Faris is joining us from London, England. Faris, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Faris Yakob: Thanks for having me. It’s delightful to be here virtually, as it were.

Adrian Tennant: Well, today we’re talking about your book, Paid Attention, and specifically the second edition, which was published earlier this year. Faris, what prompted you to write this second edition of the book?

Faris Yakob: My publisher, to their surprise, noticed that my book continued to sell five years after it came out. Now, you know, business books don’t sell very many copies. The average business book sells a couple of hundred in its first year, a couple of thousand in its life. And my book was selling thousands per year – not like many thousands – but some, and so it clearly had some longevity. And to be honest, I wrote it with that in mind, because working in the digital parts of the industry for a while, you notice how fast things change, even though some things don’t change, some things do. And publishing is an inherently slow business. It’s an 18-month or two-year production cycle for a book to come out. So I realized by the time the book came out, if I wrote it about now, it wouldn’t be relevant then. So I decided to focus on things that were more principle-based rather than specific practices, perhaps. So they approached me and said, “Would you like to write a second edition? It’s still selling well.” It’ll get a sort of sales bump, essentially, that’s why you do a second edition. It updates it, makes it current so that people who are coming into the industry – which is happening all the time – will consider it to be relevant for them. I get to get a new cover design, which I was excited about. That new cover is, I think, better, I like it a lot. And in the five or six years since it originally came out, the discourse in advertising about the concept of attention went from non-existent to extremely loud. And that made me think there was things I needed to add into my book to make it, as I said, kind of the set of principles that I believe about this stuff. So it just was interesting that the industry kind of began to reflect on attention. And because of that, it felt like I should aggregate all the new research that might help substantiate some of my thinking and make sure that the advice or thoughts were still what I believed.

Adrian Tennant: Could you give us an overview of Paid Attention and an outline of what readers will find within its pages?

Faris Yakob: Absolutely, yeah. So I guess my primary thesis is that attention is the foundational idea of advertising. So the word advertising is derived from the Latin, ‘advertere’, which means to draw attention to things. The function of advertising is to draw attention to things. I started thinking about this because I saw an interview with a guy called Apollo Robbins, who is a pickpocket, slight of hand magician, and fascinating guy. And he said this really interesting thing in a couple of quotes in the magazines and books and then on a TV show he did: “Attention is like water.” And this expression really crystallized a lot of thoughts in my head, this metaphor – I guess it’s actually a simile – really crystallized a lot of thoughts in my head about how things work. Like we call it channel planning because you create channels for attention and you hope it flows down them. But he also says you can’t control attention. As a magician, misdirection is misunderstood. You aren’t trying to push people’s attention away. You’re trying to work out where it is and move around it. So you have to be aware of it, but you can’t get it pushed off in one direction because it can come back, like a boomerang, expose what you’re doing over here. You’ve got to manage it. I thought it was super interesting. And then, you know, if you look at kind of how creativity advertising works, or at least some of the models of how it works whilst the linearity of this model is based on salesmanship from a very early age. And it’s kind of not super literal, the dominant model most people have in their head for how advertising works, it’s still called AIDA, right? It’s a cognitive cascade model. It is that you need attention to get interest, create a decision, which leads to an action. It’s very logical and linear. It feels like it makes some sort of sense, even though it doesn’t work exactly like that. And then, because I used to work in media planning, I was very aware that what we are buying and selling in aggregate is human attention. But we do it through a set of proxies that we call sometimes impressions or whatever. So it seemed like an interesting idea to build all my kind of thoughts about advertising that I’ve been writing about for 15 years around this kind of thought as it being the foundation for everything else, you know? So it’s about that. It’s also about kind of how attention works at a human cognitive level and how advertising both seeks to get it, literally and kind of conceptually, and how you use it. And then importantly, how now I think we’ve evolved since it came out originally to a different stage of media in the world. So the later chapters are all about how people think attention is changing, it’s not really. It’s more that the world changed around it. Humans change extremely slowly, but media changes really fast. Media consumption historically has always just grown as new channels have emerged. But that no longer is happening because we’ve run out of time in the day.

Adrian Tennant: In a chapter entitled Advertising Works in Mysterious Ways, you highlight two apparently diametrically opposed models of advertising. Could you explain them and how they differ with respect to the attention consumers pay to them?

Faris Yakob: Yes, absolutely. So, It may have been Ehrenberg originally who said this, “No model of advertising will ever be true because it works in different ways.” And that was a big part of my thinking: trying to have a single way of understanding human minds and attention in advertising is just logically wrong because there are lots of different kinds of attention, different ways they work. The models that talk about in that chapter, specifically, are based on Robert Heath, who at the University of Bath, wrote a really important set of papers about what he calls low attention processing. Basically, the idea is that when you look at a billboard, you never really look at a billboard or a poster. You drive by it, and yet it still has an effect. His thesis, which he sort of anchored a lot of extremely good research to, is that advertising works better if you don’t pay attention to it. Now, his thinking here is it’s because if you try and convince someone or persuade someone, their defenses go up. If you try and slip in, in the periphery of their consciousness, you create somatic changes in structures of their brain that create decision preferability, essentially. And there’s some evidence that A: we know this works to some degree we can measure low attention processing works. We know it does have an effect. At the same time, when I was originally writing the book, the internet had gotten very exciting. I was very excited about it. I spent most of my career as a consultant before advertising and in advertising sort of just pointing at the internet saying, “This seems quite important. Perhaps we should do something about that.” And the model essentially there was engagement, which is fundamentally the opposite of low attention processing. It’s like the more engaged somebody is with something, which we measure through a different set of proxies, behaviors, essentially clicking on things – we did then, at least – was basically the more engaged somebody is in your advertising or your content the better it will work. And I was struggling to reconcile how these two things could both be true. But the thing I said at the beginning is how they’re both true. Some attention works quite well, and can be very efficient at super-high frequencies, for example. If a bit of attention works, a lot of attention should work more. If we think about it as a linear thing, Which is somewhat satisfying that now that appears to be true. And it also kind of plays to Heath’s point, which is the separation of selling messaging from branding messaging, which is a big part of the last decade or so of thinking in the industry, right? Branding and direct marketing or sales promotion, whatever you want to call it, are different. They work differently. And the kinds of creative you use for them should be different. And you measure them differently and so on. So it kind of slightly reconciles that dichotomy.

Adrian Tennant: In the book, you also have a chapter entitled Everything is PR. So Faris, why should advertising attempt to become famous?

Faris Yakob: That’s a good question. Because that’s the job of advertising and the way it works best is the answer. So, Binet and Field are very clear about this. There’s a couple of pieces we have to build before we can get to this point, I think, but there are very few absolute rules in marketing. They probably can’t be on account of humans are complex and the world is complex, that’s the thing. But there is a very strong correlation and a statistically robust, consistent correlation between excess share of voice, which is buying more media than your competitors in certain channels or places and market share growth. It’s usually something like 10% plus excess share of voice leads to 0.5% plus market share growth over about six months. The point being is excess share of voice means spending more money than other people, which inherently means smaller brands can’t really do that. So it’s like the Double Jeopardy law: biggest brands tend to get both more penetration and tiny, slightly, very slightly higher frequency of purchase, which we sometimes call loyalty, which is a misleading term, but slightly higher frequency of purchase. So that Double Jeopardy law is quite robust across all kinds of decades, markets, categories, et cetera. So, if you want to grow, you have to create in Ehrenberg-Bass-ian terms mental availability. That makes logical sense because excess share of voice gives you more space in someone’s media life than other brands, which means you get more mental availability. Now the fame piece comes from both Binet and Field and, Paul Feldwick, one of the great thinkers about brand, and Feldwick’s point in Why Does The Peddler Sing? Is that mental availability is a psychological construct. The way in which you get mental availability is by making things famous. Jeremy Bullmore made this point in the nineties. Bullmore was the Worldwide Creative Director of WPP. And before that, a partner of Stephen King, the creator of what’s known as account planning, the strategic function within advertising. And Bullmore said in a paper called Persil and Posh Spice, and that he wrote in 1994 I think, that Posh Spice understood intuitively how the world of advertising works when she said in her autobiography, I believe learning to fly it’s called, She said I wanted from the very beginning, I wanted to be more famous than Persil Automatic, which is a detergent brand in the UK also known as Omo in many markets. Her insight was so strong because he said the only thing that all successful brands universally have is a certain level of fame. And then in all the data research from Binet and Field, from the IPA Databank and so on, they talk about fame advertising as a certain kind of advertising, which generates excess share of voice without excess media purchasing, because people are more likely to talk about it personally, or share about it on the internet. So you generate excess share of voice for less media money, which means you can grow without outspending the competition. So fame ultimately, or the previous great minds I’ve mentioned, have come to the idea that that’s the job: is to make things famous. And the reason that the chapter’s called Everything is PR is because it’s a couple of things. What PR does is try and get earned attention. So layering PR thinking into advertising is probably a good idea. If you want to generate outsized market share returns for less media budget, which everybody has to now, unless you’re the biggest brand in the world. But also, everything a company does is now very visible in a way that it historically wasn’t. Advertising was the most visible aspect of a company’s behavior because everybody saw all the same stuff, but not everybody’s a customer of every company. So you probably are more likely to have seen the ads of a company than you were to have bought the product, if that makes sense? But for a long time, I worked for a company called Naked Communications, which was like an integrated creative, media, strategy, boutique operation that was briefly very successful and a bit famous. And their insight, one of the reasons they call it Naked, was that they think because of the internet, especially, and the modern media world, brands now stand naked in front of consumers, which is to say when the CEO of a company tweets, it has significant communication effect. everything a company does is branding. Branding is the behavior of the company in totality: its product, its services, how it pays its staff, what people say about it in the press, and its advertising. And so when I say everything is PR, what I mean is that every action of the company, every utterance, should be considered for how it will affect the perception of the brand. Not that PR agencies are going to rule the world. That’s not what I mean, but they are useful advisors!

Adrian Tennant: Based on your research, how does human attention work? And honestly, why should marketers care?

Faris Yakob: Right. Well, how does it work? I like to say something like it’s a many-splendoured thing. It works in many different ways and it’s complex, therefore. In some aspect, the sharp pointy focused end of the most complex phenomena in the known universe: human consciousness. Right? So the fact that it’s complex is not surprising because of that. In other ways, you can measure it just as what’s called sustained awareness of a certain thing. Right? So the origins of psychology come from a book by the brother of Henry James, the author. And he sort of says attention to essentially you choosing to pay attention, which is slightly recursive, but you get the point, you choosing to attend to one or some things out of a set of possible stimuli, external and internal. When you make somebody do complex maths in their head, or remember things, it’s easy to pick their pockets as Apollo Robbins knows, ’cause their attention is directed inwards So it’s partially a thing where you choose how to focus your brain and therefore, by extension, it’s your experience of life. it’s how you interface with reality. That’s kind of the conceptual level. It’s also looking at stuff to some degree and you know, that’s part of it too. and it also works in various different ways. So you have thinking like some attention is what’s called broad-beamed. This is coming from Orlando Wood’s work in Look Out. Part of your brain is constantly trying to keep you alive, so your attention system is an alert system that keeps you constantly monitoring for threats around you. That’s broad-beamed attention, essentially. When you choose to focus on something to do work or hunt originally, you narrow your focus down to sort of very small point and try and focus on just that thing, so you can do sustained work or hunting they’re different kinds of attention, right? Equally, because your brain is trying to keep you alive, if alarms go off or you see a bear attack, that will take over your attention, you can’t control that. It will try and keep you alive, even if you’re really, really interested in, the maths you’re doing, it will try and say, “hang on, the bear!” Or, you know, “alarm, run away!” You know, so it works in different ways. Why is it important? Well, advertising has to somehow get from media into your head and the direct route for that is attention in different ways, but you have certain sensory organs. And you process a huge amount of visual and auditory data and your brain ignores the vast majority of it. You can’t consume the amount of stuff your eyes are seeing. In fact, according to a podcast, I heard recently only about 10% of the data your brain uses to create “seeing” comes from your eyes or optic nerves. The rest comes from the rest of your brain. Because it’s not just doing pictures. It’s pattern recognition. It’s conceptualizing. It’s trying to work out if you know about these things, if they’re dangerous, if their mate potential, it’s telling you, you know what this is, and that is a lot of seeing is generated internally. But, at some point, you have to create mental availability, which means you have to get your brand from through the media, into someone’s head, in order to effect any possible change. So I would say the attention is the sine qua non of advertising, without which there is nothing. If no one sees or hears your ads ever, they definitely aren’t going to work.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.

Sandra Marshall: I’m Sandra Marshall, VP of Client Services at Bigeye. Every week IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as advertising professionals. At Bigeye, we always put audiences first. For every engagement, we’re committed not just to understanding our clients’ business challenges but also learning about their prospects’ and customers’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. These insights inform our strategy and collectively inspire the account, creative, media, and analytics teams working on our clients’ projects. If you’d like to put Bigeye’s audience-focused consumer insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email Bigeye. Reaching the Right People, in the Right Place, at the Right Time.

Adrian Tennant: Each month, in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, The Bigeye Book Club features interviews with authors who are experts in specific areas of marketing and consumer research. Our featured book for April is Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World by Faris Yakob. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can save 20 percent on a print or electronic version of the book with exclusive promo code BIGEYE20. This code is valid for all products and pre-orders and applies to Kogan Page’s free e-book offer. To order your copy of Paid Attention, go to – that’s K O G A N, P A G E dot com.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Faris Yacob, co-founder of the creative consultancy, Genius Steals, and the author of this month’s Bigeye Book Club selection, Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World. You include several case studies in the book. Could you talk us through just a couple that characterizes smart, integrated communications planning?

Faris Yakob: Yeah, so I guess part of what I’m interested in the book is focusing on the sort of first bit of advertising, which is attention. And there’s a lot of work coming out now I think about the second bit, which is emotion and how creative actually affects human decision-making. One of the new case studies I wrote about, because I was really interested in it, because it was so divisive in the industry, which is always an interesting thing. The industry has got very…. the industry? The world has got somewhat polarized into kind of very naive binary positions. It is this, or it is that. I’m like, it probably isn’t either. It’s probably both and maybe a bit of, you know, when anyway. But the Burger King work for the last 5, 6, 7 years under Fernando Machado, who’s subsequently left, to me, felt like a very different model of communication than we historically were using. So a PR-led advertising model, where every campaign was completely different and every campaign was designed to generate mainstream media coverage. I thought that was really interesting. Now, one of the things that’s happened subsequently to him leaving for Activision is that Burger King has decided this model doesn’t work anymore. At the time, I did a bunch of research into the financials of that company. It seemed to work pretty well for a while, and then it didn’t work as well. And then people panic because business needs growth constantly. That’s the nature of these things. And I think there’s a reason for this, right? So Cory Doctorow, who’s the extremely smart writer and kind of cultural media technology thinker, writes about this. He says, “The thing humans are best at, or one of the things humans are best at is habituation.” We get used to things really, really fast and things that are exciting and novel will attract our attention. If you do them again and again, they stop attracting attention. Like the boy who cried Wolf! because we just habituate to that and be like, “Oh, well I get it now. Huh? Whatever.” So that’s my thesis for what happened with Burger King: for a few years, they were knocking it out of the park with really, really big hits that were generating a lot of excess share of voice through earned media because they were hacking the system a little bit with PR ideas. And then it stopped working as well because people are like, “I sort of get what you’re doing now. I got a bit bored of it.” You know, I think also one of my hopes or ambitions perhaps with the book is to go back to some of the Naked kind of thinking, which is that because if everything’s communication, if everything communicates, really good integrated communications planning has to involve thinking about internal audiences at the company and how the company behaves financially, legally, commercially, in climate terms, and so on. To me, that’s kind of, it’s always been kind of this weird division because advertising is an industry built on utterance: we say things for other people, we’re all ghostwriters for brands. But when the internet collapses media and commerce, as it increasingly is doing and was inevitable, certain gaps appeared in kind of the customer experience. It’s called the experience gap, sometimes. We promise certain things and then people become our customers. And it’s not exactly as good as we thought. And sometimes customer service is a bit difficult to get hold of or whatever it is. And so we were trying to fill some of those gaps, which is what the customer experience industry is all about, right? That’s what evolved is to try and fill some of these service level gaps between promises, utterances, and actions. To me, integrated communication planning is integrated marketing strategy is business strategy to some degree, – not the financial part maybe as much – but it’s thinking holistically about how the company acts in the world and how media is part of that behavior.

Adrian Tennant: Using research on how media consumption can affect psychological wellbeing, you created a tool called the Media Pyramid, which looks very similar to the food pyramid. Faris, what led you to create the model?

Faris Yakob: Why did I do it originally? Because I consume a vast amount of Twitter and I have to actively attempt to control the amount of Twitter I consume. Because the way my brain works, it likes very high frequency, high volume, disparate information to be fired at it all the time. So Twitter is uniquely suited to my media consumption modality. And I began to be aware before doom scrolling was a thing that I spent all day on Twitter. I started to feel a bit bad about stuff. And so I started looking into research about how media consumption effects reported psychological wellbeing. So when I started thinking about it, I was like, maybe I need to think about a diet, like a more balanced diets for my brain. And that led me straight to the food pyramid. Which is a now non-used model in America, the USDA abandoned it in the 2000s, but they replaced it with a thing called My Plate, which is useless. Well, I like about immediate the food pyramid model is that it’s beautifully simple in what it expresses, right? You eat 2,000 calories a day. I’m making a triangle shape with my hands, ’cause the food pyramid actually is a triangle and not a pyramid. But I followed the convention and called it a Media Pyramid, even though it’s a triangle. Anyway, you have 2,000 calories a day you should be consuming if you’re an adult man, give or take. And the things that are worst for you should make up the least amount of those calories. So the things at the top, sugars and stuff like that, Which our kind of evolved brain is extremely drawn towards because that super dense energy sources that were very rare in the conceptual African Savannah, upon which we all evolved. Because they’re rare, fats sugars and so on salts, we are drawn to them and we tend to overeat them if we have them in abundance, which is what happens. Hence the food pyramid was invented to say, ” a bit less sugar would be good”. And then at the bottom of the food pyramid, the things down there “Eat as much as you want vegetables, fruits, which contain sugar, but there are things that are better for you and things that worse for you and you should try and make your diet fit into that pyramid because you’ll be healthier.” And we tend to naturally eat upside down. Because when we’re given sugars, salts and fats, our limbic brain goes, “ah!”, you know, “get as much as you can.” And we live in times of, in some places of the world, extremely high calorific abundance, but most of those calories skew towards the things that aren’t very good for us, especially the cheap ones. So the model is simple to understand. I took to it and I started looking into the research that exists. And there’s, there is some of it it’s not huge amount, but I used as much as I could to build this. And it’s obviously a subjective attempt to think about media in a way that’s, your whole consumption of a day. How much Twitter should I be consuming? So how much social media is good for you? And because social media has become polarizing in the last decade or so, there is a lot of research about this. And then we search mostly also is between the half an hour, one hour, maybe even two hours a day of social media consumption, people tend to feel better. They feel connected. They feel informed. They feel engaged. They feel like they did something if they messaged somebody, you know. but after that, it begins to decline. And after a certain number of hours, if you’ve been doom scrolling for eight hours, you tend to report feeling worse than when you started. And the same is true with other channels. They have different curves if you like. Right? Whereas at the very bottom of the pyramid, people that read a lot of books never say, “Oh, I read a book all day. And I felt terrible afterwards.” That doesn’t happen that no one’s reported that they just go, “I feel smarter. I had a nice time.” People that play games with their friends or talk to each other or go to museums or indulge in I guess, “high culture”, that is kind of designed to be educational and informative and engaging, which is obviously somewhat bound up with kind of class distinctions and availability and all that kind of stuff, which I appreciate. Some things we consume make us feel better. People that consume podcasts report feeling good afterwards and mostly smarter sometimes. So it feels like it made sense for me to try and manage my diet because I was being drawn by the attention hacking mechanisms of the magic rectangle in my hand and the business models of the companies that want my attention to over-consuming certain things to the point where, to my own personal detriment. So I built a model, I put it on the internet and it got a lot of mainstream media pickup, because it was a feeling a lot of people were having and I found a triangle that made it sort of feel like you could think about it in a certain way. so it was, for me originally, it was a tool for me. But that’s how most of my thinking starts, I suppose.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. Interesting. So how might readers of Paid Attention use the pyramid to inform media planning, for example?

Faris Yakob: Right. So I did an evolution of this, how to plan media in a sort of media pyramid way based on the, I guess you can call it an insight if you want. But my thought was “Okay, there’s a lot of research to show that emotional congruency is a part of how attention transfer and advertising works, which is to say happy ads in happy environments or fishing ads in fishing environments, or finance ads in finance environments work better than non-congruous, non contextually relevant advertising.” Also, if people are enjoying themselves in the first couple of hours of their social media consumption or their ad supported streaming binge, there’s probably a qualitatively different effects for the advertising that operates in those two hours, than there is getting served the same impressions to the same people on the same exact channel eight hours later, when they’re miserable about it. If that’s the case, the way we balance our overall communication strategy should be considered across different time horizons and what I considered to be different levels of agency. So usually the more agency you have in your media consumption, the more likely you are to enjoy it for longer. Which is to say, if you graze broadcast television endlessly and are fed, versus if you choose to watch a certain thing, you get a longer amount of positive feelings if you choose to watch something that if you just graze. The same as true with Facebook, they’ve written about this many times. Social media in feed, if you just scroll endlessly, you get a certain amount of time before you get sad. But if you use it to communicate with people you get much longer actually makes you feel better to communicate with people, humans like that, it turns out. So there’s different vectors that the pyramid works along and they sort of map against McLuhan-esque thinking of like hot and cold media and fast and slow media and different things work in different ways. So Binet and Field have a lot of lovely graphs. One of them shows certain channels that are inherently better at brand building and certain ones that are inherently better at direct response. And it’s not exactly as simple as that, but it does make sense that things that you can do very quickly, where you can click a button and buy the thing you just saw on impulse-driven Instagram or whatever works really well with direct response. Why wouldn’t it? Make sense, right? You don’t have to go to a shop. You just literally just clicking on the button. You did it. Of course that’s going to work well that way. Can it do branding as well? Yeah, it can, but it works differently. But things like sponsorships are much better at branding overall for sort of obvious reasons because they’re inherently much longer term. Sponsorships or like football and like big sport events sponsorships, or like museums sponsorships, or anything like that. A: you’re inherently there to experience those things. Events are good for branding as well because you’re experiencing them for longer in more dimensions, and they tend to last for years. And we know that branding effects take years to show up. So it kind of maps really well to a lot of the stuff we already have begun to understand about different channels and how we use them. But it isn’t as simple as just like 10% here, 10% here, 10% here. Like I tried to make it seem because every situation is different and context is hugely important in all considerations, objectives, budgets, et cetera.

Adrian Tennant: Towards the end of Paid Attention, you write – and I quote – “While attention is the determinant resource being bought, sold, and allocated in advertising exchanges between companies and people, it’s a complex, precious thing and deserves respect in its capture and utilization by brands. It is a commons that needs renewing and protecting.” Faris, can you unpack this idea for us?

Faris Yakob: Absolutely. Yeah, that is how I write, and I guess how I speak also. So, for a while, the industry started saying something like data is the new oil and the corollary of that idea was the attention was being metaphorically, turned into a commodity. So the idea of the attention economy, it comes from the early seventies, a Nobel prize-winning economist called Herbert Simon first invented the term because he said, look, there’s more media, and there’s more information being generated all the time. And information consumes attention, media consumes attention. So if we have more media than we have attention, then the economics of things invert and the tension becomes an economic good because economics is the science of the allocation of scarcity. That’s what it is. That’s what it’s for. There’s a certain amount of stuff. Who gets it? Economics. So the idea is really old. And then somebody in the nineties wrote a thing about the attention economy for the internet It was a really prescient article way, way ahead of its time. The internet was a K dial-up thing at the time, but it was really prescient. Because there’s just less attention than there is brands and ideas that want yours and ours in totality. So my brother’s epidemiologist. He referred to this as scrambled competition. It’s a form of competition between different things that creates kind of an endless escalation sort of arms race. When we started thinking about attention as a commodity, the metaphors we use are very important. We think in metaphors too. I mean, if you believe George Lakoff the psychologist, he talks about this a lot with the way we think is purely metaphorical. Our brains work through analogy, not from first principle analysis very often. It’s too laborious. The metaphors we use change how we think about things and when attention became a commodity, we know how capitalism operates with commodities. We mine them, refine them, process them, and sell them in value-added ways to make money until they’re gone, which is going to be a problem in lots of different areas, obviously. And I feel like at the beginning, I didn’t make that clear enough and it became more clear to me in the last five years. A: ’cause I read some philosophy about attention, and B: media consumption has grown, always growing historically, since every channel was invented, adds to the media consumption like radio and TV and papers and everything. You just get more and more media consumption, but we’ve reached what I call peak attention in most mature media markets now. According to Nielsen, who are going through their own measurement and accreditation issues right now, media consumption has plateaued in America at about 12 hours and a few minutes per year. It changes by about one or two minutes a year, no more. There’s an obvious reason for this. If you’re consuming 12 hours of media a day, there’s not a lot of time left to get anything else done. I don’t know how people are managing it, but Americans do watch a lot of television. In the UK, it’s about 10 hours a day, but it sort of plateaus, it just stops growing. There’s just nowhere left for it to grow because there’s no room left in the day. Because the magic rectangle in our hand means that media can fill every possible crevice of time and space. Because of that, attention becomes a zero-sum game: companies are all fighting for it, media companies are trying to get more of it from each other so they can sell it to advertisers, and at a certain point, people started to feel like this was a lot. And so different mechanisms begin to happen, right? People go on digital detoxes or meditation became popular again for the first time since the sixties, because everyone’s like, “I feel like something is happening. And I feel like I need to reclaim some of it.” so, if you can change the metaphor from a commodity to a commons, we might be able to change how we think about it. A: your attention is literally how you experience reality. It’s your experience of your own life, how you choose to allocate it will dictate what your life is and how you think and what you believe it’s everything to some degree. Cause it’s all that’s coming in. It’s precious. And if we look at it through spreadsheets, sometimes it’s easy to dehumanize the people part of the advertising exchange. And that leads to bad advertising and bad relationships with brands and bad media being supported, perhaps unintentionally because of the scale and complexity of the algorithmic infrastructure that provides programmatic advertising. And by bad media. I mean media that lies to sell you snake oil supplements specifically that any media which tells obvious falsehoods, demonstrably untrue things in order to sell snake oil or, supplements or whatever they sell is bad. That’s bad. Don’t do that. so, the idea of the commons comes from the tragedy of the commons, right? A very famous economic principle. Let’s say you have a number of sheep farmers – shepherds? Let’s say shepherds! – shepherds. and they all have access to a common piece of ground full of grass. They all responsibly feed their sheep a certain amount per day. The grass grows back. It’s renewable. All the sheeps are fine. Sheeps? That’s not right. All the sheep are fine and everybody is fine. However, in economics, a rational actor will try and get preferential access to resources. Economics thinks about individuals, not really about sharing stuff very much because it’s the allocation who gets what, right? So one of the shepherds has this idea. What if I sneak out onto the commons at night when no one’s looking and I just feed my sheep a little bit more grass. They’ll grow a bit faster. They’ll get a bit fatter. They’ll get better milk. They’ll get better wool. I will win. No one else loses because it still grows back and the amount that I take extra is only a little bit. however, we’re all rational actors. So we’ll all do that. And then all the shepherds sneakily get their sheep on there at different times of night apparently not noticing each other, but it doesn’t matter. And we overgraze the resource until it dies and the commons becomes a desert and then the sheep all die and then everyone dies. That’s why it’s called a tragedy. And that’s what happens with resources that we all share. And it’s, what’s happening kind of in the world. And it’s sort of what happened in advertising with attention. We’re like, “let’s just get all of it we can.” But we have to be careful we don’t destroy it. And I know that sounds nonsense terming, but what I mean is reactions will happen if there’s too much supply or too much overgrazing of attention. Reactions like 20 to 30% of young people use ad-blocking technology on their laptops so they do not get served advertising. that’s an over-farming reaction, right? Places like San Paolo in Brazil, banned all outdoor advertising. All billboards now are illegal. They don’t exist. If you’ve been there, it’s kind of weird, spooky even. So used to seeing ads everywhere, when they’re gone, their absence is noticeable. But that’s because they were not responsible with it. Advertising is a self-regulated industry in most markets and increasingly what’s happened is we weren’t very responsible with it. And so things like GDPR were created to force us to be responsible in how we capture, utilize attention and data.

Adrian Tennant: Faris, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about Genius Steals, The School of Stolen Genius, or your writing, where can they find you?

Faris Yakob: So is the consultancy previously mentioned that I set up with my wife, and we do larger projects with brands, agencies, and media companies. The School of Stolen Genius is an online learning community that we have created in order to provide access to some of the thinking that we aggregate and generate for individuals who are not part of large agency structures, which is increasingly happening, and don’t have massive budgets in order to pay for huge amounts of subscriptions to huge datasets or whatever the massive holding companies can afford. That’s The SchoolOfStolenGeni.US. I am on Twitter as I mentioned more than I should be. And I’m just @Faris on Twitter @ F A R I S. And my book is available in all places that books exist or can be bought, I assume. and perhaps most maybe usefully as an intermediate measure, we have a newsletter called Strands of Stolen Genius brief bursts of inspiration of your inbox that we publish twice weekly. the first one we published, Rosie and I write it. And then every week, we curate a new contributor from our travels that we’ve met, who seems interesting in any field that’s interesting, but largely to do with creative industries, broadly, and many advertising and marketing people. So it goes out to 13 or 14,000 marketers and agency folk all over the world. It’s free. It will always be free. And it’s a good way to sort of be in touch with us and to get access to the things that are inspiring us and the people that inspire us too.

Adrian Tennant: And if you’d like to obtain a copy of Faris’s book, Paid Attention, as an IN CLEAR FOCUS listener, you’ll receive a 20% discount when you purchase online at Just enter the promo code, BIGEYE20 at the checkout. Faris, thank you very much, indeed, for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Faris Yakob: Thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure. 

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Faris Yakob, co-founder of the creative consultancy Genius Steals, and the author of this month’s Bigeye Book Club selection, Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World. As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at under insights, just select podcast. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us wherever you listen to podcasts, submit a review, or tell a friend about IN CLEAR FOCUS. It really helps us out. Thanks again for listening. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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