Why I Exited the Attention Economy

Why I Exited the Attention Economy

Since selling TEEM to the ‘TEEM team’ at the close of 2021, many friends and colleagues have asked me why advertising was a bad fit. After all, I’d been consulting in the branding and marketing space for many years – so what was the disconnect?

The answer to this question comes down to two core issues:

The first revolves around fostering a working dynamic of trust, respect, and even friendship, with clients.

Engaging with clients as an agency felt nothing like partnering with clients as a consultant. In my consulting practice, I always felt like an extension of the internal leadership team, a valued advisor, a friend and champion of the company. I naively believed that I could carry that dynamic into the advertising arena (what with me being the same person and all).

But advertising is an archaic machine that has evolved over decades, and my individualized approach and personal ethos was powerless against the combative, distrustful nature of the agency-client relationship that dominates the marketplace. Somehow, I had become a vendor, ugh.

Getting into arguments at work

I refused to participate in the broken RFP system of winning work. In what other market space do you have to perform ¾ of the job simply to win it? I found my days occupied more with pressing deadlines, arguments about hours or money, or casting blame than building impactful brands hand-in-hand with clients. What reward does that expenditure of time and energy offer an agency leader? Especially when you went into the game with the idealized notion that you would be exercising your creative muscles, not lacing up your boxing gloves every day.

It was a dynamic I did not enjoy and was unable to shift – so I left.

The second revolves around the toxic effect of the attention economy on all of us.

Advertising as it is delivered today is irretrievably broken in my humble estimation. With ads and promotional messages and content bombarding us 24/7 at a cadence unprecedented in modern life, we are overstimulated and oversaturated. And the lie that social media platforms and search engines and digital media sites put forth that they are ‘free’ is eroding our enjoyment of life and destroying our ability to relate to each other.

Make no mistake… if something is ‘free’, money is still changing hands and there is still a product being sold. In advertising today, you – and more importantly your attention – are the product.

The philosophy behind this business model is ‘persuasive design.’ To aptly illustrate how negative and nefarious these psychological techniques can be, just know that they are borrowed from the designers of casino slot machines. They intentionally encourage compulsive behavior. The social media sites and digital platforms that drive our corrosive online culture utilize these methods to hold us all hostage, sell us things we don’t need, trick us into misusing our lives, convince us that people are stupid and the world is a scary place, and, most importantly, steal our attention from the things that really matter.

Social Media Made Me Buy It

Tech companies seize our attention and sell it to advertisers. Ad dollars are behind the relentless quest for users, the relentless battle for eyeballs, and the relentless drive to keep us online long after we should have moved on to something else – something more edifying.

Our time on this earth is finite.

I really struggled to come to terms with my role as a cog in the wheel of a machine designed to fool us into making the wrong choices with our money and our lives.

Smartphones track us every second. Data drives everything we see and hear and touch. Content algorithms place in front of us precisely what is most likely to anger, panic or rile us up. Make no mistake, although big tech talks about how they cannot control the organic content in feeds or the online groups that foster hate and misinformation, that very misinformation, digital addiction and doom scrolling are what sell ads. They have intentionally designed their interfaces and content to bring out the worst in us and hold us captive online.

If you have made it this far into my rant, congratulations. I’ll close by saying that I am consciously making different choices in my own personal use of time. You will not see me posting pictures of my dinner or a sunset selfie for quite some time. Rather, just know that I am enjoying my REAL LIFE behind the scenes and abstaining from a role in the gamification of our precious attention and experiences.

Take a new path

In addition, I have re-committed to a career path that does not capitalize on the slow erosion of society and the destruction of people’s autonomy and wellness.

I love consulting. And I’m happy to be back in a state of flow doing work I enjoy. The flexibility and freshness of each new project, and the reward of championing the dreams of my clients and their teams from a position of advocacy and partnership is invaluable.

I encourage you to take active control over your time and attention. To resist distraction, adhere to your own personal compass, and really experience your family, friends, environment, entertainment, travel and work. You know, in the real world.

Onward and upward.

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