airquotes

Last month, I met an ad tech CEO for a cup of tea. We talked about the industry and had a pleasant conversation. He talked about searching for a new buzzword to describe his company. The current one was too much like their competitors, even though the company was doing similar things. He didn’t need a phrase to help someone understand what his company was, he just needed it to be catchy and sound cool.

I swear to a lot of people that advertising technology is an interesting field. Not as many people believe me as I’d like. Advertising has become hyper-automated and personal quickly in the Internet-era, cashing in on how much more information is available about us and awkwardly walking the line between convenience and stalking.

But ad tech is drowning in jargon, stuck like this one CEO in a never-ending quest to create new words to describe similar things. Otherwise interesting companies are presented sagging under the burden of terms like “omni-channel engagement mapping,” “pay-per-face,” “web modification solution” and “inbound link marketing intelligence.”

I don’t blame anybody for switching off. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Long before computers, companies bought ads in newspapers, on radio, before movies, on TV, or in physical locations, according to vague approximations of where it felt its customers were likely to be.

The irony of ad tech is that for all the big words and new technology, it is not that much more complicated. There are three core differences between now and the olden days: ads can be bought and presented to us as we shop in real time, the information that companies have to target us is infinitely more detailed and the social nature of the Internet means that companies can try and get us to do something then and there, rather than hoping a catchy ad or a jingle will help us remember them.

Think about all of the space for advertising online as a fixed planet. Some companies – like Facebook and Google – control a lot more of it and partner up with other companies to help meter access. Other ad space is sold through a series of networks. When we’re online, companies are tagging our browsers the same way parking wardens mark your wheels with chalk. This is so they know where we go and can figure out what we like. Companies compete in auctions to advertise to us, which are so automated that it all takes place in the time it takes a page to load. Our response to these ads can be monitored closely by the number of clicks, sales or general actions they generate. Companies then look at that result and what they spent to work out a return on investment.

Conceptually the entire ecosystem is similar on mobile devices, except there there’s apps and push notifications, another avenue for companies to reach you.

It’s not that scary or dull. But advertising technologists have a want to replace the word automatic with programmatic, to refer to the amount of ads as inventory or real estate and to talk about the places where companies buy ad spaces as demand side platforms or exchanges. They then take a confusing situation and make it worse by taking terms no one really gets and using them in common language as acronyms. pSMD this. RTB that. CPC. DMP. It ends up reading like algebra.

Advertising technology sits at the corner of commerce and surveillance, a peculiar trait of the way we shop, congregate and live in 2014. Time and again, its choice of words consign it to being the awkward guy at the party, struggling to make conversation.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]