The Coming Post-Digital Age

06 Jan,2022



Starting a new fortnightly column by advertising and marketing services veteran Ashoke Agarrwal


By Ashoke Agarrwal


Ashoke AgarrwalThe inexorable rise of digital and social media has rocked the world of mass media, marketing, and marketing communication.

However, I believe the current disruption is only the tip of the iceberg.

Media, marketing, and marketing communication professionals should prepare for a more profound disruption driven by the rapid and widespread development and adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) leading to a Post-Digital Age.

Studying the possible contours of AI in marketing and marketing communication, I have developed a concept called “Concierge Intelligence” (CI), as outlined later in this article (I had published a blog post on CI back in Feb 2021).

Over the past few months, scandals have rocked the world of social media and digital advertising, threatening the lynchpin of social media and programmatic advertising – cookie-based tracking and cookie pools – with stringent and widespread regulations.

The other critical development is a shift in the outlook of start-up capital – there is a clear trend towards favoring start-ups in deep tech areas.

Both these trends bode well for the accelerated arrival of the Post-Digital Age.

There is a growing realisation that Facebook, Google, and its kin are critical fuelers of fissiparous tendencies in societies worldwide.

Social media’s power to divide is a result of algorithms (algos in techspeak) that drive engagement, in the process reinforcing tribal tendencies and conspiracy theories.

The digital and social media giants are reluctant to change these algos, as they are the engines that drive their primary source of revenue and profits -advertising.

Change in the outlook of social media, digital media, and e-commerce giants will come when they face emergent competition from the likes of Concierge Intelligence that will usher in a Post-Digital Age.

The increasing disquiet among marketers and advertisers with social media and digital advertising effectiveness will be at the core of this emergence.

Many in the marketing community started as enthusiastic advocates of digital marketing. It seemed to hold the promise of better ROIs over the short term and more robust, interactive brand-consumer relationships over the more extended period.

However, the reality of digital marketing has belied most of these high hopes. Today, digital marketing does not represent interactive access to a more clearly defined target consumer. Instead, it obfuscates behind attribution in terms of “views” and “click-throughs”, numbers that cloud as much as they reveal.

If most marketers are dissatisfied with digital marketing, the question arises as to why the share of digital in most brands’ marketing budgets grows year on year? The reason for this inexorable growth is, I believe, two-fold.

First, the rise of digital media is weakening mass media. OTT platforms steal audiences away from linear TV, cinema, and radio. Social media and news aggregation are decimating print newspapers and magazines. It forces big brands to allocate an increasing part of their marketing budgets to digital marketing to reach their audience.

Secondly, digital marketing is growing at a pace is because of the modularity it affords. Smaller brands with smaller budgets can reach out to smaller target markets, a positive development fostering increased consumer choice. But unfortunately, it also encourages hucksterism and fraud on the flip side of the coin.

After the Arab Spring of a decade ago, social media was much ballyhooed as the force that would bring about and strengthen egalitarianism and democracy in societies across the world. Instead, in nations after nations, social media today is seen as one of the forces feeding tribalism, extremism, encouraging authoritarianism and threatening anarchy. The rallying cry of the likes of Zuckerberg and Pichai seems to be, “Surrender your data, and I will feed you, for free, the opium of tribal comfort while putting your psyche to power my advertising revenues, a la The Matrix”.

However, I believe that the page will likely turn again, and social media will get back to being a force for good over the coming decade or two. This transformation will come about under the gathering onslaught of regulators, brands, and public opinion. Under this emergent paradigm, individuals will own the data gathered through their digital footprint.

I envisage a time when a public utility like service will gather all such data and store it in a digital locker solely owned by the individual, managed by a Data Utility provider. The individual would be free to upload more information into her digital locker, including brand and shopping preferences, recent purchases and intentions, demographic details, and attitudinal batteries. Brands could approach the Data Utility and, based on anonymised information, choose to seek more information about a particular type of individuals – say, individuals who currently own a six-year-old mid-size sedan or those who have expressed an intention to purchase a luxury SUV. The Data Utility would inform the individual of the interest and the fee the brand is willing to pay for their access. The brand will be allowed a permitted level of access with explicit permission from the consumer. Blockchain technology will ensure that a significant part of this payment would go to the consumer (the actual owner of the data) and the rest to the Data Utility provider.

Central to the above ecosystem will be an AI product I call “Concierge Intelligence” that will mediate for the individual between brands and the Data Utility provider. The individual will own the Concierge Intelligence platform, much like owning a house, a car, or an electronic device.

The era of Concierge Intelligence will avoid the concerns raised by the age of marketing to bots like Alexa or Siri, posited by some technology forecasters. Instead, Concierge Intelligence will emerge as a tool for individual empowerment instead of yet another money-making and control-enhancing platform for data aggregators, data miners, marketers, or the government. As a result, Concierge Intelligence could be the next big consumer product category of the coming decades, just as the smartphone has been for the past couple of decades.

The individual will buy his Concierge Intelligence (CI) — a software application -from the market and load it onto all the devices she uses. Then, CI will get to work to learn the consumer’s interests and preferences. The individual will set the scope and depth of this learning.

CI will be mediate between the world and the individual. First, it will map the individual’s learning patterns and maximize the speed and efficacy of the individual’s learning. It will continuously keep a tab on the individual’s inherent talents and emergent capabilities and connect her with opportunities to put these talents and abilities to use, in the process not just maximizing her earnings but also increasing her sense of self-worth. Finally, it will perceive the individual’s relationship and leisure needs and help her meet them. One of the duties of CI will be as the gatekeeper to the Data Utility service and brands that seek to message and sell to the individual.

While the CI will have powerful capabilities, it will be under the total command of the individual. She can change its functionalities whenever she wants and even switch it off if she desires, much like today’s smartphones.

To my mind, CI will, over the next decade, become the most widely prevalent form of AI. I like to think of a CI as AI with soul. A form of augmented intelligence fusing an individual’s psyche, with all its complexity and humanity intact, with AI’s power, speed, and reach.


Ashoke Agarrwal is a veteran advertising professional with around four decades in advertising and marketing services. Agarrwal, a chemical engineer from IIT Mumbai and a postgraduate from IIM Bangalore, is a pro-entrepreneur with past and current ventures in market research, advertising, CGI, e-learning and brand consultancy.


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