by Ben Malbon, co-founder of BBH Labs.


Technology … is a queer thing.

It brings you great gifts with one hand,

and it stabs you in the back with the other.

–C.P. Snow, New York Times, March 15, 1971–


There’s a battle raging, yet it’s almost Truman Show-like in its subtlety. It’s the battle between art and the algorithm. Between emotion and rationality. Between indescribable magic and perfect information.

Jim Carrey, in 'The Truman Show'

Jim Carrey, in ‘The Truman Show’

As the granular world of relevance, measurability and accountability tightens its grip on the increasingly emaciated flesh of businesses struggling to re-tool quickly enough to survive, many are rushing too quickly away from striving for the magic that has characterized the work we all admire, no matter what the decade or canvas.

As far as I know, no one is trying to kill me. Yet, I sometimes feel a little like the unfortunate hero at the center of the dystopian sci-fi thriller “Minority Report,” John Anderton. The famous mall scene in which Anderton (Tom Cruise), is assaulted by dozens of individually targeted ads — some of which, much to his horror, even loudly broadcast his name as he passes — represents a world a lot closer to ours than the fictional date of 2054.

It’s a world of perfect targeting. Optimization. Zero wastage. Absolute utility. Total accountability.

More and more of what I see, hear, read and even taste seems exceptionally cunningly targeted at me. My RSS feeds me handpicked news streams. I get perfect movie recommendations via Netflix, books I’ll enjoy via Amazon, uncannily relevant advertising when using Gmail, weirdly familiar music from Last fm. Satnav keeps me resolutely on the data-derived optimum track. And so on.

All remarkable stuff. It seems Arthur C. Clarke wasn’t far off when he noted how “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

What could be possibly be wrong with all this? In this new world where relevance — of information, of entertainment, of advertising, even of new social contacts — is increasing by the atomically measured second, all powered by the extraordinary power of the Almighty Algorithm, what are we losing?

Well, these shifts are triggering a smoothing out in our experiences, prompting a reduction in serendipity and introducing a spooky predictability to many facets of our lives. It’s becoming clear that ultra relevance comes with a hidden price. Because if everything’s relevant, then nothing’s unexpected, and if nothing’s unexpected, then nothing surprises you, and if nothing surprises you, then that’s a strange, neutralized, vanilla kind of life to lead. Think John Anderton meets Truman Burbank.

We’re talking about the end of surprise.

John Stuart Mill, writing in 1836, coined the term “economic man” in painting a picture of someone who was an ultra-rational being. The day Google was born in 1998 could be said to be the birthday of “algorithmic man” or the ultra-relevant being. Some might argue this is an inevitable cultural outcome of the fusion of technology and economics, the creeping onset of what Mill called “perfect information.” Yet, just as economic man didn’t really exist, nor does algorithmic man.

And right there is the opportunity for marketing: to deliver not just relevance, but revelation.

Surprise is the “killer” form of impact, driving engagement, and powering word of mouth. As the world slides towards increasing reverence of relevance, the opportunity is to re-commit to touching people in powerful ways that genuinely surprise them, whether with products, experiences or communications. We must re-find our ability to craft magic, to move people, to deliver the unexpected, never-seen-before experience, to blow minds and touch hearts. That doesn’t mean fighting against the algorithm; on the contrary, it could mean working with it.

How? A tiny amount of work currently does this.

AKQA’s work for Halo 3 is a brilliant example of how great interactive can genuinely move people by reframing something that they’ve seen before (the honoring of heroes) in a surprising way — in this case through alloying personalization and interactivity with emotion.

Just about anything by Jonathan Harris hits this spot on. His “We Feel Fine” from 2005 is an exploration of human emotion on a global scale. It’s a brilliant coming together of art and mathematics, a fusion of art and the algorithm, resulting in a compelling, immersive experience that touches users (still) because it is profound, simple, beautiful and occasionally funny all at the same time.

A shot from one of Aaron Koblin's awesome visualizations (
A shot from one of Aaron Koblin’s awesome visualizations (

But too little work has played in this area. Only a handful of businesses of any shape, size or persuasion seem to have succeeded in marrying the two — art and the algorithm, magic and interactivity, surprise and efficiency — in how they operate and in what they produce.

How might this be achieved?

One, creative businesses need to cherish and empower the people who understand technology, consumers’ relationships with it, and brands potential uses for it. Technology must be the catalyst of a new creativity, not just a set of new delivery channels or production options.

Two, creative businesses need to create arranged marriages between these people (the algorithmicists) and the magicians or artists. Only a fusion of these two strands of creativity at the earliest conceivable opportunity in a process will lead to the most adventurous outcomes.

Three, in an era where everything that was once solid does appear to be melting into air, creative businesses need to recommit to surprise as a potent strand of engagement. To paraphrase Ming Yeow Ng, one of the founders of, if discovery is the new cocaine, then we’d all be wise to get a whole lot better at dealing in not just relevance, but revelation.

We believe this is the opportunity for the marketing and communications industry. Exploiting the awesome power of the new world of relevance whilst creating more surprising and engaging experiences. In short, then, how can we encourage a collision between art and the algorithm?

Far from having all the answers, we have so much to learn. So more immediately, we’d really appreciate your feedback, ideas, and viewpoints.

Go on, surprise us.

(An earlier version of this post appeared on MediaPost, April 27 2009 – One correction has been made since the original post was published: I had incorrectly suggested the Halo 3 interactive work was produced by McCann when it was actually produce by AKQA; this has been amended in this version of the post)