There’s Something About Mary, Or The Joy Of Decks

For many years now a certain type of person, probably someone with the word digital featured in their job title, has awaited with bated breath that time each year when a middle-aged American woman stands up and delivers a long presentation, with lots of aesthetically challenged slides, on the latest trends in the growth of the internet as the defining industrial feature of our age.

Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends presentation, first launched when she was at Morgan Stanley and continued since she moved to famous VC firm Kleiner Perkins, have been described as “legendary” and “mythic”, and like many ancient myths they are certainly epic in scope. But whereas they have been generally been received almost reverentially, this year there seemed to be a few nay-sayers.

Tom Goodwin, the Head of Innovation at media agency Zenith, posted some rather scathing things on both Twitter and LinkedIn about this year’s magnum opus. And whilst the way he phrased his complaints was on the wrong side of snarkish (and he has subsequently walked them back somewhat) he does have something of a point.

First, some of the conclusions that Meeker tries to make with the data are flawed. Take her ongoing tracking of the amount spent on online/mobile advertising versus the amount of consumer time spent on those channels and categorising it as a “$16B opportunity in USA”, as if time-spent should be the primary factor that decides a media budget.

If this were the case then toilet rolls would have ads on them, the companies selling those ads would be worth billions, and elite newspapers like the FT or Wall Street Journal, with relatively niche audiences, would have hardly any revenue. But of course the deciding factor in where ad dollars spent is, or at least should be, is how effective that particular medium is, and that doesn’t necessarily equate to time.

To take that point a little further, let’s look at where the money being spent in digital channels is going: as Meeker herself points out, a great deal of it is going to Google, with the majority of that being spent on search advertising.

But as Scott Thompson, Associate Research Director at Starcom pointed out to me recently, if one was to track what proportion of time is spent in search results versus the proportion of online advertising it accounts for, and used Meeker’s correlation of time spent and advertising budgets, then it would seem as if Google were getting an oversized share versus, for example, radio or newspapers.

That’s probably something the people working in those channels might agree with but presumably not the point she was trying to make.

Secondly, whilst there is undoubtedly some truly valuable insight in her presentation, it isn’t half hard to find these days. Back in 2011 the Internet Trends presentation ran to 66 slides. In 2013 it was 117 slides. And, this year, as Goodwin highlighted, it’s 355. That could be because there is just so much amazing data out there that Meeker needs to share. Or it could just be because, like George RR Martin or JK Rowling after they got famous, she needs a good editor.

That’s not to say that the people reading it shouldn’t take any responsibility for parsing the data and coming to their own conclusions. But in an age when our attention is in more demand than ever, what most of us need more than anything, is someone who can separate the wheat from the chaff, the insight from the data, and the signal from the noise. Unfortunately Mary Meeker seems to have stopped doing that.

As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal might have said, “I was going to write you a short letter, but I didn’t have time after reading 355 slides”.

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