Cobras and click-through rates have more in common than you think. I'll admit a venomous snake and a media metric aren't easy bedfellows, but they share a single bond. Both have been the subject of spectacularly shortsighted strategies.
The cobra got there first, lending its name to an economic concept with which Robert Chambers may be familiar1. Our reptile friend is the star of a (most likely anecdotal) story about a colonial British policy that failed to separate value from numbers. In the 19th century administrators in Delhi placed a bounty on cobra skins to reduce the risk to residents. At first the scheme performed well, then canny customers realised they could farm cobras and exponentially increase their return. Upon discovering this underground cobra economy the administrators promptly ended the bounty. Vendors abandoned their inventory and unleashed a flood of now worthless, but still very venomous, cobras onto the streets.
As I sit here hundreds of years later, scrolling through a Twitter feed filled with examples of an ad-tech industry compromised by its own opaque practices, I'm reminded of the unique bond the cobra and click-through rate share. They're both examples of the myopia Chambers describes - the unfortunate victims of strategies that conflated statistics with success. Clicks are cobra skins, a number we can count but not necessarily a number that counts. Thankfully the best agencies treat CTR as measure not a meaningful outcome. However the digital dilemma of what to measure and what matters has marked the entire industry. The same shortsighted strategy that unleashed snakes onto the street threatens to erode client trust in agencies and obscure the value we create for brands.