Noah Brier | January 3, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Business Reads of 2019 Edition

On digital advertising, the SATs, and office astrology

Noah here. Every year I spend way too much time putting together my favorite reads of the year. It’s a labor of love, but I’m incredibly appreciative by all the amazing folks out there writing stuff that makes me think. I finally finished this year’s list and published it on New Year’s Day. I thought I’d also post it here in increments over the next few weeks. For today I’m going to share my favorite business reads.

But first a few caveats: I’ve made an important change to the way I’m thinking about the list as compared to previous years. Whereas I was trying to catalog longform in the past, I’m much more interested in that which has stuck with me most over the last twelve months. A better description of this list, then, is my most memorable or interesting pieces of writing (I decided to leave podcasts out as I’ve put together a separate page for cataloging those). To that end, I’m calling this Favorite Reads of 2019 for simplicity’s sake. Also, it’s far from all-encompassing. For that, I’d suggest you check out’s 2019 picks. Okay, onto the list.

Why is this interesting?

Three business stories stand out as most memorable for me this year, though none of thee three that stuck most in my brain are my favorite. The first was memorable because it was infuriating. The Wall Street Journal’s story on how colleges are buying SAT-takers’ names wouldn’t be so terrible if it weren’t for the kicker: They were advertising to students they knew didn’t have the SAT-scores needed in an effort to raise their rejection rate, and thus their ranking. Disgusting. 

The second was memorable because it sounds like it would make a great plot for a heist movie. “The Fate of the World’s Largest ETF Is Tied to 11 Random Millennials” explains how the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust, with $250 billion invested, is reliant on eleven kids born in the early-90s:

It all harks back to the arcane structure used to create SPY, the first U.S. ETF, in 1993. At the time, setting up the fund as a unit investment trust solved a practical problem. Not only was it an established legal structure, it allowed the issuer to create fund units that resembled a company’s shares. But as a consequence, it required a specified termination date. So like many trusts, the fund was initially structured to expire in 25 years -- in January 2018. It was subsequently amended to peg the fund to the lives of individuals, which extended its own life. … SPY as we know it will cease to be on Jan. 22, 2118, or 20 years “after the death of the last survivor of the eleven persons” -- whichever occurs first.

Finally, the New York Times piece “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office” was memorable mostly because it said a bunch of stuff I had thought for a long time (mainly that office personality tests are bullshit). 

Personality assessments short-circuit the messiness of building what is now referred to as a “culture.” They deliver on all the complexities of interpersonal office dynamics, but without the intimate, and expensive, process of actually speaking with employees to determine their quirks and preferences. … They appeal also, perhaps, for the same reason astrology, numerology and other hocus-pocus systems do: because it’s fun to divide people into categories. 

While those three were fun and interesting, my favorite business article of the year was this long piece from The Correspondent on the sham that is much of digital advertising. (Rick Webb wrote a great WITI on it back in November.) It digs into lots of the shady stuff that exists around the digital advertising industry, but also explains that the problems are equally rooted inside the brands themselves. 

It might sound crazy, but companies are not equipped to assess whether their ad spending actually makes money. It is in the best interest of a firm like eBay to know whether its campaigns are profitable, but not so for eBay’s marketing department. Its own interest is in securing the largest possible budget, which is much easier if you can demonstrate that what you do actually works. Within the marketing department, TV, print and digital compete with each other to show who’s more important, a dynamic that hardly promotes honest reporting.

Of all 56 articles in the full list, this is the only one I wish I had written (or could plausibly imagine doing so). (NRB)

Map of the Day:

The economic center of America has been moving west over the past twenty years. “Over that period, the geographic midpoint of the country’s gross domestic product moved from just outside the small town of Steelville, Missouri (population 1,642) to the outskirts of Hazelgreen, Missouri (population unknown) about 75 miles away. That’s calculated by finding the location in the U.S. where economic output produced in any direction around it is roughly the same.”

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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