Kurt Vonnegut famously said “everything changes”. And in marketing, that change is usually for the worse. Andrew Chen, former head of Rider Growth at Uber, coined his “Law of Shitty Click Through Rates” way back in 2012. And like a decent wine, or a very stinky cheese, it has aged well. Boiled down, it states that once you find something that works, the more you use it, the less effective it gets. Email open rates, display advertising click through rates and guerilla tactics all fall afoul of this type of channel fatigue or burnout. 

Zero day marketing exploits are those which find existing platforms and subvert them for profitable demand, however – this requires a change in mindset – one from ‘rinse and repeat’ scalable efforts, to a sustained commitment to novelty and subversiveness. And like any decent super villain, you’re going to run aground if you start bragging about your ingenious plans to all and sundry. 

Take for example, the use of PR as a means to build white hat backlinks for increased domain authority by SEO’s. In our Jude Law case study, this mechanism delivered exceptional SEO returns for well over three years. In 2013, 1 in 5 press hits delivered a high value follow backlink. By 2016 this was more like 1 in 10. Publishing platforms started to recognise the inherent value of their ‘link juice’ (don’t grimace, we didn’t call it that) and increased their internal skills to capitalise on the opportunities presented by PageRank sculpting. Now it’s far more likely that a media platform will keep links internally, linking back to another mention of that brand on their own domain, rather than linking out. 

Reverse Graffiti (aka clean graffiti or clean advertising) first appeared in 2006. It was guerilla marketing at its best. Clever, creative, cheap and effective. The first large-scale work was a street art piece in Sao Paulo, by Alexander Orion. A multitude of skulls, clean washed on to the walls of dirty tunnels to highlight the impact of pollution. Officials couldn’t (despite their best efforts) find a reason to arrest him. And so they did the next best thing – they cleaned the tunnels.  

By 2015, the tactic of clean graffiti was widespread. GCHQ (who recruit for M15 in the UK) covered Shoreditch in recruitment ads recruiting intelligence officers inciting threats of legal action from local authorities – and significant national coverage in publications like the Telegraph.

Of course, once it’s been done once, the platforms that are being subverted will strive to patch the vulnerability. We enjoy this particularly subversive tactic because it’s more robust than most to litigate against. When the person operating the mechanism is actually making the world a little bit better, rather than worse, it’s harder for normative systems to squash them.  

However, just like any other smart new idea, it’s still subject to channel decay. Systems at scale will adapt.  While authorities have tried found bylaws that can be brought to bear, the actual truth is, it’s just no longer novel. Now IKEA, Starbucks and Specsavers are just as likely to use this tactic as a climate change activist or a street artist. It’s not longer remarkable, because everything changes. 

Why Chen got it Wrong

In 2012 when Chen first wrote about shitty click throughs, he used display ads and email rates to support his law. He got the display ads decay spot on. They’ve been in decline since day one. The first ever display ad, published on an early version of Wired.com in October 1994, boldly asked: 

“Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE? YOU WILL@ and delivered click through rates of 44%. In today’s market, a decent display campaign might only deliver 0.02% CTR. Unsurprising, given that the average internet user is subject to thousands of banner ads per month. Novelty fades, and of course as things scale, relevance reduces. 

However, there’s a solid chance that display ad CTR’s will increase in the coming years, not least because subversive actors are making use of established systems and new technologies to increase noticeability and effect. For example, Google and Facebook now use contextual analysis of personal content to field highly targeted ads based on things you’ve mentioned in your email and chat. Retargeting uses Cookies to track you around the web, fielding ads for things you might have abandoned mid-shop. And targeted ads are absolutely being generated based on conversations you’re having on video and voice calls. Whether we’re comfortable with this level of personalization is almost irrelevant, what is true however is that highly personalised, relevant ads are more likely to be clicked on than the ‘spray and pray’ approach. 

Chen’s Email Open Rate example does not actually support his ‘Law of Shitty Click Through Rates”. Despite his oft cited data, email open rates haven’t really declined. 

His example used data from 2007 – 2009, stating that rates fell from 14% to 11%. This does not correlate to broader, verifiable data from the same time. Generally, open rates worldwide increased over this period, and remained relatively stable for many years. Taking a 20 year view, email open rates have behaved cyclically, with small drops followed by 3 to 5 years of sustained growth. This may well be down to email adoption, mobile penetration and overwhelming increase in internet usage worldwide. In 2000, 413 million people could access the internet. By 2016 that was 3.4 billion. And of course the Pandemic accelerated these figures beyond anything that had been forecast previously. 

Despite using a terrible example, Chen’s Law is still overwhelmingly valid with respect to most marketing exploits. Marketing channel burnout is real. Novelty fades, everything at scale is less effective, and in order to think like a zero day marketer, you need to uncover fresh exploits that haven’t been used before. However, there are some things that you can do, to decelerate channel decay, especially for those exploits you personally uncover. Here’s how: 

Slowing Channel Decay

There are several ways you can extend the lifespan of your subversive tactics.

1: Never take off the mask!

This one is more superhero than supervillain, but a sense of intrigue is an essential part of longevity. Keeping to the graffiti theme, there are over 21 million results for “Who is Banksy”. Part of the longevity of his brand (and the desirability of his work) is the mystery surrounding his name. 

2: Treat your tactic like an STD. 

That means keep it to yourself. No matter how clever, or smart your hack is, don’t explain how you did it. Don’t put your name on it, and don’t enter awards. Don’t give talks about it at Startup Grind and don’t blog about it on your substack. 

3: Go hard or go home. 

If you’ve managed to find a zero day exploit, don’t sit on it, just get on it. Like any good idea, it’s bound to be copied sooner rather than later. Or patched. So you have a limited amount of time to generate benefits. If it’s working, double down. 

4: Steal from the rich. 

Zero day exploits have a half life. It might be years, months or just weeks. For the duration of the exploit, divert resources from recurring revenue tactics to maximise the short term benefits of your exploit. You can always bounce them back afterwards. You never know, you might learn more about the ROI of your ‘recurring’ tactics, when you cut their budgets. 

5: Know when to fold them

As any good poker player will know, there comes a time when you have to throw in the towel. Don’t be the guy on the skis, looking down at the shark, thinking “I gotta fire my agent”. Once an exploit has run its course, have a process for shutdown. And then, if you really, really need to brag about how clever you were, do it once you’ve gotten clean away. 

To be subversive, you need to think like an inventor. Or if you take a game theorists approach, like a perturbator; A person who causes a deviation in the a system, moving something from it’s normal path or state, into a new one. It also sounds like a horny little dinosaur, which you could also be, if you really wanted to. 

An inventor, or a perturbator will steal from all walks of life to find new ways of making things happen. Just like Steve Jobs stole the idea of the walkman to make the iPad, or Tupperware hijacked the dinner party to sell burp boxes, you too can hijack, steal, borrow or downright rob to find your own zero day exploit. And once you’ve done it once, just keep doing it!


All effective marketing efforts will decrease over time, because of channel burnout. You can slow the decay of channels, but the only way to reverse them is to rethink them, subversively. Don’t do it once, do it all the time.