Asking Y!

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Asking YI try not to spend too much time looking back at history in The Drift (unless you count the arcane references to jazz legends and ex-presidents).  But this week I want to use the space talking about the period of time during which Yahoo! ruled our world:  not out of a sense of gauzy nostalgia, but rather because the history illuminates very current truths about our business today and tomorrow.

I’m now in my 23rd year in the digital advertising and marketing business: I sold my first web ads the year Yahoo! was born but before it actually launched as a website.  So I’ve gotten to watch lots of cycles unfold, many companies rise and fall.  Those whose perceptions of Yahoo! were shaped during the Marissa Meyer era can’t imagine the sheer domination that the company once enjoyed.  Watching Yahoo! compete back then with the likes of MSN and a pre-Armstrong AOL was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters dismantle the Washington Generals for the umpteenth time.  (Yes, Yahoo! was at the same time providing a cozy incubator for Google’s nascent search business, but few in the business really imagined Google as a threat to Yahoo! at that point.)  Yahoo! was the center of gravity, the single most heavily trafficked page on the web.  It was hegemony writ large.  So what happened?

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by AppNexus. The AppNexus Publisher Suite helps maximize monetization for Publishers today with tomorrow’s technology through integrated, intelligent, and open ad serving and programmatic selling solutions.

Books have been written (and more surely will be) about the rise and demise of Yahoo!  So here, during the week of Yahoo’s fire-sale to Verizon, just a few thoughts.

The Founders Chose to Live in Middle Earth.  Jerry Yang and David Filo – but mostly Jerry Yang – neither fully committed to running the company forever (like Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook) nor ceded real control of the business operation to a competent outsider (as Sergey and Larry did with Eric Schmidt at Google.) This prevented the company from ever forming a real vision and started a parade of half-empowered CEOs and ambivalent decision making.

They Watched the Money and Not the Consumer.  In terms of advertising revenue, Yahoo! crushed it year after year.  This gave senior management too much freedom to muse and obsess about pet projects and the now-lost search battle with an emergent Google.  Had the company been under existential financial pressure, perhaps they would have gotten closer to their consumers and where they were really going in the near future.  A good crisis might have really helped.

Yahoo! Believed Tomorrow Would be a Bigger Version of Today.   Each generation thinks the next will be a slightly different version of their own:  a little more entitled, a little better with tech, a little less respectful, yada yada.  And at the height of its dominance during a business era, it’s natural for a company to see the future as a little more mobile, a little more social, a little more video-driven, yada yada.  Perhaps Yahoo! saw things this way? Perhaps they never considered a radically different world that ignored desktops and page views?

Yahoo! is now, in almost every sense, history.  But in its wake, let’s consider whether our own companies might be unwittingly walking the same path.

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Hidden Fees.

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Hidden FeesSo the ANA just dropped the other shoe.  But it looks like it’s falling right on the toes of the marketers themselves.

Last month in this space I posted “End of Days,” about the scathing 58-page report the ANA commissioned and released on the bad behavior and lack of transparency across ad agencies.  Now comes the second phase of the report, with a title that had to be written by a committee:  “Media Transparency: Prescriptions, Principles, and Processes for Advertisers.”  Since the name of the report sounds like such a snooze, let me sum it all up quickly:

#caveatemptor – let the buyer beware.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by AppNexus. The AppNexus Publisher Suite helps maximize monetization for Publishers today with tomorrow’s technology through integrated, intelligent, and open ad serving and programmatic selling solutions.

The inescapable conclusion here is that it’s up to the marketers themselves to police what they’re paying for and what they’re getting.  As AdExchanger put it so succinctly, “While advertisers believe their agencies are obliged to act in their best interests, agencies largely see their duties within the scope of a contract.” In other words, you can forget all that “partner” bullshit: the agency is running a business and does not infer a fiduciary responsibility to the customer.

The inclusion and emphasis on “fiduciary” is mine, and it’s an intentional bridge to the currently-broken relationship between consumers and financial advisers.  In case you missed it, national treasure John Oliver served up a breathtaking analysis of the hidden fees that are loaded into the typical investor relationship on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”  Most consumers wrongly infer that their financial analyst (or financial adviser or financial consultant or wealth manager or…there are a bunch of these) has a fiduciary duty to act in the investors best interests.  But when you read the fine print, only a very select and legally explicit subset of these advisers do.  It’s up to the consumer to ask hard questions, never assume anything, and ultimately take responsibility for what they are buying.

And so it is with marketers.  Who is going to help those marketers buy, inspect and verify the true and valuable audiences in which they’re investing their shareholders money…now that’s another story.  Will it be the same agencies and buying groups they savaged just four weeks ago?  Or is there an opportunity for publishers, technology and service companies to step into the void?  The answer may characterize what the buying of media looks like for at least the next decade.

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Fixing Fractions.

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Swinging_strikeoutI regularly quiz my customers on fractions.  Specifically I want to know about ‘the win rate.’

Your sales organization answers dozens – if not hundreds – of RFPs every year.  You turn on the proposal machine, engage your creative and/or marketing people, and generally draw down company resources and good will in order to do battle with a fixed set of competitors.

And for what?   If you’re like others in our industry, the answer is 17 percent.  Go to market a hundred times and you’ll win 17 deals.  Be twice as good as everybody else, you’ll win 34.   So if you are awesome… you still lose two of every three times your organization competes.  If you’re OK with this – and you think your organization can live with these fractions – then stop reading now and get back to your day.  If not, read on.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by AppNexus. The AppNexus Publisher Suite helps maximize monetization for Publishers today with tomorrow’s technology through integrated, intelligent, and open ad serving and programmatic selling solutions.

There are two ways to fix the broken fraction that is your win rate.  You can continue to try to make the top of the fraction — the numerator –- bigger.  “Let’s not be satisfied winning 34 percent of the deals!  We won’t settle for anything less than 40 percent!”  Good luck with that.  Buyers today are armed with tons of information before they ever engage with you.  And it costs them less than nothing to invite way too many companies into the competition for their business.  A buyer sending out an RFP in 2016 doesn’t even have to buy a stamp:  ‘Control/V’ puts the RFP in to your inbox.

The other way to fix your fraction is to make the denominator– the bottom number – smaller.  Simply being more selective about where, when and on what basis you are going to compete can have an outsize impact on your win rate.  Ask yourself these questions:  how many deals did we pursue last year that we now wish we’d never gone after?  What did those customers or deals have in common?  Had we screened and qualified them better, how many could we have walked away from with zero financial impact on our bottom line? What rules can we write to fix our denominator, which is almost certainly much bigger than it needs to be?

Sellers and sales leaders may reject this thinking for one of two reasons.  First there’s the belief that it’s really a volume game and the more you compete for, the more you win.  In my experience, that’s a load of crap.  Chasing flawed business just taxes your organization while adding nothing to the top line.  Then there’s the irrational fear among sellers that they’ll be somehow blackballed by buyers if they don’t dutifully submit best efforts on every single RFP.  Like most behaviors rooted in fear, this one simply doesn’t stand up either.

Swinging at every pitch does not raise your batting average.  Quite the contrary.  Bring some sanity and judgement to your process and start qualifying prospects.  The P&L you save may be your own.

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It’s About Time.

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It's About TimeAs we’re away on vacation this week, we are rerunning this timeless post from 2014 on — time.  We’ll go dark next week and return with fresh content the week of July 11th.  We want to send special thanks to Krux, our underwriter for much of the past six months, as this marks then end of their current sponsorship run.

When I work with managers and sellers in our business there’s one issue that almost always comes up: Time. Finding it, managing it, understanding where it goes. Our business may not necessarily be more intense or frenetic than many others, but it can seem that way. And the very tools that are supposed to help us control time and manage productivity often have just the opposite effect.

I can’t solve all of your issues with the calendar and the clock, but if you’re one of those who ends up asking “So what the hell did I end up doing all day?” at 6 pm, here are a few ideas.

Take Back the First Hour. Millions of American workers start their day on email. Tragic mistake. Instead of a plan for the day or some much needed creative time, we go north to south through the inbox. We priority communication based on who wrote to us most recently. 15 or 20 minutes in, we start seeing the replies to our replies. Most of us never recover. Instead, declare a moratorium for the first 60 minutes of the day (OK, a half hour for the seriously addicted.) Use that “pre-mail” block of time to set priorities, make a plan, or maybe just think about a problem or opportunity.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Krux. Krux helps more than 180 of the world’s leading media companies and marketers grow revenue and deepen consumer engagement through more relevant, more valuable content, commerce, and media experiences. Industry analysts have repeatedly named Krux a leader and visionary in the data management space, citing its agility, innovation, and independence. Download the reports today to learn more.

Opt out of the String. People CC you on email strings unnecessarily for lots of reasons; sometimes just because they want you to know they’re ‘working.’ Unless you tell them otherwise, they’ll keep doing it. Respond to the string with a comment and they think you actually like it. So tell them already. “Thanks for copying me, but please drop me from the string now. I know you guys can handle this without me.”

Does it Have to Be a Meeting? One thing that kills the calendar and deadens the soul is the proliferation of meetings within companies. There are too many of them, they include too many people, and they almost always lack any productive framework or focus. People are late, they are distracted while there, and they end in confusion and ambivalence. Once you start to push back on meetings – “I’m not sure I need to be part of this?”… “Why do you need me there?” – you start to realize that much of what’s been drawing you into the perpetual meeting is nothing more than fear and inertia.

…and Does it Have to be 30 Minutes? Why do we always meet around a conference table in 30 or 60 minute blocks? Good question. Try the 5/15 meeting instead: A stand up meeting that lasts no less than 5 but no more than 15 minutes. The 5/15 must be centered on a question to be answered or an issue to be solved, and whoever calls the 5/15 must send the question in advance.

Account for Just One Day. It’s an old bromide, but it’s true. Write down everything you do for a single day. It’s eye opening. Only when you get some sense of where the time goes, you can’t begin to control it.

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Ad Blocking and True Things.

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Ad blocking and True ThingsI’m not in Cannes this week, but I’m following the news and views from here on the rocky coast of Maine.  Like this recap of the ad blocking panel led by IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg.  I paid particular attention to this one because in the recent past I’ve admired Randy’s full-throated call-out of ad blocking companies as pirates, parasites, extortionists and worse.  In defense of publisher revenues and security, he goes full Heisenberg, and that’s as it should be.

The Cannes panel — “Block You: Why World Class Creativity Will Obliterate Ad Blocking” – focused not so much on the miscreants of ad blocking, but on how the Don Drapers of the world will begin rendering ads that are so targeted and creative and desirable that ad blocking will be rendered moot.   The tipping point – highlighted in the article’s headline – is the abomination that is the current state of mobile advertising.  Whatever problems we had on the desktop will only get much worse as attention and time shift to the smallest screen.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Krux. Krux helps more than 180 of the world’s leading media companies and marketers grow revenue and deepen consumer engagement through more relevant, more valuable content, commerce, and media experiences. Industry analysts have repeatedly named Krux a leader and visionary in the data management space, citing its agility, innovation, and independence. Download the reports today to learn more.

Two things can be true at the same time:  yes, ad blockers are opportunistic d-bags and yes, we also need to do a better and more imaginative job of helping marketers engage consumers regardless of what screen they’re glued to.  But since we’re doing all this truth-telling, let’s add a couple more.

True thing number three is that ad blocking is just one of the many symptoms of a digital ad business built on the flawed premise of unlimited supply – the idea that more ads in more places is always part of the answer. As I posted in this space last October, we’ve had 20 years of infinite growth in page views, ad calls and impressions, and today none of it’s all that impressive.  Today’s business is plagued by non-viewable impressions, fraud, ad blocking and the perception of agency sleight of hand that drove the recent ANA/K2 Transparency report.  It might just be time for us to consider a business that leverages scarcity instead.

The final true thing is that the answer to too much advertising isn’t just better advertising. I’ve argued that we’re entering a fundamentally new era in which ‘advertising’ has become a low-value cost center – a commodity whose expense is to be managed by unsentimental procurement people.  It’s not time to fix advertising; it’s time to reinvent our approach to creating value for marketers and consumers…to work with the entire palette of marketing disciplines and tools.

The day we all embrace post-advertising strategy and creativity is the day ad blocking becomes completely irrelevant.

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