Randall Rothenberg

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It may be just me, but the wind seems to be changing and radical ideas are afloat.

We’re now two weeks removed from the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Florida where President/CEO Randall Rothenberg blistered the crowd with a Jeremiad that was both bracing and very, very clear.  I’ll paraphrase:

This thing of ours has gotten pretty fucked up.  And if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.

This thing of ours, of course, is digital advertising and marketing.  And he’s right.  The very fact that the head of your industry organization is giving a speech called “Repair the Trust” tells you a lot.  Sure, we’ve had areas of disagreement and mushy standards for much of the last two decades.  But when the subjects were arcane things like terms & conditions, viewability and margin transparency, most of us just kept our eyes down and pushed our food around the plate.  Avoidance and obfuscation was a perfectly reasonable strategy.

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But no longer.  Because now the issue is fake news.  Remember that kid sitting in his kitchen in Macedonia pumping out fake news stories about Obama’s love child or the Papal endorsement of the Trump campaign?  Turns out we were collectively paying him.  Ouch.

The rotten system that blindly rewards page views and ad calls and shares has become the intravenous feeding tube for parasitic monsters who may realistically render the concept of truth itself irrelevant.  Fake traffic and fraudulent video numbers were bad.  Fake truth and moral relativism are much, much worse.

Randall made it very clear when he said “It’s time to get out of the fake anything business.”   Yes.  We are only as good and as moral as who our system pays and what it pays for.  Without ethical clarity, the next $50 billion in digital advertising revenue will be just so much drug money.  And each one of us has a part to play in making sure it’s not.

You see, our business is really just an average of the behaviors of our best and worst players.  It’s time to bring back the concept of shame.  If you employ the highest standards as a publisher, talk about them.  If you demand the highest standards as an advertiser, pay for them.  And whoever you are, get off the line and pick a side.

The world is watching.

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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.

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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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The F Word.

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The F WordI’m writing this from a center row at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert, where President/CEO Randall Rothenberg is lighting the place up. The conversation – no, the manifesto – is all about the F Word:  Fraud.   After years of politically safe, antiseptic dialogue about transparency, brand safety and other largely-meaningless terms, we’re finally calling our problem what it is.  It’s fraud.

According to Rothenberg, digital advertising will soon surpass broadcast as the biggest single line item on the marketers budget;  “Our challenge is no longer about growth; it’s the distribution of that growth.”  It’s raining hard, but not everybody is getting wet.  And the reason is all about our “porous, plug-and-play supply chain.”  The fact that any company – no matter how shady – can find its way into the ecosystem with relative ease.  “There’s plenty of blame to go around,” according to Randall:   from the publishers buying impressions from uninspected sources to marketers turning a blind eye to the whole issue.  Or as it was put so memorably in last week’s article in Business Insider:  “Our Industry has to stop having unprotected sex.”   I couldn’t agree more, and as one of the IAB’s earliest board members, I love the sound of leadership that I’m hearing!

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I’ve previously written about this issue in The Drift, most notably last year in light of the IAB’s full-throated defense of the third-party cookie.  I learned then, and know now, that there are a lot of complex dependencies within the ecosystem.  Unless the IAB defends the third party cookie, they cede the whole data pie to Google and Facebook; but in defending it, they keep the borders open for the potential bad actors.  Hard problem….much work ahead.  But the IAB has a sense of urgency.  More importantly, a sense of real leadership and purpose.

Language matters.  When incoming IAB Chair Vivek Shah put the word “F-R-A-U-D” on the screen yesterday afternoon that mattered a lot.  We can only deal with a problem when we leave behind the polite language of ambiguity and call it out in plain terms.  We’ve done that now.

I’ll close with something I wrote in The Drift way back in 2002“On the one hand, we have ‘the prime time Internet,’ awash with fresh content, clean environments and strong brands. On ‘the other Internet’ it’s always 1:30 in the morning and there’s nothing on but F-Troop reruns and per-inquiry spots for the Garden Weasel.”  The technology, the complexity and the stakes have all grown geometrically.  But we’re still making the same choice today.

Want to discuss these issues in a small group environment with Randall Rothenberg?  He’ll be appearing at The Upstream Seller Forum on Tuesday March 4th at the Hearst Building.  If you’re a CRO, EVP, SVP or VP of sales from a qualified company, reach out to us today for an invitationOnly a handful of seats remain. 

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The Big Tent, Revisited.

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Big Tent RevisitedI love the Interactive Advertising Bureau.  And I love Randall Rothenberg.  As someone who was among the early board members back in the mid-90s, I’m gratified and more than a little amazed at the scale and effectiveness of the organization on Randall’s watch.  Lobbyists, standards, tests, thousand-attendee conferences….the IAB is in every way a big-time trade organization.  But for whom, exactly?

Like 16th century Christianity, the IAB has reached an existential moment where it must account for the diverging visions and interests of internal factions if it’s to avoid a schism. The Anne Boleyn issue of today is the decision by Mozilla to block third party cookies by default in upcoming releases of the Firefox browser.  The IAB’s full throated defense of third party cookies —  IAB General Counsel Mike Zaneis called it a “nuclear first strike,” — has now evoked a mini-firestorm with some publishers, a flame that is being stoked by the publisher-only OPA.

You see, rightly or wrongly, some publishers believe that a world of only first-party cookies – those set by (or in direct coordination with) sites – would help them counteract the dominance of networks, resellers, exchanges and ad-tech companies.  Meanwhile, the networks and other third parties credibly argue that they are a vital accelerant and lubricant in the flow of marketer dollars onto the web and into the hands of small-medium sized websites.  And just in case the situation wasn’t complex enough, layer on the fact that publishers — the ones who would ostensibly benefit from third party cookies going away – have come to rely on those same networks and third parties for a big chunk of their monthly revenue.  “The IAB represents the sellers of interactive advertising inventory — publishers, in the parlance — plainly and simply, with no nuances attached,” according to a recent post by Rothenberg on the issue.  But every seller is not, in fact, a publisher.  So nuance still abounds.   The problem – a thorny one– is that every company who pays dues to the IAB thinks it’s their IAB.

So what’s a trade organization to do?

Perhaps  the answer – and the bulwark against further fraying of the coalition – is for the IAB to claim a more neutral mantra.   I personally have no dog in this fight.  My clients run the gamut from the biggest, most data-protective publishers to the most cookie-dependent third-party networks.  My business is about helping them sell more effectively regardless of their data position, customer base or competitive set.  I only care about the continued flow of more and more marketing dollars into digital media; I want it to keep raining so that things will grow.  I know that’s what the IAB cares most about too.  Supporting the growth of all digital spending means not having to take a hardline position on something as specific as third party cookies.  And that may ultimately be the only way to keep all the partisans fighting under the same banner.

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Or…not.

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Widely acclaimed as the best series finale in television history, the last episode of “Newhart” had Bob waking up in bed next to his wife.  That is, Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from his first sitcom, which had been canceled 12 years earlier.  The entire ten-year run of “Newhart” had — you see — been just a dream.

You wonder if Time Warner Chairman Jeff Bewkes woke up this week and rolled over to find former CEO Anne Moore on the adjacent pillow. Because the Jack Griffin era — over after just five months — must have seemed little more than a dream to Time Inc. and the rest of the media world.

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It’s often been said that big, traditional companies like Time Inc. move slowly (Disclosure that I’ve worked with both Time Inc. and Meredith, Griffin’s previous longtime employer, over the years), so the speed at which they abandoned Griffin and his mandate for change was all the more stunning.  I don’t know Jack Griffin personally and don’t have any insider knowledge of the palace intrigue, but to see a legendary media company going through this very public personality crisis is troubling.  In case you missed the story, here’s a quick chronology:

  • After many years at Meredith Corporation, including a major five-year reinvention of its publishing group, Griffin was hired by Bewkes to work similar magic at Time Inc.
  • Once at Time Inc., Griffin made some strong moves (streamlining management, bringing on IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg as the company’s first Chief Digital Officer) and a few missteps (letting the talented Kirk McDonald get away).
  • After just five months, Bewkes decides he’s seen enough and unceremoniously pulls the plug on Griffin.  Days later, Rothenberg does a 180 and goes back to his post at the IAB.

What does this say about Time Inc. and its appetite for reinvention?  One would hope this is not just a case of entrenched company lifers using their considerable survival skills to thwart change, but it’s hard not to see it that way.  Last week Advertising Age published some rather whiny anonymous comments from Time Inc. insiders about Griffin’s “style.”   Apparently he brought in consultants who called current practices “stupid” when “actually some things we were doing were pretty smart.”  There are scattered reports that he may also have hidden executives’ gym clothes and pushed a few employees into their own lockers and held them there against their will.  The whole affair sounds so petty, especially when the challenges and opportunities Time Inc. faces are so monumental.

Nobody at Time Inc. is asking my opinion, but exercising the nuclear option on Griffin’s reign sends an unmistakable signal to the media and financial world. Right or wrong, the interpretation will be that the company will only tolerate change at a manageable, incremental pace. But those are just not the times we live in.  Time Inc. doesn’t need a gentle steward, it needs a fixer.   After this whole operetta, will it ever be able to recruit another fixer?  And will the next one have any better chance of creating an appetite for change?

Those with opinions or insider knowledge of the situation, send in your comments.

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