Online Advertising News

The Horse’s Mouth.

Having topped the last two Drifts with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, respectively, I feel well prepared to explore yet another elusive, almost mythical creature.  Sightings are rare and fleeting and those in our industry often end up speculating wildly about its very nature.  I’m speaking, of course, about the consumer.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by PubMatic,which empowers publishers with one holistic platform to sell advertising more intelligently.

Next Tuesday, July 19th, I’ll be moderating a very unique panel at Evidon Empower, a conference all about privacy and data security.  Along with the agency leaders, technologists and government officials we might expect, our closing panel will feature consumers – actual civilians – telling the industry what they think about privacy and the value exchange they get for all that data and targeting.  Over the past week I’ve had phone calls or detailed email exchanges with all six of the consumers who’ll be on stage with me.  I won’t tip what’s coming; I’m not even sure what’s coming myself!  But I’m sure the discussion is going to be nuanced, very candid, and hopefully very challenging to the audience.

I’ve gone on record challenging the idea that we have a right to target ads to the consumer.  This is one of the areas I’ll explore with the panel.  Are they generally OK with the idea that their data and past behaviors will be used to help select ads for them to see?  And how do they feel about the idea that “ads are keeping the internet free?”  Do consumers really think that way or is that just received wisdom and rationalization on our part?  I also intend to play a version of “Who Do You Trust?” to see how comfortable they feel with various online companies.  Who do they think does the best job of caring for their information, Facebook or Google?

Over the years I’ve moderated dozens of panels at industry events.  I get up for them all, but I’m genuinely excited about how different this one promises to be.  When I look at our business, I see an industry that’s still challenged to find a sustainable business model that truly puts consumer interest up front.  Good enough privacy and pretty OK data policies will just never be enough anymore.  I think the people at Evidon get this and that’s why I was happy to throw in on this panel.

What questions would you like to ask if you were in my seat?  And if you’re in New York this coming Tuesday around 5 pm, you should try to cadge an invitation to Evidon Empower.  If nothing else, it’s going to be something different.

The Morning After Regulation.

So now the beast has begun to emerge from the shadows.  The return of Voldemort is nigh and the call is going out to all the Death Eaters to assemble to do the Dark Lord’s bidding.  Yes, Rep. Rich Boucher (D-Virginia) has released his draft of the online privacy bill for public comment.  Let the rending of garments and the gnashing of teeth begin!

Let’s all take a breath.

I’m not suggesting for a second that this isn’t a critical issue for the online ad industry or that such a bill wouldn’t have far-reaching effects.  I’m also not suggesting it won’t pass in some form, and soon.  (I said as much in a blog post last month.)    I just think that the ultimate outcome end up being the kind of middle-of-the-road legislation that ends up delighting nobody.  Already that sense of “have half” compromise seems to be present in the draft and further public comment and lobbying pressure will no doubt keep the pendulum from swinging too far one way or the other.

What I want to talk about in this column is what happens after this particular piece of middling legislation happens and what our industry’s response should and should not be.  What I hope we don’t do is wipe our collective brow and just go back to business as usual.  Whether the Boucher bill comes down hard or not, we as an industry have a problem.  For too long we’ve dismissed consumer privacy advocates as a fringe group.  But as we’ve learned from countless other movements, every issue has its season in the sun.  I would like to see us make consumer privacy a cause within the industry.  We should be acknowledging that there are bad actors in our midst and root out that behavior the way a great police force purges rogue cops.  We should challenge ourselves to truly justify each new level of targeting and data manipulation in terms of benefit to the consumer.  To do less than that is to miss the whole point of the current debate and simply invite even more draconian legislation later.

Now is the time to get our own house in order.  It’s not only the right thing to do morally, it’s the smart thing to do for the sustainability of the business.

The Vast Luddite Conspiracy Theory

I’ve long been in favor of the IAB taking a more muscular and vocal position in the online privacy debate.   Given the blink-of-an-eye in which Congress gave life to the National Do Not Call Registry (“…Telesales business?  Bu-bye!”), there is little doubt in my mind that regulation of online data and targeting is a very easy “yes” for both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.  But in following the group’s  work on this issue and  reading the reports from last week’s IAB Annual Meeting in Carlsbad, I can’t help but feel that the view from the bunker may be getting a little narrow.   While I’m certain it’s playing well to the membership, I think the IAB’s efforts are falling short in several important ways.

The Conspiracy Theory.  According to IAB President Randall Rothenberg, the drumbeat for regulation is “… happening because well-organized anti-business and anti-advertising groups have gotten the ear of regulators and politicians and purposely inflamed fears about our industry.”  This premise sidesteps consumers’ legitimate questions and privacy concerns and instead blames outside agitators for all the trouble.  This may have played well in Carlsbad, but it won’t last two seconds on Main Street.

The Value Exchange. Inherent in the IAB’s case to consumers is that better targeting will equal better and more relevant advertising.  But let’s be honest:  as an industry we’ve never delivered on that promise.  The creative assets are simply not scalable enough. The more we rely on this premise, the worse we end up looking.

Advertising Is Creepy. Whether any of us like it or not, consumers do not trust, love or crave advertising.  On a good day they tolerate it as a means of getting something else they want; free content, discounted service, whatever.  While trying to satirize the latent fear and loathing of online advertising, I fear the IAB has buried its real message beneath a bunch of banners and skyscrapers that reiterate the very sentiment that’s driving the revolt.

For me, the real story we should be telling is this:

  1. You like the free internet that just keeps getting better and faster and deeper all the time?  Just like basic cable, this whole thing needs to be underwritten by companies that want to sell you stuff.  That said….
  2. Some anonymous stuff about the kinds of sites you visit and the stuff you show interest in is going to be used anonymously to help those companies spend their marketing money more effectively to support the free internet you like (see point 1.)
  3. This “Cookie” thing that you’ve been hearing so much about?  Think of it like your EZ Pass, the magnetic strip on the back of your ATM card or the scanner in the supermarket.  We all trade little bits of anonymity for convenience in the ‘real world’ every day.  And you’re still far more anonymous online than you’ll ever be at the A&P or on the New York Thruway.
  4. If you feared the heater in your house was spitting out Carbon Monoxide, who would you call:  Your heating guy or your city councilman?  Keeping your data and identity safe and secure online is, in the end, good business.  And the business people who build websites and deliver ads to those websites all have the very best technologists working for them.  They’re just as vested in the long term success of the internet as you are.  Let’s not let “the cure” kill the patient.

While we’re at it, can we once and for all bury the term “targeting?”  Let’s go survey a million consumers and see if we fine even one who says that’s a good thing.  Words matter.

Freedom.  Access to information.  Fear of being controlled. Self determination.  These can be the issues that support the development of online marketing.  But so far they’re only the weapons being used to defeat it.

Summer Reading

“The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.”

~ William Gibson

Summertime, for me, always includes an annual rite of intellectual refueling. I try to work through a dozen or so books of different tone, outlook and subject matter in the hope of grabbing a handful of key ideas and themes to share and build on in the long, cold months ahead. This summer I lit on two titles that touched something quite deep for me, and it was in the synthesis of these books that some very powerful ideas emerged. The first book is all about the visionary past; the other takes a historical look at our future.

By Gary Wolf

Being an early “Wiredling” myself – I opened the company’s New York operation back in 1994 – I was insatiably curious about this one. As the title implies, this is more than just another cartoonish ’90s tale of wretched excess. Gary Wolf looks back on the early days of Wired Magazine and HotWired with a mix of wistfulness and affection; not necessarily for the people involved, but certainly for the outrageously big ideas they espoused. Wired was always about far more than the Internet. It was about the power of digital technology and networks and how they would completely reshape the way we live. This may all seem a bit obvious now — perhaps even quaint. But remember that Louis Rossetto was saying all this in 1993, a year before the first commercial web browser would become available and e-mail was used by only about 3% of the population. He may as well have been wearing animal skins and eating locusts in the desert.

Ten years later the web is ubiquitous, hand-held computers are commonplace, digital editing has reshaped the film industry and… and the founders of Wired are virtual non-entities today. So there’s an element of tragedy here as well. How could Rossetto have been so right about so many of the big ideas and yet unable to parlay that vision into business success and intellectual triumph? (Despite being the very first commercial website, HotWired was — ironically — slow to embrace the true nature of the web; it limped along and was ultimately sold to Lycos. The assets of Wired Magazine were sold to Conde Nast and Rossetto and his partner, Jane Metcalfe, were cashiered and shown the door.) In the pages of Wired: A Romance, you’ll get all the details. But the truth is that the founders of Wired were not so much ahead of their time as they were ahead of the generation that would end up living their vision. Which leads me to title number two:

By Neil Howe and William Strauss

Last month I had the pleasure of working with Yahoo! to plan
“Born to Be Wired,” an advertiser conference and research initiative exploring the relationship that today’s teens and young adults have with digital media and technology. To help understand this generation, we brought in Neil Howe, who – along with co-author William Strauss – virtually coined the term “Millennials” (the generation born between 1982 and 2002.) In listening to Neil and in reading this fascinating book, I began to finally understand who the “digital vanguard” would really be – and why those Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who gave life to Wired and voice to the big ideas couldn’t take them further than we did.

Howe and Strauss are historians and economists, so in exploring the nature and interplay of these generations they take a long view…and they back up their case with numbers. The first thing they tell you about the Millennial generation is that the mainstream media have it all wrong. While the media obsesses about Columbine, Ecstasy and Marilyn Manson, youth violence, teen pregnancy and high-risk behaviors are all on the decline.

Statistically, this is a generation that’s well grounded, focused and optimistic about the future. And why shouldn’t they be? Starting in the early 1980s – the age of the mini-van with the Baby-on-Board sticker – we started nurturing and doting on this generation in a manner that hadn’t been seen in nearly 100 years. And we haven’t stopped yet. But please don’t call them “Generation Y.” Millennials are radically different from Generation X, a group characterized by relative isolation and disillusionment. (As we get worked up about the music, movies and TV that Millennials consume, it’s important to remember that it’s all being financed, produced and written by Baby Boomers and Generation Xers.)

Millennials are also the first generation to grow up surrounded by the web and all forms of digital media and appliances. The “Born to Be Wired” research study, commissioned by Yahoo! and Carat Interactive, found that Millennials see the web as the center of their media universe…the starting point and connective tissue for a radically different pattern of information and entertainment.


The creation of Wired and HotWired ten years ago is an interesting narrative. But it’s even more fascinating as an allegorical tale of generations. Louis Rossetto – a Baby Boomer – saw the media experience as something to be controlled. “What people want from HotWired is our point of view, our mix, our insight, our personality.” To Louis, the web was the new Guttenberg press and he was in the business of hammering out a new kind of broadsheet.

Much of the tension in “Wired: A Romance” stems from the generational battle between Boomer Louis and the wry Gen Xers of “the Grotto,” where HotWired was conceived and created. (Many of the bright lights of HotWired were, in fact, creating their own sites on the side, stealing not only Louis’s time, but also a fair amount of his bandwidth.) But in my opinion, they didn’t get it right either. To the Xers, the web was a megaphone for pure self-expression, self-satisfaction and irony. “Look at me! Look at how clever I am!”

Little did we know in 1994 that the first members of the real “digital vanguard” – those who would realize Wired’s vision of the world – were only in middle school at the time. The first Millennials are graduating from college this year and to them the web isn’t about publishing or protest; it’s just the center of the universe, the foundation for all they do, learn and say. Millennials also tend toward a higher level of cooperation, collaboration and teamwork than those in Gen X, which is borne out in their use of cell phones, IM, blogs and more.

Marketers and media purveyors who appeal to teenagers, tweens and younger kids have already experienced the tectonic shift in media usage and media attitudes among their customers. As the Millennial generation slides into young adulthood, its true social, financial and cultural impact is just beginning to be felt.

Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing today, please know that you were right about all the big ideas. And know that your kids are the ones who will make it all happen.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver