Online Advertising

Adaptation.


The world has already changed. The scientists have invented, the consumers have decided, the marketers are voting with their checkbooks. It’s only us – those who sell and buy advertising – who cling to anachronistic systems and practices.

Reading that first paragraph you may think I missed the programmatic decade. I didn’t.

Programmatic automation of commodity media buying was the asteroid that struck our genteel, structured world, forever changing the climate for agencies and publishers alike. But a dozen years after the big programmatic strike, most agencies and publishers still have the automation walled off and operating in its own island ecosystem. Meanwhile, the principal members of the tribe – the expensive sellers, buyers, creatives, account managers and others – have resisted the kind of radical species adaptation that the altered world demands.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Bionic for Ad Sales, which automates ad sales lead generation with software that pitches your ad inventory to hundreds of media planning teams while they are making media buying decisions. To learn more, go to bionic-ads.com/seller.

For one thing, we still – for the most part – rely on the anachronistic rhythms of a rapidly disappearing business. Languid planning cycles, RFPs, campaigns and annual upfronts were relevant in a world of closing dates, air dates, a fixed number of media providers and a predictable pool of available inventory. Today, everything that’s standard, known or predictable is transacted by machines – or soon will be.

Challenged to now manage more strategic and complicated marketing services – content creation, influencers, content marketing, events – many media shops have simply gone back to the much-maligned RFP. And while simultaneously railing against it, many publishers build their entire strategy – a strategy of waiting and responding – around this archaic system. Add to this our collective failure of imagination about how to integrate programmatic and high-touch solutions into harmonious programs. It’s not a pretty picture.

To radically adapt our professions as buyers and sellers would be to abandon the campaign mentality and embrace a perpetual cycle of problem solving and iteration. It would lead us to dismiss the illusion of budget stability and the silos and swim lanes it fosters. It would drive us to create and commit to new processes and structures for operating in what’s now a mostly-unstructured world. Our professional lives will be spent proactively, left of budget and in service to marketers, the products they sell, and the customers they serve.

Adaptation is hard. But extinction is permanent.

We are currently booking a limited number of team workshops for late Q4 and Q1 2020. To discuss what you might want for your team, reach out to us today. The consult is free.

 


The First Week of the Next 25 Years.


As we began the second quarter-century of digital marketing on Monday, I’m choosing to republish an essay I was invited to write for the University of Florida’s “Captivate” program 5 years ago. Only the date context has been edited. It’s a longer read than you are used to in The Drift, but I hope you’ll feel it’s worth it.

It’s an interesting wrinkle in time for the colliding worlds of advertising and digital empowerment.

Exactly 25 years ago I was part of the team that sold the very first banner ads on the World Wide Web. On 10/27/94, Wired Magazine flipped the switch that lit up HotWired, the “cyberstation” that ushered brands like IBM, Volvo, MCI, Club Med and – famously – AT&T into the digital age. From the humble origin of a dozen brands paying $15,000 per month for static banner placement with zero analytics, web advertising is closing in on $50 billion in annual spending.

At precisely the same moment, the banner ad (and related forms like the 15-second video pre-roll and the mobile display ad) has become a social touchstone that evokes a firestorm of condescension and condemnation at every turn. Indeed, the 20th anniversary of web advertising has mobilized the kill-the-banner crowd like so many pitchfork-wielding peasants out to stop Dr. Frankenstein. To the casual observer this all may seem a bit schizophrenic: Can the digital ad business really have been built and sustained on top of such a flawed delivery vehicle? And if web advertising techniques are really so ham-handed, why are they now being co-opted by the behemoth of television in the forms of screen overlays, dynamic ad serving and programmatic distribution?

Interesting questions indeed. But they are also the wrong questions.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Bionic for Ad Sales, which automates ad sales lead generation with software that pitches your ad inventory to hundreds of media planning teams while they are making media buying decisions. To learn more, go to bionic-ads.com/seller.

Over my 22 very active years serving media companies other digital and traditional advertising players, I’ve had a front row seat for a show that is consistently mistranslated, misdiagnosed and misunderstood. Digital advertising was born to an internet that people read and watched. During that seminal period of tiny gif images and narrow, scrolling columns of type we started calling those who put content on the web “publishers” – a role that was even then retiring to a world of hagiographic nostalgia. And advertising – well, that was a science to be grafted onto the web from other forms of publishing and broadcasting as technology and bandwidth allowed. Those first crude banners were nothing more than outdoor ads writ small. That they gave way eventually to larger, more picturesque ‘magazine’ ads and then to TV-style video spots meant more and more growth, but it also continued to miss the larger point that defines the true value of digitization – and lights our path for what happens now.

Let’s be honest in admitting that we haven’t really been all that much of a literary culture for much of the last 50 years and the internet doesn’t change that. You’re now just over 400 words into this essay: statistically, it’s already one of the longest things most American’s will read on the internet today. Over these two decades, the web has become something everyone does – not something they watch or read. We look for answers, we pass jokes back and forth to one another, we settle arguments. We preen and strut, we compare and buy, we “snack” on short bits of video. We organize things, we plan projects, we opine. Does this mean that content no longer matters? Or that it matters more than ever? The maddeningly simple answer is that it matters when it matters; when it’s closely aligned with the experience the consumer is living at that moment in time. And not for its own sake.

This leads me to the crossroads confronting those who aim to create the next $50 billion of revenue through “digital advertising” and for the advertising industry as a whole. The rocket ride from 1994 to 2014 has been driven by a combination of shifting consumer behavior (the increased time spent on browsers and devices is inescapable even to the staunchest traditional media die hard) and our ability to efficiently “tag along” with the experiences consumers are choosing to create for themselves digitally. Always on, always in our hands, the internet has become an extension of us as people. But advertising, mostly, has not kept up.

Two dominant trends in digital advertising today are data optimization and the programmatic trading of advertising display opportunities. In the first, we are overlaying information to identify and make decisions about those who we might show our ads to. In the second, we are building the technology and functionality to trade “ad futures” with one another. Both of these are critically important, “hard trends,” and they’ll continue – to some point – to usher more dollars into digital channels. But they are also both exercises in division and reduction: help me show my ad to fewer of the people who don’t matter; help me buy fewer of the ads that don’t work or don’t’ matter.

So what, then, will create the next great wave of growth for the advertising business? I believe it will happen only by confronting the truth that advertising in a digital world matters most when it least resembles advertising. Google and (to a lesser and less consistent degree) Facebook start the value creation at the point of consumer action and intent. The form that “advertising” takes is malleable and built into the experience: a helpful suggestion via some text as they answer my search query; a post from a marketer on a topic around which I’m already active. Buzzfeed has made a huge splash by helping marketers create just the kind of snackable content-McNuggets that we already like to trade with one another across the very platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr – where we already trade them.

But this is the tip of the iceberg. Many current techniques will look as archaic in 2024 as the earliest banners look today. But the companies and leaders who will endure and thrive are those who consistently answer a different set of questions:

What is the consumer doing today with digital tools and how can I help her do it better?

How might we create new value by blending discovery, commerce and productivity into a new experience shared by consumer and marketer?

If there were no such thing as an “advertising budget,” how would we create a connection between consumers and brands, companies and products that can bring new value into the consumer’s life?

These are the questions to be confronted not only by “digital advertising” leaders; after all, what advertising will not be digital by the time we reach our next ten year milestone? No, this is the existential moment for all of what used to be called Madison Avenue and “the Media.” Because when Wired flipped that switch 20 years ago they also set in motion a chain of events that prompts the re-imagination of all advertising.

From this point forward, don’t call any of it advertising. It will either be something much, much bigger – or it will be background noise.


The Holding Pen.


Five years ago in this space I wrote about The Illusion of Inclusion – the already-dysfunctional agency RFP process that gave digital sellers a false sense of progress and scuttled their sales activity before it could do any good.  Five years later the contours of the problem have shifted, but its impact is even worse.

In the scores of sales workshops and interviews I conduct, I still hear about well-intentioned sales teams pitching clients and conceiving ideas only to then get told We’ll be sending out RFPs in a few weeks.  More unfortunate still are the reps and organizations whose sole intent is to get a spot on that ill-fated RFP list.  In the intervening five years – as programmatic buying and consolidation have taken root — the number of winners has gotten shorter and the environment has gotten far less hospitable to non-platform publishers and sales orgs.  And participation in the process has gotten far more costly:  today’s RFP submission may include outside talent, events, technology, design, yield and more.  And all in service of a process in which you may never have had a chance.

Every sales leader wants a team that’s more proactive and strategic – a team that controls its own destiny.  But how to get there?  A sales workshop with Doug Weaver and Upstream Group is easier and more cost-effective than you might imagine.  Reach out to us today to discuss what you want for your team.  The consult is free.

Those whose offerings lean more into programmatic inventory, data and ad tech services may think none of this applies to you.  But it does.  We’re going to be looking at new vendors in Q1 and we’ll including you in that bake-off is just one example of you being effectively told to take a number.  The truth is we are all working harder to get the consideration of buying organizations that are operating short-handed and who don’t necessarily have the full confidence and commitment of their clients.  Being deferred or shuttled into an RFP process with dozens of competitors is professional quicksand.

What to do?

  • Have a clear business or marketing objective at the center of your proactive proposals and ideas.
  • Understand the client’s calendar and use important dates and time periods as leverage.
  • Qualify the decision makers you call on before you call on them, and then again at the close of each sales call.
  • Make it abundantly clear to your salespeople that getting on the RFP is not a victory; define the goals for every client or agency meeting very specifically.
  • Look hard at the time and resources you’re committing to answering RFPs; the creative talent and resources you’re expending would be better used in smart, proactive approaches to customers.
  • Be ambitious and unreasonable. If you’re only trying displace the weakest vendor on the list or just get a chance to show your stuff, there’s no room for you anymore.  Go big or don’t go at all.

We’ve been talking about the demise of the RFP for over a decade. Yet it survives.  And it’s become the holding pen for sellers, technologies and ideas that should instead be getting active, urgent consideration.  Accepting its failed promise is the worst strategic decision any of us can make.


Belief.


Less than five years ago, the Interactive Advertising Bureau had just tracked digital ad spending at $50 billion (with a B) dollars. They recognized and celebrated that milestone by subtitling that year’s Annual Leadership Meeting “The Next $50 Billion.” So, guess what? The same organization has just announced the cracking of the $100 billion mark. To a guy (me) who was on the Internet Advertising Bureau (yes, that’s what we called it then) board when the first million (with an M) dollar year was announced, this all still seems quite remarkable.

So why the long faces? Consolidation got you down? Latest tracking prohibitions making life tough for your tech solution? Old ways of competing for RFPs not working anymore? Yes, change and dislocation are what happens in a dynamic market that’s growing geometrically. Our inability to handle that change may be – in part – because we’re losing touch with our core beliefs. Into that void, let me toss out a few of my own.

Is your sales team describing instead of selling? You win business one serious, well-planned meeting at a time. Can your team do that? A strategic digital sales workshop with Doug Weaver and Upstream Group is easier and more cost-effective than you’d imagine. Reach out now. The consult is free.

I believe that we must tirelessly align what we do and build with the creation of true value for marketers. The creation, distribution and enhancement of advertising is a means, not an end… a service to business, not a business in itself.

I believe that truth and delivery are not relative terms. When I buy a dozen eggs, it’s not OK if two of the slots are empty or half of them are occupied by ping pong balls. Everyone should get what they pay for, every time.

I believe that consolidation of power is inevitable in any open marketplace. I also believe that markets and societies will ultimately reject and create remedies to prevent hegemony. I believe that’s happening now.

I believe that the growth curve of digital media consumption and the corresponding shift in marketing behavior are hard trends that will not only continue but accelerate. For those creating real value and operating fundamentally strong businesses, the playing field is still wide open.

I believe that we are approaching the end of iterative thinking, and that very soon we will stop comparing and contrasting what we do with earlier forms of advertising and marketing. For that reason, I believe we need new models of value creation and commerce on which to draw, and new people who don’t share our common background.

I believe that in five years the current boundaries between publisher, agency and platform will dissolve, and that anyone threatened by that dissolution will either have left the business or will be looking to.

I believe that there has never been a better time to be in sales. In the asymmetrical world of today, selling becomes a creative profession, and the seller has more impact on outcomes than ever before.

I believe the future cannot be navigated by historical precedent or experience, only by imagination, ambition and the right questions.

I believe that values are the ultimate platform on which satisfying careers, good businesses and great lives are built. I also believe that there is no team too small or too temporary to benefit from a strong culture.

What do you believe?


Frenemies: A Review.


It’s not often that I’ve used this space to review or comment on business books.  But the blend of industry perspective and salacious beach reading found in Ken Auletta’s Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) is irresistible.

Auletta, longtime communication columnist for The New Yorker and author of Three Blind Mice and The Highwaymen, attempts to frame the collapse of the modern advertising business over the past two decades of technological displacement, radical shifts in media consumption and the shape-shifting and land-grabbing by technology platforms, consulting firms and media owners – the aforementioned Frenemies.

I say he attempts it because Frenemies is ambitious but flawed.  It’s also absolutely indispensable.

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What makes the book so readable is also what limits its perspective.  Auletta anchors his narrative on a handful of big personalities – then-WPP head Martin Sorrell; GroupM architect Irwin Gotlieb; R/GA founder Bob Greenberg; Facebook sales chief Carolyn Everson; and most heavily — and controversially – on MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan. (Full disclosure: My company Upstream Group has featured MediaLink executives at our events, and I have spoken at a MediaLink internal meeting.)  Reviewers have called Frenemies “DOA:  Dated on Arrival” because Sorrell was pushed out at WPP prior to publication.  But to me a bigger issue is that Auletta relies on the Great Men school of history; in a search for the modern-day heirs to Burnett, Bernbach and Lois, he tells his story through mostly older white men (Full disclosure: I am one.)  Everson, in her mid-40s with two decades of business experience as the book was written, is too often described as mentee and protégé.  While the featured subjects are noteworthy, none seem to really fill the shoes.  Or perhaps that’s just the point: advertising companies no longer have people’s names on the door.

What the book does extremely well – and what makes it required reading for younger executives in our industry – is to conjure up the disarray and displacement of today’s advertising establishment.  You get a clear picture of the absolute free-fall that holding companies and agencies are experiencing.  It’s a story of recrimination, confusion and customer abandonment that many in the industry have failed to see fully even as they’ve lived through it.  Like the proverbial frog in the pot, they’ve not fully felt the heat as it’s gradually increased.

This displacement and disarray prepares the ground for Kassan, who with no small amount of help from President and COO Wenda Harris Millard, has made MediaLink the glue in the fractured, fragmented world of media, marketing and communication.  Kassan gets far more ink in Frenemies than any of the other protagonists, and in its pages – as in the industry – we find MediaLink at the center of every meeting and the heart of every deal.  If Frenemies comes across as Kassan’s biography, it’s not an uncritical one:  Auletta presents him as a mashup of Chicago’s Billy Flynn and Tom Hagen from The Godfather.  But perhaps the prominence of a character like Kassan  – a fixer in a broken world – speaks volumes about the state of advertising today.

Perhaps that’s the point.