Online Advertising

Serve Somebody.


You may be a business man or some high-degree thief
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody – Bob Dylan

There was enough of a groundswell over last week’s post – Living in the Light – that I think it’s worth going a level deeper on the concept.  While last week I focused on the shape and demands on us as companies and individuals in current age of reckoning on privacy, fairness and data security, this week i want to get specific.

As I write this I’m at Terry Kawaja’s LUMA Digital Media Summit listening to an interview with author Andrew Keen (How to Fix the Future, The Internet is Not the Answer) on the very reckoning – social, political and commercial – that I called out last week.  One line from Keen is ringing in my ears right now:

Computers can’t have goals. Algorithms can never have agency.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Salesforce DMP. Salesforce DMP allows you to capture, unify, and activate your data to strengthen consumer relationships across every touchpoint. Find out more here.

Over the past two decades we’ve allowed the capacity of technology to define its morality and mission.  Because it can, therefore it may, therefore it must.  We’ve used this libertarian formula to encourage ad tech for the sake of ad tech, data for the sake of data.  What has been largely missing from the discussion is human agency:  people following purpose; individuals setting goals; all of us making values-based decisions about what we should do, why, and for whom.

You gotta serve somebody.  Perhaps the most important leadership question in any organization is simply Who do we serve?  Or maybe that only sounds like a simple question.   I think at this point the vague platitudes of Google (Don’t be Evil) and Facebook (Bring the World Closer Together) have not been particularly helpful or instructive.  Instead, they (and we) should decisively make a call about who the ultimate customer is.  If there’s a jump-ball or a conflict of agendas, who do we side with?

Is it the consumer?  If so, we make very different decisions about privacy and value that we have over the past 20 years.  Is it the marketer?  If so, then we treat their money like it is our own and become advocates for creating ever more value for their investments with us.  Is it the shareholders?  The Venture Capitalists?  The Bankers?  Well, OK, but if you are making your decisions for them, then you are by default saying it’s not really about the marketer or the consumer at all.

Human agency is a tricky business.  It takes thought, consideration and values.  It takes discipline.  But agency is a quality that can only devolve to us humans.  We are the only ones who can choose.  And it’s the choices we make as leaders – not the power of the technology – that will create the world we’ll leave to our children.


Deep State Advertising.


Over the 20+ years I’ve known him, I’ve always thought Rishad Tobaccowala (now with Publicis Groupe) was a national treasure.   He has that rare gift of being able to intellectually surround an issue and then quickly carve it down to its most essential point.  So it was with particular interest that I read his prediction that advertising would decline 30% over the next five years.

He’s right, of course.

The principle reason he cites for this decline is the flight to ad free environments.  “We don’t value (consumers’) time,” he explains, going on to quote the valuation as “less than minimum wage.”  I agree, but for a somewhat more elaborate set of reasons.

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I think too much of the “advertising industry” is just that:  an industry devoted to advertising… to generating more and more and more of it; to giving each other awards for it; to managing it’s migration into every nook and cranny of life.  If we’re honest we’ll admit that the “advertising industry” has become a self-referential deep state affair, hell-bent on its own survival.

We’ll also admit that many of us have lost sight of the original story-line, the real mission:  that the purpose of our work is not to win the next agency bake-off or secure a bigger share of “the budget.” We’re supposed to be devoted to helping marketers sell products, grow their businesses, build factories and employ workers. Small wonder that marketers have come to see advertising not as a source of growth but as a cost-center.

To paraphrase noted Vermonter and 30th president Calvin Coolidge, “the business of advertising is business.”  Or at least it should be.

Not to sound like too much of a relic, but when I started out at a small ad agency at age 22, part of my training program was delivering beer kegs, shadowing bank tellers and working in a shipping warehouse full of car polish.  It may seem quaint now, but we understood on a visceral level the business our clients were in. And by extension the business we were in.

We’ve lost a little something since then.  I hope we get some of it back.


Saving Programmatic.


Last week in this space I suggested that one unintended outcome of our decade-long dance with programmatic buying was the dark, dangerous alternative world we’d brought into being.  Borrowing an analogy from the Netflix series Stranger Things, call it “The Programmatic Upside Down,” rife with fraud, bots, hate speech, fake news and every other means of foul beastie.

In a speech last week in Los Angeles, I suggested that while an uncritical devotion to “tech for the sake of tech” had opened the breach to this world, it was people who would help close it.  Here, then, are the four types of people we should endeavor to find, groom, hire and deploy in the programmatic world of the next five years.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

The Activator.  Ironically, those who plan and build programmatic stacks and strategies can be too closed in their thinking and too slow to act on new insights and improvements.  The Activator is the executive who can not only explain why, but why now.  He or she can create urgency around meaningful change and development from the outside – who can lay waste to the kind of group think and inertia that assure many a programmatic strategy will bear poisoned fruit.

The Fixer.  The role of The Fixer is also to disrupt the destructively myopic processes and decision making of the group.  Except he or she works from the inside out.  The Fixer is willing to call out the bad outcome the group might not be considering…to ask the hard question.  Blessed with a good strategic mind and highly-evolved pattern recognition, The Fixer can help the group abandon the path that leads into The Programmatic Upside Down.

The White Hat.   A few years ago, Chief Privacy Officers were all the rage.  Perhaps the next five years we’ll see the emergence of the Chief Hygienist….The White Hat.  An unwavering advocate of transparency and quality, The White Hat invites scrutiny from meaningful third parties and holds the organization to the highest standards.

The Integrator.  For most of its existence, programmatic has run along its own parallel track alongside creative solutions and direct sales.  Clearly those tracks are starting to cross now, which leads us to the need for The Integrator.  He or she will be the one who plans and sells programmatic solutions as part of a larger marketing, creative and business mix.  The question will no longer be “how much should we spend programmatically?” but rather “how will programmatic solutions help us scale and deliver all of our unique benefits to marketers?”

Your organizations – publisher, agency, marketer, tech provider – will call these archetypes by scores of different titles.  But know that you need them…now and for the rest of your existence.  They are what stand between you and technology run amok.

Read my original article on 212NYC’s new thought leadership newsletter, The Scryer.


The Programmatic Upside Down.


There are no serious spoilers in this post, so if you’re not yet finished with season two of “Stranger Things” – or if you’ve not seen the Netflix show at all – you’re safe.  I’m giving nothing critical away by telling you that the core of the story revolves around a dark, frightening dimension that’s a reverse-mirror image of our world; a place that’s slimy, cold and gray and full of dark corners and scary things.  It’s called “The Upside Down.”

Over the past decade we’ve all been part of the invention and growth of programmatic advertising.  While there’s no question that data-fueled automation and process reform are hard trends that will continue to grow and develop, it’s also true that – just like the scientists on “Stranger Things” – our blind devotion to technology may have blown open a passage to a dark version of the internet.  Let’s call it “The Programmatic Upside Down.”

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

The internet we describe and sell to advertisers is filled with great articles and creative videos, all being eagerly consumed by attentive customers.  It’s a well-lit world with laws and crosswalks and predictable ROI.  But along with the rest of us, marketers are now seeing that our sometimes-myopic devotion to technology for its own sake has meant that their brands and messages sometimes end up in The Programmatic Upside Down.

The Programmatic Upside Down is a cold gray place of fraud and bots, of risque content, hate speech and fake news mills.  It mimics the shape and structure of the internet we describe, but it’s in no way the one that marketers would willingly buy into.

The good news?  It’s that 2017 brought its existence into focus with unmistakable clarity. We can see it and we can understand why it’s happening and what’s feeding it.  Collectively we all now have a mission:  we must now devote our business models, our technology and – most importantly – our people to shutting off access to The Programmatic Upside Down.  Devotion to purity of supply and quality of data are a good start.  Embracing the oversight of qualified third-parties to police us is also critical.

And perhaps most important is that we fully realize that there is no longer a convenient, situational middle ground:  you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.  There’s no time to waste:  The Demo-Dogs are already on the run.


17 Thanks.


As we wrap up a year of political, social and business turmoil, a post about thanks might be seen as the ultimate Pollyanna gesture.  But I believe that gratitude is what unlocks possibility and excellence.  So I hope that you will indulge me and read on.

  1. I’m grateful that the response to so much awfulness has been a steady current toward social justice and gender equity. More please.
  2. I give thanks that the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs in today’s world remain so low. Starting businesses and pursuing ideas used to be what only the wealthy could do.
  3. Thanks to the dozens of CROs who trusted me with their teams this year.
  4. And to the sellers in those workshops who suspended disbelief and allowed that something good and even transformative might happen for them.
  5. I’m so thankful for Sharon, my amazing wife and partner who’s still laughing and drinking coffee with me 30 years later.
  6. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten the chance to build a business through friendships and friendships through great work together.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

  1. I’m grateful that the problems we all complain about in this industry are all about abundance and growth. Don’t look now but this is the 20th straight year of growth and there’s no end in sight.
  2. I’m thankful that you and a few thousand other people in our business are reading this post and the dozens of others that I’ve written this year. I know how little time and attention you have to spend.
  3. For the sponsors, advisors, hosts and – most of all – the participants in Seller Forum, who have been coming together to prove the wisdom of the crowd for over 15 years. So grateful it works and still amazed.
  4. I’m grateful that of the 300+ professionals I interview on the phone each year, the overwhelming majority are good, caring people who genuinely want to help their customers.
  5. For Tamara Clarke and Liza McCabe who do so much to make our customers feel special and who completely share in the success of this business.
  6. For Scot McLernon and Lisa Milgram who both represent and embody the ideals of the company and treat it like they own it themselves.
  7. I’m grateful for the people in our extended network of professionals who never really make us feel like they have any other clients: Monty Markow, Sheila Kellerman, Cara Nelson, Karen Branon and Jude Domski.
  8. Thank you to the State of California for having such a generous public education system in the 1970s so that I could go to college.  And thank you to all the employers in our industry who are saying no to educational exclusionism.
  9. I’m thankful that the digital marketing tent is big enough to include both amazing technologists and intensely creative storytellers and that the lines between the two are blurring.
  10. I’m so grateful for my daughters Lucy and Madeline who each in her own way are creating non-traditional lives for themselves around the things they love.
  11. I’m delighted, amazed and so very grateful that my company, Upstream Group, is celebrating its 20th birthday and that we continue to contribute positively to the business I love. More please!

To you and all you love and care for, Happy Thanksgiving.