Online Advertising

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.

 


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.

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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.