Online Advertising

Digital Experience: A Reality Check.

Digital ExperienceDigital experience.  It’s pursued and prized.  Companies pay a hiring premium for it. Those who have even a couple of years of it get featured on panels.

There’s just one problem.  Digital experience doesn’t age like wine. It ages like fish.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by AppNexus. With AppNexus Mobile Solutions, you can access more demand partners than ever, gain precision insight into your inventory’s pricing and attract the ad spend of the world’s largest advertisers.

This may all sound a little strange coming from someone who’s been in digital advertising for 22 years.  But the secret – if there is one – to continued relevance and value in this industry is simple:  one must obsess about it every single day.  If, as Neil Young said, rust never sleeps, then change is an insomniac and irrelevance is a vampire.

Over the past two decades I’ve worked with thousands of sellers, executives and others in all parts of the digital media, marketing and ad tech landscape.  Frequently I’ll engage with someone who’s got it all figured out. The space they compete it is a fountain of money or the company they work for has truly built a better mousetrap, and it’s going to last forever.  Or their own knowledge, insights and talent have become truly unassailable.  Then something happens.

The emergence of ad exchanges makes the ad network irrelevant.  Facebook tilts the table on video and upends the entire video marketplace.  The entire ‘space’ where you once competed simply collapses and is subsumed by some full-stack solution provider.  The pace of mobile use and consumption shocks the world and turns desktop display into the rust belt of digital media. That same overly-confident digital exec finds him- or herself adrift and scrambling for a spot on a new boat.

Some will find the ceaseless march of change terrifying. Others will be exhilarated by it.  But it’s a fact for us all.  If you’re not questioning your current assumptions and business plan, you’re already starting to lose control of your future.

Stop obsessing about the latest micro-controversy about the details of attribution or viewability or header bidding.  Start paying very close attention to consumer behavior and media consumption. If it’s faster, more mobile, more video enhanced, more private, easier or cooler, consumers will adopt it.  And once they do, they never, ever go backward.

Change is relentless.  If you’re not part of the steamroller – or nimble enough to get out of its way – you’re part of the road

The Full Service Publisher.

Full Service PublisherFirst there’s understanding the client’s objective:  Which feature of their product do they need customers to better understand?  To which competitor are they trying to compare themselves favorably?  Then we’ve got to get busy with the message, the talent that’s going to deliver it and the actual drafting of copy and shooting of video.

Now it’s time to figure out how to scientifically distribute the message – media planning essentially – and how to measure and analyze the outcomes.  Round it all out with great customer service and the occasional look at important trends and big new ideas.

Sounds like a great recipe for a winning ad agency, right?  Well….

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by AppNexus. With AppNexus Mobile Solutions, you can access more demand partners than ever, gain precision insight into your inventory’s pricing and attract the ad spend of the world’s largest advertisers.

The top of this post might once have described the cadence of a full service agency.  But today this kind of soup-to-nuts delivery of service is just as likely to come from a publisher. The agency business today is an embarrassment of niches:  one shop does the planning, another the buying, a third the digital, a trading desk takes on the program stuff.  Within a given holding company, there are even more agencies for creative, multicultural marketing, events, shopper marketing and more.  There are even agencies to help the client navigate all those other agencies.  Full service?  Not in decades.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does a marketer.  The space where client/agency ‘partnerships’ used to grow is increasingly being harvested by media companies and platforms.  The idea isn’t new:  I wrote about it in this space back in 2010.   What’s changed, though, is the urgency and speed with which erstwhile sales organizations are stepping up to the plate.  Not surprising, though.  The availability of ad “inventory” has broken wide open and its relative value has fallen dramatically. To make a living – to stay alive – publishers had to find new ways to create value.  And those new ways look a lot like the old ways that agencies used to do it.

Asking Y!

Asking YI try not to spend too much time looking back at history in The Drift (unless you count the arcane references to jazz legends and ex-presidents).  But this week I want to use the space talking about the period of time during which Yahoo! ruled our world:  not out of a sense of gauzy nostalgia, but rather because the history illuminates very current truths about our business today and tomorrow.

I’m now in my 23rd year in the digital advertising and marketing business: I sold my first web ads the year Yahoo! was born but before it actually launched as a website.  So I’ve gotten to watch lots of cycles unfold, many companies rise and fall.  Those whose perceptions of Yahoo! were shaped during the Marissa Meyer era can’t imagine the sheer domination that the company once enjoyed.  Watching Yahoo! compete back then with the likes of MSN and a pre-Armstrong AOL was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters dismantle the Washington Generals for the umpteenth time.  (Yes, Yahoo! was at the same time providing a cozy incubator for Google’s nascent search business, but few in the business really imagined Google as a threat to Yahoo! at that point.)  Yahoo! was the center of gravity, the single most heavily trafficked page on the web.  It was hegemony writ large.  So what happened?

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by AppNexus. The AppNexus Publisher Suite helps maximize monetization for Publishers today with tomorrow’s technology through integrated, intelligent, and open ad serving and programmatic selling solutions.

Books have been written (and more surely will be) about the rise and demise of Yahoo!  So here, during the week of Yahoo’s fire-sale to Verizon, just a few thoughts.

The Founders Chose to Live in Middle Earth.  Jerry Yang and David Filo – but mostly Jerry Yang – neither fully committed to running the company forever (like Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook) nor ceded real control of the business operation to a competent outsider (as Sergey and Larry did with Eric Schmidt at Google.) This prevented the company from ever forming a real vision and started a parade of half-empowered CEOs and ambivalent decision making.

They Watched the Money and Not the Consumer.  In terms of advertising revenue, Yahoo! crushed it year after year.  This gave senior management too much freedom to muse and obsess about pet projects and the now-lost search battle with an emergent Google.  Had the company been under existential financial pressure, perhaps they would have gotten closer to their consumers and where they were really going in the near future.  A good crisis might have really helped.

Yahoo! Believed Tomorrow Would be a Bigger Version of Today.   Each generation thinks the next will be a slightly different version of their own:  a little more entitled, a little better with tech, a little less respectful, yada yada.  And at the height of its dominance during a business era, it’s natural for a company to see the future as a little more mobile, a little more social, a little more video-driven, yada yada.  Perhaps Yahoo! saw things this way? Perhaps they never considered a radically different world that ignored desktops and page views?

Yahoo! is now, in almost every sense, history.  But in its wake, let’s consider whether our own companies might be unwittingly walking the same path.

Hidden Fees.

Hidden FeesSo the ANA just dropped the other shoe.  But it looks like it’s falling right on the toes of the marketers themselves.

Last month in this space I posted “End of Days,” about the scathing 58-page report the ANA commissioned and released on the bad behavior and lack of transparency across ad agencies.  Now comes the second phase of the report, with a title that had to be written by a committee:  “Media Transparency: Prescriptions, Principles, and Processes for Advertisers.”  Since the name of the report sounds like such a snooze, let me sum it all up quickly:

#caveatemptor – let the buyer beware.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by AppNexus. The AppNexus Publisher Suite helps maximize monetization for Publishers today with tomorrow’s technology through integrated, intelligent, and open ad serving and programmatic selling solutions.

The inescapable conclusion here is that it’s up to the marketers themselves to police what they’re paying for and what they’re getting.  As AdExchanger put it so succinctly, “While advertisers believe their agencies are obliged to act in their best interests, agencies largely see their duties within the scope of a contract.” In other words, you can forget all that “partner” bullshit: the agency is running a business and does not infer a fiduciary responsibility to the customer.

The inclusion and emphasis on “fiduciary” is mine, and it’s an intentional bridge to the currently-broken relationship between consumers and financial advisers.  In case you missed it, national treasure John Oliver served up a breathtaking analysis of the hidden fees that are loaded into the typical investor relationship on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”  Most consumers wrongly infer that their financial analyst (or financial adviser or financial consultant or wealth manager or…there are a bunch of these) has a fiduciary duty to act in the investors best interests.  But when you read the fine print, only a very select and legally explicit subset of these advisers do.  It’s up to the consumer to ask hard questions, never assume anything, and ultimately take responsibility for what they are buying.

And so it is with marketers.  Who is going to help those marketers buy, inspect and verify the true and valuable audiences in which they’re investing their shareholders money…now that’s another story.  Will it be the same agencies and buying groups they savaged just four weeks ago?  Or is there an opportunity for publishers, technology and service companies to step into the void?  The answer may characterize what the buying of media looks like for at least the next decade.

Asking Better Questions.

Asking Better QuestionsYou may have started reading this post expecting tips on asking your client better questions at the beginning of your next sales call.  On the contrary, this is about you and your organization asking yourselves better questions before you even think about approaching your next customer.

Back in 2014 I suggested some of the questions the industry should be asking; questions that would help shape a better, richer future for us all. Now I’d like to get more focused on how individual sellers, sales teams and companies should start setting better agendas by framing better questions. First, let’s look at the core issue we have as sellers:  we rush the problem so we can start talking about the solution.  We’re either responding to a simplistic goal — better response rate, higher levels of visibility, improved reach or — God forbid — “branding”  — or we suggest it ourselves.  Like so many of Pavlovian pooches, we just want to recognize the stimulus and then launch into our conditioned response…usually a torrent of facts, figures, statistics, claims and credentials.  It’s time to stop the madness.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Krux. Krux helps more than 180 of the world’s leading media companies and marketers grow revenue and deepen consumer engagement through more relevant, more valuable content, commerce, and media experiences. Industry analysts have repeatedly named Krux a leader and visionary in the data management space, citing its agility, innovation, and independence. Download the reports today to learn more.

I’m suggesting that we’d all be better off if we calmed down some and asked ourselves a few purposeful — almost existential — questions about how we create value for marketers and what they might really pay us for.  Here are a handful.

What unique or non-obvious problem is our company uniquely qualified to solve for this client?  You’re not going to read about this kind of an issue in the RFP.  This question forces you to be proactive and think about how your strengths align with the client’s needs.

How might we move beyond media and advertising problems and start solving business problems for this client?  Most sellers never get beyond the rudimentary concerns of the media planner, and that’s a shame.  Framing your solutions around business issues makes them more important and urgent…and gives you a seat at the client table.

If this client cancelled 100% of its advertising budget, how might our company still create value for them and earn investment from other budgets?  This is another way to get past the traps associated with “ad-centricity.”  Remember that advertising is seen by clients as a cost center — something to be managed and economized — while marketing is a profit center and a key to growth.

Knowing that your customer has more than enough places to run advertising (and doesn’t need another one), what’s the very best purpose and role our company could play for them?  This question is indeed an existential one:  At a time when ignoring swim lanes is becoming the norm, you don’t want to be the last one sitting politely in your silo waiting for the next budget. If you’re not trying to be more for your customer, you will almost certainly end up being less.

My standing recommendation to creative sellers is to buy a copy of “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas” by Warren Berger.  It will change you.

There are just five seats left for the Seller Forum on June 7th in New York.  If you’re a qualified media sales leader and want to hear from key clients, analyze original research on seller mobility and understand how to retain your best sales people, request your invitation today.