Online Marketing

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.


P&G’s Last Stand.

Last January at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, I followed Procter & Gamble CMO Marc Pritchard on stage after his speech about all that was wrong with the digital supply chain – the first of his ultimatums to the digital advertising channel.  It was a very impressive speech, and he said a lot that needed to be said.  Ten years ago we used to joke that P&G shouldn’t get to make any public pronouncements about digital advertising until it actually spent money on it; and here was the P&G CMO – who’d spent a lot in recent years – having his say.

But then came the Ides of March.  In an instant P&G cut $100 million in digital ad spend, with the implied threat that until we got our collective act together on fraud, viewability, standardization and more, that money wasn’t coming back.  I know many sales reps who did land office P&G business in 2016 and who are now seeing a big fat zero in that column.

But I wonder….

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I wonder if this is all as clear as it’s meant to look.  All that money went away:  will it really all come back once MRC accreditation kicks in?  I’m starting to think that it won’t.  And even if it does, I’m not sure it’s going to flow through the same pipes or look anything like the spending we all got used to in recent years.

I wonder if P&G cutting $100 million from digital wasn’t just the least painful, most justifiable way they could make a significant move away from above-the-line brand advertising.  The world has changed dramatically for P&G and other packaged goods giants in recent years, and the change doesn’t have all that much to do with viewability standards on digital banners.  The simple truth is that the distribution chain has been completely upended.  Amazon has become a dominant channel for the sale of packaged goods, household and personal care products, and they will continue to press the P&Gs of the world for deeper and deeper discounts.  That money has to come from someplace.

I wonder if those working so hard to win P&G’s digital advertising money back might be fighting the last war….as if we all just assumed that the biggest TV advertisers would morph into the biggest digital spenders.  I wonder if advertising isn’t being seen now as a cost center to be managed and if the goal might be to buy less and less of it.

I wonder if we all need to think less about how we’ll help P&G spend its shrinking pile of advertising cash and how – instead – we might help them sell more product in a world where there’s a new normal for distribution and consumer behavior.

I wonder if we’re not all missing the story line here.

True North.

True NorthThinking about how to navigate your career during these murky times?  Maybe what you need is a North Star…and some timeless rules about how and where to focus.  This January 2015 post may be just the thing.

It’s a dirty little secret that this is the time of year that a lot of things start to shake loose. The end of the year means that year end compensation checks come through, and those who’ve been thinking about making a job change are likely to start moving in the next 4-6 weeks. While this is by no means the only period of intensive recruiting, interviewing and hiring – it’s a year-round phenomenon – it’s certainly peak season.

While I have an iron-clad rule against ever sourcing talent (recruiters: sorry, don’t even ask), I do get a lot of calls from sellers and sales leaders thinking about their next career move. Since I end up giving the same advice, I’m putting it out into the public sphere via this post.

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Rule #1: Find Your North Star. Job candidates often find themselves in full response mode, and end up comparing one potential offer to another. Instead, write out the specs for your perfect job, right down to how much you want to travel, what kind of meetings you want to be having, and what kind of brands and agencies you want to call on. Now start measuring your options based on their distance from your ideal.

Rule #2: Stand in the Rain. If you want to get wet… First ask whether the space you’ll be entering is growing or contracting. Will this be bigger and wealthier in three years than it is now? A growing market forgives a lot of sins. No matter how good you are, musical chairs has lousy odds.

Rule #3: Don’t Bet on the Business Plan. Like battle plans, business plans get torn up as soon as the shooting starts. While you’re interviewing, subtly probe on how the company developed the assumptions in the plan. You should be looking at the quality of their processes, as you’ll end up living with them from this point on.

Rule #4: Look Past ‘Smart.’  Everyone loves to tell me how smart the people running the company are. Paraphrasing the late James Gandolfini in Zero Dark Thirty, “It’s the internet. We’re all smart. What else?” Are they wise? Generous? Patient? Will they make the right decisions when things go sideways? Remember that you are interviewing them, not just the other way around. Management and leadership are not going to suddenly get better and more virtuous after you’re hired. Take a clear eyed look now.

Above all, start thinking of your career as a narrative… a story of someone who’s getting wiser and more valuable as time passes. Will this next move be a chapter that fits?

Moderators: Suck No More!

Moderators Suck No MoreTo celebrate Advertising Week and its scores of panel discussions, I’m reposting this Drift from 2011.  If you’re moderating, speaking on, or just watching a panel this week, this one’s for you.

Industry conference season now seems to stretch roughly from Martin Luther King’s Birthday to Winter Solstice, and there seems to be a new entrant (or four) vying for our time and attention every month.  And the attendees who move from summit to summit like migrant farm workers trooping from field to field all share one central opinion:  Boy, there are an awful lot of crappy panel discussions!

Indeed there are.  Some conference organizers have gone so far as to impose an outright ban on panels.  But blaming the panel is like blaming the chicken and carrots and rice for being a bad meal.  Somebody was in charge (or, too often, not in charge) of its preparation.  Having moderated scores of them over the years, I’ll take a stand:  there are no bad panels, only bad moderators. As a service to the industry, I’m offering free advice to both conference producers and would be moderators.  Please accept it.  Then go forward and suck no more.

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Rule #1:  Being on Stage is a Privilege. If you’re running a conference, you are doing the moderator a favor by allowing him or her to run the panel.   Establish clear expectations and hold the moderator responsible along the way.  (Side note: If you’re choosing moderators or panelists based on who’s sponsoring your conference, you’ve painted yourself into a corner.)  Talk to your moderators about the level of preparation and scripting you expect.

Rule #2:  The Moderator Works for the Audience. You’re not up there to make the panelists feel good.  (See Rule #1: it’s a privilege for them to be on stage too.)  Be an advocate for audience rights:  the right not to be bored, not to have their time wasted.  If you think a panelist is opaque, confusing or off topic, fix it.  As the follow up question; challenge; redirect.

Rule #3:  The Opening Always Sucks.  Skip it. Those brief two-minute self introductions you let the panelists do are the beginning of a bad panel.  Either introduce them and their companies yourself in 20 seconds or less (and of course NEVER read anybody’s bio!) or just put their names and companies up on a slide.  The audience you work for (Rule #2) only cares if the panelists are insightful, useful or entertaining.  Get on with it.

Rule #4:  Do the Work. Individual pre-conference conversations – or at very least an email exchange – with the panelists should be mandatory.  These exchanges are followed by an email to the group outlining the themes and questions you’ll be including.  The best panels are the continuation of a conversation, not the initiation of one.

Rule #5:  Have a Point of View. Who says the moderator has to be moderate?  Be a flash point instead.  Bring your own views to the panel.  Lay them out and ask the panelists for reactions.  You’re not a potted plant.

Rule #6: Don’t be fair.  Be good. Too many moderators go “down the line” and give every panelist a say in every question. Nobody wants to hear hair-splitting nuance and incremental improvements on points.  Direct questions to specific panelists then move on.

Rule #7:  Look, Listen, Interrupt. Good moderators don’t look at their panelists all the time; they’re constantly looking out into the audience.  This forces their panelists to do the same and keeps eye contact between the panel and the crowd.  Also truly listen to the answers – then probe, challenge and expand on them.  When a comment is sharp, reinforce it.  When it’s lame or meandering, interrupt and redirect.  (See rules 2 & 6)

With all the scary smart people in our business, it’s a tragedy that our primary vehicle for learning from them is so terribly broken.  Next time you’re seeking refuge on your iPhone or Droid during some panel that’s going nowhere, use the time to forward this post….to the moderator.

If you want to see if I practice what I preach, come by the Liberty Theater on Wednesday afternoon at 4:30.  I’ll be moderating “Breaking Through: Media Strategies that Impact and Reach Millennials.”

The Millennial Reach.

The Millennial ReachI’m moderating an Advertising Week panel next Wednesday called “Breaking Through:  Media Strategies that Impact and Reach Millennials.”  I didn’t name the panel:  If I had, I’d probably have left the word reach out of the description.

As I’ve told many customer groups over the last few years, reaching millennials is not the problem.  There are a hundred programmatic strategies to put an ad message in front of a critical mass of millennials. Heck, a reasonably well-designed cable buy will get you the reach, if that’s what you care about.  But reach is not the point.  In fact, for publishers and media companies it can be a fatal distraction.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by AppNexus. Join AppNexus at this year’s Yield Executive Summit, taking place on Wednesday, September 28, in New York City.  We look forward to an exclusive day of discussions and presentations with top influencers in digital advertising as we examine the essential tools that every publisher must have for successful monetization and digital acceleration.

When reduced to the concept of reach, millennials are the new adults/25-39. It’s just math. When it comes to impact, however, there’s a lot of good work to be done.  Most of what we think we know about millennials is made up of stereotypes and bland generalities.  But one thing is true:  they are the first generation to grow up in a world of constant connection and unlimited media and communication choice.  And that fact informs the ways in which we can truly help marketers.  We need to give them solid guidance on three factors:  distribution, form and tone.

Distribution:  To the cable programmer, the connection has to be made on its own channels; to the web publisher, it’s all about who comes to my site or spends time with my app.  But that’s becoming a fool’s errand.  We must understand and offer strategies based on how young consumers will really experience, participate in and share the conversation.

Form:  Is the banner ad a dead issue in persuading millennials to do anything?  Pretty much.  And the canned 15 or 30 second pre-roll ad is not far behind.  And the kind of typical social posts executed by many marketers today are also headed for the boneyard.  The question we need to help marketers answer is, “when it comes to millennials, what will replace the ad unit?”    In the short run, we can advise them on things like ad size and video length, but that’s really just kicking the can.  Millennial consumers reject ads.  We need something else.

Tone:  Perhaps the best way for publishers and media companies to make a difference for marketers is to become their millennial translators.  Too often, the marketer’s attempts and native content, social participation or influencer marketing have the same effect as your dad showing up at the bar where you and your friends hang out.  And if he’s grown a hipster beard and tosses out cliché buzzwords, all the worse.  Finding an authentic and legitimate voice in the millennial conversation is what is most imperative to the marketer.  You can help with that.

Care to join the conversation?  Post your comments below and plan to join us on Wednesday, September 28th at 4:30 at the Liberty Theater on 42nd Street.  Walker Jacobs (Fandom), Kathy Kayse (Yahoo!), Andrew Capone (NCC) and Ben Dietz (VICE) will help us unpack the issues.  If you’re not registered, go here. See you next week.