Online Marketing

Web 25: Open Borders and Walled Gardens.

Late October will mark the 25th anniversary of advertising on the Web. Having been part of the team that ushered in those first primitive digital ads in 1994, I’ll be using this space in the intervening weeks to explore the fulfillment, failure and future of the web’s marketing and social promise.  This week, the open web and the walled gardens.

That the Web would ever be a thing with regard to advertising was never a foregone conclusion.  At the time Wired Ventures launched the Hotwired site and its dozen hard-coded advertising sponsors in 1994, prevailing wisdom said it was a fool’s errand: the real money would bypass the edgy and dangerous web in favor of the existing dial-up BBS (Bulletin Board System) offerings from America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy and the first generation Microsoft Network.

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With the web now on everyone’s phone and digital advertising at more than $100 billion, the sentiment of mid-90s Madison Avenue seems quaint today.  But it was in fact based on solid logic.  Back then – when the web was nascent and browsing technology mostly experimental – getting a customer online and giving them any kind of consumer experience was a serious moat.  AOL’s discs and Microsoft’s bundling of web connection into its technology seemed like an insurmountable advantage – a wall most publishers and advertisers couldn’t imagine breaching.

Look at us now.

Twenty-five years later digital advertising again lives in a world dominated by a handful of walled garden experiences – Google/YouTube, Facebook and the rapidly advancing Amazon.  At this point we all know the stats about the consolidation of new revenue flowing to these three.  But now the moat that protects their advantage is not about access and consumer experience:  it’s now based on instant recognition of the consumer (and application of their data) and being one of the first mobile apps touched each day.  And while these are formidable advantages and consolidation is a natural and predictable state of affairs, hegemony and permanent domination are just a narrative.

As my wife Sharon and I often say to each other, two things can be true at once.

Most of the money and consumer time can go to the big three and there can be plenty of room and resources for open-web publishers and players to innovate and grow healthy businesses.  A handful of massive players can brilliantly anticipate consumer demand and social acceptance and also subsequently overplay their hands, reach a tipping point with consumer privacy and lose the confidence of advertisers.  The consumer’s digital and commercial life can seem fully tilted toward a triopoly of players and a thousand flowers can bloom.

Now, as then, publishers, advertisers and consumers will exercise choice.  Now, as then, great companies will evolve to meet the challenge while yet more will start to take shape.  Now, as then, nobody is guaranteed survival or a share of growth.  Now, as then, the survivors and winners will not wait passively for government intervention or a shareholder awakening. They will focus intently on what’s missing for the consumer and what’s not square for the advertiser.  Recognizing that incrementalism is the enemy, they will take big swings.   And they will build their companies and conduct business as though they’ll last 50 years.

They will do as they should, not just as they may.

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.”