Online Media

The Media Agency: Life After Leverage

Agency Life After LeverageAgency business veteran Mike Drexler said a mouthful in his column on recently. In just a few hundred words, Mike encapsulates many of the trends and issues that are “Turning the Advertising Agency Business on its Ear,” and those of us on the seller-side of the desk should pay close attention; the way in which we sell to media agencies may very well hang in the balance.

Drexler, former CEO of Optimedia and Worldwide Media Director at Ogilvy, illustrates the ferocious fight for primacy, identity and profits within the agency ranks.  And he’s particularly insightful on the crossroads facing the media agency; it can no longer fall back on its financial leverage as a selling point.  “The old shibboleth about agency media “clout” never really was entirely accurate because most media deals were based on client spend not agency spend … And the really big advertisers aren’t happy about using their leverage for the smaller accounts at the agency.”

If the media agency can no longer just flex its muscles and kick sand in the face of weakling publishers and broadcasters, it’s got to become more of a true athlete:  nimble, fast, multi-skilled.  “What if the full service media agency becomes the lead? What if media agencies start adding “creatives” to their organizations as employees or strategic partners?” he asks, adding that the trend may be inevitable because “the digital world has also made media and creative almost inextricable.”

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Bionic Advertising Systems, an advertising technology company focused on delivering innovative software that streamlines and automates media workflow for marketers, their advertising agencies, and publishers.

But what does all this arcane political maneuvering by agencies have to do with the media seller?  Plenty.  In the dozen-plus years that I’ve written The Drift I’ve spoken many times about the opportunity we have to bring new capabilities and new vitality to the agencies we sell to.  I’ve advised that we stop treating agencies like indiscriminate ATM machines, and even suggested we give them a hug now and then.   Truth is, at the very moment – this moment – when media agencies need most to evolve and diversify, they struggle with thin staffs and even thinner margins.  Media companies and other sales organizations, by comparison, are relatively swift, deep and closer to the consumer experience.  Forget the marriage of creative and media agencies:  it’s the marriage between publishers and media agencies that’s the potential match-made-in-heaven.

So why doesn’t it happen more often?  One reason is that sellers get mixed messages from their agency contacts.  The “big idea” conversation turns into a big lie.  “Partner” has become a code word for patsy. But sellers share the blame.  They take virtually all their cues from the overworked junior media planner and waste countless hours hammering away at a dying RFP process.

Look harder.  Spend a few less hours chasing your spot on the shrinking RFP list and a few more working to connect with agency leadership.  There’s a promising future in a peer-to-peer relationship between the creative media company and the expansive media agency.  And just a little time left to realize it.

How We Interview…and Why It Sucks.

How We InterviewIf human talent is the killer app in our industry, why do we suck so badly at attracting, evaluating and retaining the best people?  And how does a flawed candidate manage to slip through the interviewing gauntlet that you and the rest of your management and HR team have set up?  Clearly these are huge topics worthy of books, not blog posts.  But I’ve never met a topic that I couldn’t try to oversimplify, so here goes:

Your interviewing process is misguided, your execution is awful and you’re focusing on all the wrong things.  But please, let me elaborate…

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Evidon MCM, marketing cloud management software for large enterprises. Powered by more than 20 million Ghostery users, Evidon provides large websites with transparency to see and control the vendors that have access to their customer data and their online assets.

Interviews are Not about Fact-finding:  Make your minimum standards on skills and experience clear to your HR team or recruiter.  Then leave the candidate’s resume in your desk.  Too many interviews end up being about the facts on the page (“…so you worked at AOL?”)  You’re wasting a lot of time confirming data points, which could be better spent on higher order discussion.

Focus Instead on Understanding the Candidate’s Process:

  • Tell me about an important deal or achievement at your last company:  what would not have happened if you hadn’t been part of it?
  • Tell me about the last time you had to deliver really bad news to a customer:  how did you handle it and where did things end up?
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to manage conflict with someone in your organization:  were you able to turn the situation around?

Seek Beliefs and Core Values:  The best hires and most-durable employee relationships are always built on the overlap between what a candidate believes and what the company stands for.  But we learn very little about what our candidates truly believe because we don’t ask.

  • Tell me something you believe in very strongly that’s not about religion or family.
  • Looking out at the next 10-15 years of our industry, what’s a trend or behavior that you’re bet your career on?

Stop Acting Like Lawyers:  (Please no hate mail from the Bar Association.) If you ask a dozen lawyers to review a document or agreement, each will find something to disagree with or object to.  Likewise, if you subject your candidate to a dozen different interviewers, each will only feel valid or whole if he or she finds a flaw.  First cut down on the number of interviewers; after a certain number, the evaluation doesn’t get bigger, it gets worse.  Second, make it OK for other interviewers to say “neutral” or “nothing to add.”

This is Not a Democracy:  Try to get everyone to agree on a candidate and you’ll end up with a very safe, very vanilla, compromise candidate.  No edge, nothing strong, nothing special.  Agree ahead of time who “owns” the hire and who he/she should truly consult with. (Hint:  who will be economically dependent or physically close to the new hire?)

Listen for Intent:  There’s one more thing we also fail to ask potential hires:  Do you want to work here?  Of course it’s probably not smart to signal your own intent to hire this person, but you can certainly find out whether they’re really into you – of if you’re just “one of their safety schools.”

  • We’re not there yet, but if it all came together tomorrow and the package and responsibility lined up, would you jump at the chance to work here?

Notice that this is the only “yes or no” question I’ve suggested.

I’ll be eager to hear how your next interview goes.  Happy hiring.

The Mouse Click That Roared.

The Mouse Click That RoaredI haven’t always agreed with John Battelle, but ever since we worked on opposite coasts for Wired Magazine in 1994 I’ve had no doubt that he was an ambitious and provocative thinker.  “The Search” is required reading for anyone trying to understand the center of gravity in the digital age.  And now, on his “searchblog,” John offers a very original and refreshing take on the lasting global contribution of… the banner ad.

“Why the Banner Ad is Heroic, and Adtech is our Greatest Artifact” offers up a truly original thought:  Long after actual banner ads fade from memory (much the way television cigarette ads have at this point) the infrastructure created to deliver them will endure, serving mankind in a myriad of ways.   “Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions,” Battelle writes.  “At present, the end result of this vastly complicated “Request – Process – Response” system is, more often than not, the proffering of a banner ad. But that’s just an artifact of a far more interesting future state.”   The man is right.  Currently a click on a link, the call of a page or a bit of mobile content catalyzes billions of computing cycles to process a personalized response.   The process itself is an awesome accomplishment.  That we are currently using it to carpet-bomb consumers with redundant direct-response ads and follow them around the web with their abandoned shoe purchases is beside the point:  those are symptoms of our lack of imagination.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by PubMatic. With PubMatic’s platform, publishers have the ability to offer their inventory to over 400 global Demand Partners – ad networks, demand side platforms, ad exchanges, and agency trading desks – and have on demand access to all the software, tools and services they need to realize the full potential of their digital assets.


Battelle imagines a world in which the stimulus won’t be a page request,  but rather a decision made in a retail shop or the filing of a health claim.  And the processing will yield rich troves of information, content, choice…context.  “What we today call ‘adtech’ will tomorrow become the worldwide real-time processing layer driving much of society’s transactions,” he writes.   It’s enough to make one proud to have been part of our pedestrian beginnings!

I can’t improve on John’s meme, so I’ll just offer a mid-range simplification.  I’ve thought for many years that ad-serving/adtech was an awesome delivery system which could be used to ship far more interesting stuff.  Sticking close to marketing and advertising, we’re already seeing companies like Outbrain using ad-like-tech to intelligently distribute content.  But that’s just the beginning.  In the near term, I believe we need our digital publishers, marketers and agencies to shed the intellectual strait-jacket of “ad delivery” and move into the information delivery age.  Anything and everything can move through the pipes we’ve created.  The only bottleneck is our own imagination.  I’ll close with something I wrote back in 2005, which seems like an appropriate call to arms:

The tail has already started to wag the dog. Nearly all of the really interesting and important questions in the media world are either being answered online… Now is the time for a new level of dialogue with marketers; a dialogue rooted in confidence and opportunity.

Thanks John.  And Happy Thanksgiving to all.


Breaking BetterAdvertising Week 2013 runs through Friday.  Breaking Bad ends its 6-season run on Sunday night.  Coincidence?  Perhaps…

When I think of the first 12 or 13 years of the digital ad business, it now seems like the Jesse Pinkman era.  For those of you who don’t follow BB, at the series’ outset Jesse was a small time meth cook and a legend in his own mind, tooling around town a chopped Monte Carlo with Captain Cook vanity plates.  Jesse was all bluster and attitude, but in his own way he meant well.  Enter Walter White, Jesse’s high school chemistry teacher, who brings ambition, urgency and massive amounts of science to the task.  Suffice to say, within a very short time it’s an altogether different business.  As is ours.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Evidon. Evidon produces new, accurate intelligence on how the digital marketplace really works, so companies can make more informed decisions for their businesses. Powered by Ghostery® data, Evidon solutions include unparalleled insight into the marketing technologies that underpin the commercial internet and the power to control their impact on business. 

For those who still plan to binge-view the series, no spoilers here.  But the question for Walt and Jesse — and for us — is just what how much staying power and sustainability the new enterprise will ultimately enjoy.   The Walter White era of online advertising has been built on a foundation of (a) an inconceivably massive volume of page views and ad calls, (b) just enough passable data to credibly inform ad decisions, (c) enough venture funding to spawn a score of solid decision engines, (d) cookies to link it all together and (e) advertising buyers willing to avoid the thorniest questions.  I don’t know for sure if things get better or worse going forward:  if you can find six people who agree what “better” or “worse” would be, send them my way.  But I believe that at least some of these pillars will give way.

One plausible scenario is that the industry uses some of the wealth and momentum we enjoy to put our house in order.  An issue like viewability — a huge share of our massive volume of page views  going unseen or, worse, being generated fraudulently — is an embarrassing symptom.   Our collective response to strictures on third-party cookies — “we’ll just do something else” — may be true, but it misses the point.  And we can certainly demand deeper and better sources of meaningful consumer data instead of continuing to rely on warmed over observations and stale cookies.

I know there will be some who say I’m hatin’ on the biz.  Not true.  I love the innovation, the courage, the invention, the people…all of it.  I just want to see it all devoted to building great businesses — and a great business — that will stand the test of time.   We may not think we have anything in common with Walt and Jesse’s business, but remember that we both call our customers “users” and our business “traffic.”  Maybe it’s time for a change.

Publicis/Omnicom: Déjà vu?

Deja VuAs Mark Twain famously quipped, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  And as I’m reading all this monumental, breathless coverage  of the Publicis/Omnicom merger and what it will mean about the future of data in marketing…well, I’m getting this funny feeling that I’ve seen this movie before.  And the movie had lots of airplanes in it.

The advertising business used to be all about writing ads and selling stuff.  And the airline business used to be all about flying planes and getting people from place to place.  Then back in the 1980s, the major airlines – United, American and Delta, primarily – started to sense that the world was changing:  the industry was deregulated, ending a lot of the big guys’ inherent protection and spurring the creation of dozens of smaller, more nimble competitors.  (Ad business, you feelin’ me on this?)  New price competition cut margins to the bone and left the airlines looking for a way out.  That way out ended up being a new business:  the transaction business.

Does your company need to connect with publishers, sales leaders and other key decision makers in our industry?  Let us know and we’ll tell you how to use “The Drift” as a powerful, exclusive trade marketing platform.

If we can’t make enough money putting butts in our airplane seats, let’s try getting a micropayment every time anybody puts a butt in any airplane seat.  Hence the birth of divisions called Galileo, Sabre, Amadeus and WorldSpan – airline reservation systems.  For a while they were a license to print money;  a new, defensible high ground of profitability and control.  Ultimately there was consolidation and (inevitably) legal squabbles;  divisions became freestanding companies…there was divestiture…yada yada.   Eventually the internet came along and what used to be available to only professionals – airline operators, gate agents, travel agents – now got into the hands of Joe Traveler.

The comparison isn’t perfect….but it does rhyme.   The ad business was once marked by long, loyal customer relationships (some of them at least) and by certain institutional barriers to entry;  you needed big, impressive offices, talented artists and writers on staff, the concentrated buying clout to get the best rates.  How much of that is true anymore?  So the big holding companies – Omnicom, Publicis (soon to merge), IPG and WPP – have decided to get into the transaction business.  Their trading desk business units  –Accuen, Audience-on-Demand, Cadreon and Xaxis – are starting to look a lot like 21st Century versions of the airline reservation systems;  they’re an acknowledgement that the financial high ground won’t be won through creative brilliance and superior service, but rather by dominating the world of transactions and distribution.

Here’s the kicker:  It’s 30 years later and the world moves so much faster now.  What took a couple of decades to play out for the travel industry may play out for the ad business in just 4 or 5 years – if that.  We’re just seeing the first major consolidation.  What’s next?