Online Media

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.


Stop. Drop. Roll.

The irony about our work in digital advertising and marketing is that our automated business is built on the back of a million human dependencies.  Whether you’re involved in ad tech, content marketing or something in between, you rely on a set of intricate, demanding relationships.  And even when all is going well, things can get tense and relationships can fray.  I’ve seen this kind of breakdown destroy teams and sour talented people on the business.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

Just over a year ago I saw a simple but life-changing talk by the very talented Marcus Weston, coach, speaker, mentor to business leaders and rabbi in the Kabbalah sect of Judaism.  The core message was very straightforward:  Most interpersonal conflict occurs because of how we react immediately in the moment. We read an email or hear a comment…we feel slighted or hurt…and we immediately lash back.  A destructive cycle thus begins and rapidly escalates.

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But as Marcus tells us, we are only very rarely responding to what others do or say.  We instead are responding to the story our ego is telling us about what’s been done or said.  Someone seems distracted and not paying attention to you in a meeting:  your ego says They don’t respect you!  How arrogant! But your ego may be an unreliable narrator.  What if that person was dealing with a very ill child or parent?  Someone else chimes in on an email string and seems to dismiss the concern you’ve raised.  Out to get you?  Undermining your value?  Or is she attempting to calm everything down but her note loses context as an email?

With credit and apologies to Marcus, I’ve paraphrased the coping strategy he gave us to make it accessible those who may be struggling to maintain relationships in our overheated atmosphere.  Yes, it’s the same cadence you follow when you find yourself suddenly on fire.  This is intentional.

STOP!  Simply don’t respond.  Hit the pause button.  Give your super-ego time to step in and assess the situation.

DROP!  Drop the current story line.  Just refuse to accept it.  No, that’s not what’s actually happening.  I won’t accept that explanation.

ROLL!  Roll out an alternative explanation and an alternative response.  Hey Stacy, it seems like we may have crossed wires back there.  I know we’re all moving pretty fast and juggling a lot.  Tell me a little more about your take on things so I fully understand.

It’s a simple recipe for using generosity to defuse potential conflict.  It’s a mindful, intentional response to situations where we otherwise lose our heads.  And it just might be the key to living and succeeding in our highly inter-dependent world.

Native vs. Naive.

TOSHIBA Exif JPEGLots of hate brewing lately for native advertising.  We’ve all seen John Oliver’s hilarious 12 minute rant on his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight.”  More recently, on Digiday, we learn – courtesy of JWT Atlanta’s Todd Copilevitz – that “Native advertising is further proof we’ve lost our way.”

I’m going to shortchange Todd’s otherwise thoughtful commentary by pointing out what I think are its wobbliest pillars.  The first is contained in the headline:  the idea that advertising and media ever really had a “way” to lose in the first place.  The old rules about church and state worked about as well on Madison Avenue as they did in Tudor England.   Advertisers have been trying to crowd the lines and occupy the editorial and entertainment spaces since long before Don Draper was shaking down patrons for change in that Pennsylvania whorehouse of his youth.

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The article also calls for a re-commitment to our various roles in the mix:   advertisers make great brands and products, editors write great articles, while agency creatives pen masterful ad messages. But this agreement that we’d all stay in our lanes and swim our hardest was, in truth, nothing more than a convenience.  That advertising would live in little fenced-off pods and boxes while content would stay outside those lines was simply a delivery arrangement; in the world of TV it’s still a darned good one.  Online we’ve seen the rapid commoditization of those pods and boxes matched by consumers studied willingness to ignore and avoid them.  So the arrangement breaks down more rapidly.  No big surprise.

A third point in the piece is that marketers and agencies are just not doing a good enough job of storytelling.  This is a myth we’ve told ourselves about advertising for generations, and we’ve embellished it with creative award shows and the annual Super Bowl beauty pageant.  There are some ads that are more clever than others, but what it comes down to is just whether they are effective (or not) at doing what they’re supposed to do.  Storytelling is far too big a concept to be contained in banner ads, 30-second spots and full page ads.  Marketers will use every channel available – packaging, publicity, events, public relations, retailer relationships, infomercials and, yes, native advertising.

Todd is right in saying that native isn’t a brand new concept.  But it is a timely acknowledgment and codification of a practice that’s going to be increasingly needed in today’s asymmetrical world of marketing and media.

Flopping Into the Future.

Flopping Into the FutureIn looking through my business and creative library for ideas for this fall’s Upstream Seller Forum Leadership event, I came across The Imagination Challenge by Alexander Manu, which my good friend John Durham gave me a decade ago.  I immediately recalled one of the great stories of innovation contained in the book.

For a couple of millennia, the high jump had been pretty much executed the same way.  The jumper would approach the bar straight on and then execute a straddle jump, in which the lead leg and arm are thrown over the bar and the back leg and arm follow.  The jump would end with the athlete landing in a shallow sand pit. If you saw film of such a jump today it would look archaic – much like the underhand free-throw or the straight on placekick.

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In the early 60s, foam rubber was developed and, in a nod to athlete safety, sand pits were replaced by foam landing pads in the pit.  To most jumpers, this meant fewer sprained ankles and broken wrists.  But one jumper – Dick Fosbury – took a deeper look at this innovation: he asked, “What is now possible?”  Fosbury realized that the new landing surface would also prevent broken necks, allowing for an entirely different approach to the bar.  Inventing what was then called “the Fosbury Flop” – and what’s now simply “the high jump” – he ran to the bar, turned his back on it, cleared it backward, kicked his trailing legs up, landed on his back and neck in the foam pit – and blew apart two thousand years of a sport’s conventional wisdom.

What relevance does this story have in our world?  More than you might imagine.  We are constantly confronted by massive innovation:  real-time, data enabled marketing…programmatic audience buying….cheap and plentiful broadband access…social and sharing technologies.  These are the foam rubber of our age.  A great many of us take these innovations in stride, going about the business of what we already know and do.  Some wring their hands or curse the fates for bringing so much unwelcome change.  Other might make some subtle changes or adjustments to the new reality, all with the goal of protecting their own status quo.

Rare, though, is the modern day Fosbury, who looks at the newly disrupted landscape and asks, “What is now possible that wasn’t before?”  Innovation and disruption are not the sole province of the Jobs, Gates, Pages and Brins of the world though.  We can all stand a little reinvention…and we’re all capable of it.  Take the leap.

If you’re a CRO, EVP, SVP or VP in a digital media sales organization and would like an invitation to the fall Upstream Seller Forum in New York on October 28th, drop me a note. We’d love to have you join our unique, peer-to-peer community.

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.”

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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.