Web 25: Targeting and Personalization


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, Targeting and Personalization.

As our small team of outlaws were selling the first ads on the web, it would be more than a year till the invention of the first ad server.

Think about that for a minute.

There was no practical way to serve an ad independent of the page it was selected to run on. User targeting was impossible. To us – then – it was enough that a marketer could talk to a customer based on whether she was viewing a page about home improvement or cooking. That you had an opportunity to advertise at just the exact moment when relevant attention was being spent was, at the time, revolutionary.  Of course, that moment couldn’t scale and wouldn’t hold. Change was inevitable… but what kind?

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The deal we struck with consumers (or at least told each other at conferences) was better and more personalized advertising and content experiences in exchange for data. We’ll be watching you, but we’ll make it worth your while.  By even the most charitable estimate, we haven’t lived up to that bargain. We went on a serious bender of infinite supply and cheap data…and the hangover is a bitch.  Seeing no value, consumers have revolted. Politicians of all stripes are engaged. GDPR has led to CCPA. And major marketers are demanding heretofore unseen levels of transparency and purity.

And as a result, just maybe we’re getting back to what made this all special in the first place.

No one is naïve enough to think we’ll go backwards to a world without ad servers. But look at what is happening. First party data is quickly becoming table stakes. Marketers are taking a fresh look at context: they are moving beyond brand safety and looking for brand building environments. There’s been a boom in content marketing and high-production-value video adjacencies. Publishers are rising to the challenge of delivering real personalization and reciprocal value to marketers and consumers.

We’re not going to start hard coding ads onto web pages again. But if we pay attention, we might realize that we’ve found the source code for a healthy web for marketers, publishers and consumers. A little bit of ’94 might still be good for us.


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.


The Holding Pen.


Five years ago in this space I wrote about The Illusion of Inclusion – the already-dysfunctional agency RFP process that gave digital sellers a false sense of progress and scuttled their sales activity before it could do any good.  Five years later the contours of the problem have shifted, but its impact is even worse.

In the scores of sales workshops and interviews I conduct, I still hear about well-intentioned sales teams pitching clients and conceiving ideas only to then get told We’ll be sending out RFPs in a few weeks.  More unfortunate still are the reps and organizations whose sole intent is to get a spot on that ill-fated RFP list.  In the intervening five years – as programmatic buying and consolidation have taken root — the number of winners has gotten shorter and the environment has gotten far less hospitable to non-platform publishers and sales orgs.  And participation in the process has gotten far more costly:  today’s RFP submission may include outside talent, events, technology, design, yield and more.  And all in service of a process in which you may never have had a chance.

Every sales leader wants a team that’s more proactive and strategic – a team that controls its own destiny.  But how to get there?  A sales workshop with Doug Weaver and Upstream Group is easier and more cost-effective than you might imagine.  Reach out to us today to discuss what you want for your team.  The consult is free.

Those whose offerings lean more into programmatic inventory, data and ad tech services may think none of this applies to you.  But it does.  We’re going to be looking at new vendors in Q1 and we’ll including you in that bake-off is just one example of you being effectively told to take a number.  The truth is we are all working harder to get the consideration of buying organizations that are operating short-handed and who don’t necessarily have the full confidence and commitment of their clients.  Being deferred or shuttled into an RFP process with dozens of competitors is professional quicksand.

What to do?

  • Have a clear business or marketing objective at the center of your proactive proposals and ideas.
  • Understand the client’s calendar and use important dates and time periods as leverage.
  • Qualify the decision makers you call on before you call on them, and then again at the close of each sales call.
  • Make it abundantly clear to your salespeople that getting on the RFP is not a victory; define the goals for every client or agency meeting very specifically.
  • Look hard at the time and resources you’re committing to answering RFPs; the creative talent and resources you’re expending would be better used in smart, proactive approaches to customers.
  • Be ambitious and unreasonable. If you’re only trying displace the weakest vendor on the list or just get a chance to show your stuff, there’s no room for you anymore.  Go big or don’t go at all.

We’ve been talking about the demise of the RFP for over a decade. Yet it survives.  And it’s become the holding pen for sellers, technologies and ideas that should instead be getting active, urgent consideration.  Accepting its failed promise is the worst strategic decision any of us can make.


My Mother’s Son.


I was holding my 91-year-old Mom’s hand when she died on Saturday.  And today I’m going to use my tiny bit of weekly attention to make her just a little more famous. She deserves that. Of course this has nothing to do with digital advertising or sales; just a whole lot about real greatness and the resilience of the human spirit.

Pat Weaver was born during the first years of passenger aviation and commercial radio and died during the age of paid space travel and YouTube celebrities. She was a child of the Great Depression, a World War II teenager and an 18-year old bride and mother of five during the postwar years of the baby boom. She did what needed to be done, often at the expense of her own personal opportunities, but always with a sense of joy and optimism. The wife of a Sheriff’s deputy, she always worked at least one job – often two – and was the stable daily presence in the lives of her sons.

She started adult life with a high school diploma, a marriage license and a one-way train ticket from her native Louisiana to Los Angeles. (That’s the trip she’s on in the picture at left.) Perhaps because of this, she became a lifelong learner, earning college credits for decades and writing out copious notes and journal entries on what fascinated her. And everything fascinated her. She faced down cancer and battled clinical depression and mental illness. And though she came age when such things were not to be discussed, she became an advocate for and friend to others who struggled to heal. Nobody suffered alone on my Mom’s watch. Nobody.

During an age that was not particularly kind to women, my Mom was unfailingly kind. In the face of adversity and loss, she chose resilience and optimism. During the final years of life, when many become isolated and despondent, Pat decided to embrace her life and every new person who came on the scene. Anonymous for three quarters of a century, she made her first movie at the tender age of 88. Through resilience and optimism and unquenchable joy, she won. She won big.

If something I’ve written or said to you over the years has made you feel more hopeful or confident – if I’ve helped you somehow – that’s all her. Her being there for me gave me the strength to be there for others.

As anyone would, I love getting awards and hearing praise. But the best thing that will every be said about me is that I was my mother’s son. Living up to that would be my greatest accomplishment. I’ll let you know if I ever get there.

If you are so moved, please consider donating to Mental Health America in the name of someone who inspires you.  And thanks for reading a little bit about my Mom.


Into the Void… Boldly.


That giant sucking sound you hear is the big empty space at the beginning of many sales calls and business ‘relationships.’  It’s the Bermuda triangle of connection and progress; a black hole where the bright star of an insight or an idea might have shone. It didn’t have to be this way.

Across scores of seller interviews I conduct in preparing workshops each year, I hear a consistent litany of frustrations and complaints:

Is your team asking the hard questions that would better qualify opportunities and decision makers? For the customer, there’s no upside in communicating a negative decision. Sellers have to work for the real answers. That work can begin with an Upstream Group sales workshop. It’s easier and more cost effective than you might imagine. And the consult is free. Reach out now to talk it over.

The buyer puts us in a box with a bunch of other companies…

They don’t really listen to us…

It’s all about the numbers…

They’re not seeing the big picture…

We don’t really get a chance to compete…

But blaming the buyer, your marketing team, fate, God or anyone else makes no sense. You’ve got the power to fix this yourself. You see, there’s a fleeting moment at the outset of the sales discussion that you’re not filling with anything meaningful and urgent. Call it the “agenda vacuum.” Sometimes the vacuum is there because the rep just didn’t do the work, choosing instead to walk in with a canned presentation and ‘see what’s up.’ Other times the rep chooses passivity and caution: “Be polite and find out what the buyer wants to talk about.” Or the agenda is something incredibly lame like…

I want to really understand your objectives for the year…

I just wanted to introduce you to our company….

Let me update you on… whatever.

If you don’t put something urgent and provocative in front of the buyer in the first 90 seconds of your call, your buyer will step into the vacuum and fill it themselves. They’ll fill it with rote questions, flawed categorization, indifference, false objections, a recitation of numerical parameters or something worse. I’ll leave you with a tip to help you fill the void. Make this the first sentence of your next sales meeting:

We’ve looked at your business, and there’s one big issue we don’t think you recognize. And if it’s not addressed, you’ll be missing a huge opportunity.

Do the work. Think. Plan. Fill the vacuum.

These ideas were originally posted here in January 2013.