ad tech

Better Choices.

Pssst… Hey… Cookies are going away. Pass it on…

OK, so maybe this has been the longest goodbye since BREXIT. But now, given the announcement by Google that Cookies will be made obsolete on the Chrome browser within two years, we’ve finally got some punctuation. The “sell-by” date on cookies has been made plain.

There are thousands in our business – with much bigger tech chops than mine – who can debate and discuss the technical minutiae and micro-implications for the winners and losers. My purpose here is not to debate those questions, but rather to try and influence the next set of technology decisions.

Most sellers end their meetings right before things get good. Prime information and qualification don’t happen until a closing question gets asked. In a short, time-efficient workshop, Upstream Group can walk your team through the process and role-play the very-real-life scenarios they face in the market. Reach out today. The consult is free.

The Cookie was invented on the fly for a rather innocuous purpose. The dumb old web servers of yore had no way of distinguishing one server request from the last or the next. Without each browser having this “sense of state” the server could not tell whether it was ten separate users or the same user doing ten things. Without something like the Cookie, online commerce and other everyday functionality were largely impossible.

But then something very predictable happened. Either ignorant or unconcerned about the potential for misuse, the tech community hugged the flag of libertarianism and disavowed any moral ownership for what they had built and continued to build upon. Did anyone ever step up and ask, Hey… is this really OK? We had essentially created a surveillance technology that covertly monitored and recorded the online travels and behaviors of a few billion people. But no, nobody ever asked that question.

I know that, in light of Facebook officially sanctioning lies by political candidates, a pair of shoes following you around the web may not seem like much. But it was the same civic blindness and moral ambiguity that drove both decisions… and will drive many more in the future. Is there a place in the boardrooms and billion-dollar campuses for moral and ethical questions? Who will raise the values on which our best decisions will be made or call out the social and ethical implications of shortsightedness?

Just because we can does not necessarily mean we should.

At our next Seller Forum gathering we’ll be discussing the specific implications for publishers; how they can pursue richer, more truth-based businesses in the post-Cookie era. I believe there’s a very real possibility that this is another step in a march toward authenticity, first-party relationships and the value of the publisher/reader/programmer/viewer relationships.

I also believe that we too quickly forget our bad decisions and the bad decision-making that generated them.  I hope there will be someone in the room to advocate for privacy and honesty. I hope someone is there to ask the hard questions.

If you’re a qualified sales leader and might like to attend Seller Forum on Wednesday March 18th in New York, reach out now for your invitation.


When the Music Stops.

When the Music StopsRecent industry rumblings describe widespread confusion about the many ad technology players crowding the landscape today.  More ominously, we’re hearing about the bloodbath-to-come when consolidation strikes the ad-tech sector.  Perhaps the only thing surprising or disturbing about either of these stories is that they would surprise or disturb anyone at this point.

Digiday’s recent multiple-choice, ad-tech quiz challenged industry know-it-alls to guess which tech vendors made which claims about themselves.  I’m pretty sure even the companies’ own marketing teams couldn’t have passed the test, since the slogans all played out like some bizarre Haiku competition in which all poets had to use the same half-dozen words:  “….platform…leading…real time…programmatic…transparent….”  There quickly followed Jack Marshall’s warning that the ad tech shakeout is coming, conveniently titled “The Ad Tech Shakeout is Coming.”  According to Jack, once-plentiful VC money is drying up and many of the big suitors – Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon – have already chosen their ad tech prom dates.  Now where have I heard this before?  Oh, yeah!  From LUMA Partners CEO Terry Kawaja:  the entire reason he created the now-ubiquitous LUMAscape chart was to illustrate how wildly-crowded, incrementally-absurd and ridiculously over-capitalized the ad tech M&A market was.  And now it seems the music might be stopping soon and there aren’t so many seats left to grab.

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So what’s an ad tech company to do?  Well, first, nobody’s asking me for my advice; I’ve never spent a day managing a startup company.  But I do talk to a lot of people in this world and I’m a pretty good listener.  So for whatever they’re worth, here are a few suggestions for ad tech players looking to survive the impending chill:

  1. Figure out who you serve.  Fast.  Hedging your bets by trying to simultaneously serve every possible customer who could ever buy anything from you is no longer viable.  What used to be “versatile” is now just “unfocused.”
  2. Fewer logos, more activation.  Every ad tech player has a PowerPoint slide jammed with “partner” logos, but it’s debatable how much partnership is really going on.  Just because you dropped a tag or pixel in their stack doesn’t make them your partner.  Get focused on relationship yield and how you’re going to truly activate (and monetize) your best customers.  Then stop talking about all the others.   Nobody believes you anyway.
  3. Focus on the experience.  You might think it’s all about technical superiority.  And you’d be wrong.  Most of your potential “partners” are probably just trying to keep up with the technical jargon and nuance.  What they remember – and what they pay for – is a superior business experience.  Get stuff done.  Keep promises.  Anticipate.  Advise.
  4. Start with the customer and the problem.  Throw out all those “who we are” slides leftover from your VC pitch deck.  On slide one, tell the customer what you know about them. On slide two, identify a problem you think they might have.  You may think you have to first introduce your company and give them context but, again, you’d be wrong.
  5. Run it like you plan to stick around for a while.  You just might have to.

Open the Gate.

Looking back over the past 20 years in the Digital Marketing bubble, there have been a handful of disruptive “barbarians at the gate” moments that shake our foundations and challenge the way we think of the world.  The collapse of the tech bubble in 2000 reintroduced the ideas of gravity and final accounting.  The Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series changed the terms of the debate around online consumer privacy.  Now Mike Shields from Adweek has come to the gate with “Ad Wreck: VC-backed ad tech firms have arguably inflicted one big mess on digital advertising.”

Now, if you’re a CEO in the Ad Tech business, you’re probably not sending Mike a Christmas card this year.  Indeed, if you’d seen him at the gate you might have been tempted to call out the archers or dump some boiling oil from atop the castle walls.  I mean, he’s saying things like “It sounds counterintuitive that loads of cash threatens to harm an industry, but a growing chorus complains that VC dollars have, in fact, done more harm than good to online advertising.”  Ouch!

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But before you shoot the messenger, read the article.  Rather than quibbling over the details or reflexively staking your claim of exceptionalism, accept the reality of Mike’s thesis.  The article quotes Daniel Klaus of K2 Labs:  “There has been so much money wasted, and it continues to be wasted in this space. When it comes to ad tech, there are very few signs that it is really working.”   While investors like Klaus are more vocal, the meme is taking root at the publisher level as well.  “Publishers are reluctant to talk about their ad tech experiences on the record, but many privately describe having dramatically cut their lists of third-party partners.”

The weak CEO responds to these ideas with vitriol or denial.  The strong and visionary accept that there’s a sea change in marketplace attitude and adjust to that new reality.

People often ask me if I’m down on the programmatic, technology-driven side of our business.  I am not.  For the record, I’ve always believed that technology-driven process automation is a natural phenomenon in our world and will only get bigger as the years go by.  I wrote about it in 2007 and I still believe it today.  But I also just as firmly believe that (a) the ad tech marketplace must and should consolidate into the hands of very few companies and (b) that the flood of VC money has perverted the market, creating a surreal world in which “serial entrepreneurs” survive by continually taxing the dollar exchange between marketer and publisher.

So what’s an Ad Tech CEO to do?  Build your company and your services to last 25 years, not 25 months.  Build products that grow new value and create new revenue, rather than simply finding incremental savings in an already collapsing banner market.  In the flood of VC money, a lot of things floated that weren’t necessarily boats.  Now is the time to build well.