Web 25: News, Speech and Advertising

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: News, Speech and Advertising.

It seems that we’ve been talking about the web’s role in the demise of the news business from day one.  As the familiar narrative goes, more consumer time, attention and news-viewing migrated away from printed newspapers and news magazines while simultaneously the three advertising pillars of print journalism – auto sales, classifieds and real estate – were reinvented by digital entrepreneurs. Through the lens of gauzy nostalgia, it’s easy to see this as a two-character tragedy.

It’s more accurate, however, to view it as a much more complex three-character drama. While the web was taking its first tentative steps as a commercial news and information medium in the fall of 1994, OJ Simpson’s white Bronco had just been brought to a stop, Fox News was just about to be invented, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was being busily drafted and lobbied. The mid-90s was when the full-time media spectacle, the idea of news as entertainment and the end of rules preventing consolidated media ownership all converged.

Kind of makes you stop thinking of the web as the wrecking ball of newspapers and more as the savior of actual news.

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Two of the promises of digital technology and web publishing were the democratization of news gathering and the preservation of transparency. To a significant degree, these promises have been kept. But it’s complicated.

It’s legitimate to mourn the demise of so many print newspapers and the thinning of their staffs (and closing of bureaus) as they’ve moved to digital distribution. And we can also lament the devolution of cable news into a bottomless pit of rancorous talking heads stoking the partisan furnace. At the same time we can see a generation of young – and not-so-young journalists building their own identities and news credentials via blogs, Twitter, self-publishing and story updates no longer dependent on print deadlines. Somewhat ironically, those same correspondents are increasingly sought out to fill open hours on cable news programming, thereby amplifying the signal on what they write and report.

But is advertising revenue – what you and I do for a living – making a positive contribution to the present and future of news and speech? That’s even more complicated. While brands are often willing to sponsor big, high-profile publishing projects along with news organizations, day-to-day media buyers are blacklisting news related content. In the name of brand safety, we’re saying no to the climate change adjacency and yes to another cat video.

Advertisers aren’t necessarily responsible for the direct support of journalism and free speech. But blanket avoidance of content that’s so persistently important and present in the lives of the customer is a moral and strategic failure. Bringing brands and advertising budgets back into natural, healthy alignment with news and journalism is an unfinished job. Here’s hoping our greatest brands step up and step in.

Web 25: Did We Change Advertising?

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 impact of digital on the practice of advertising.

As Internet Advertising started to find its legs in 1995-96, there was a fair bit of handwringing among those who took it’s still-uncertain future seriously. Like the re purposed radio shows that comprised early 1950s television programming, advertising on the web was derivative of its predecessor forms. The first banners were tiny outdoor ads. As bandwidth expanded and boxes got bigger, on-page ads started to resemble magazine advertising. Streaming ushered in progressively longer, faster, higher-fidelity TV ads. But to re-purpose the inimitable Peggy Lee, Is that all there is?

Yes and no.

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As it turns out, the sight/sound/motion of TV Ads…. pretty….pretty good!  Staying within the classic definition of advertising, video seems to make everybody happy. The consumer appetite for digital video – ad supported and otherwise – seems bottomless. It doesn’t replace the mythic reach of the Big 4 Network/TV age, but it’s as significant as most anything out there today. And advertisers have stepped up.  Aside from the occasional YouTube/brand safety kerfuffle, they seem to want to buy just about whatever is available.

So did we change advertising?  Yes, we took the historic TV model of video ads accompanying content and made it more targetable and accountable, and put it – literally – in the hand of the consumer via the mobile device. Have we yet fulfilled the potential that digital technology enables?

Not yet.

While the popularity and profit of the video advertising model will keep us all well-fed for many years, the ultimate change in advertising will be its full immersion in, and submission to, business and commerce. Digital technology and communication have rendered the old barriers between hearing, learning, considering, choosing and buying obsolete. And while we’ve made some brief nods toward blending ads and commerce, our goal has always been more accountable advertising… an improved status quo.

The real change will be when we don’t think of it as advertising at all, but rather as just an early stage in the commercial relationship. The tech is there. So far, the will is not. But real change is inevitable.

The End of ‘Advertising.’

Accountable direct response ad sellers would often say “Selling is like shaving: if you don’t do some of it every day, you’re a bum.” It was a handy way for DR sellers to contrast their work with that of the ad sellers out there peddling branding – which they dismissed as no more than a con.

But today the slogan takes on a deeper meaning for all ad sellers, publishers, tech and marketing service providers. The jig is up, the news is out, the fatted calf has been picked clean. For generations, we’ve organized our businesses and revenue models around helping advertisers and their legion of agencies spend their money… perhaps a little more accountably, responsibly, efficiently or viewably than the next guy. We’ve all been citizens of ‘the Capital-A-Ad Business,’ and we spoke its language and observed its customs. But no more.

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Fundamental change doesn’t always break down the door. Often it creeps in on tiny cat feet. And while we were busy arguing and negotiating over how much of that big pile of ad money would go to digital or TV or something else, marketers have been under siege from direct-to-consumer competitors, a collapsing retail channel, online shopping and more. In the face of this existential crisis, they’ve fallen out of love with advertising.

Well… to put a finer point on it, they’ve fallen out of love with advertising for the sake of advertising.

Which leads me back to the new premise. Today we must all help the marketer sell – we must attach ourselves to business outcomes, become co-marketers…lest we be dismissed as bums. To survive and thrive in what used to be called the ad sales business we must all go back to school and become fluent in the language and customs of marketing. Someday soon our talk of rating points, viewability and attribution will sound as anachronistic as the Latin mass.

The 21st century ad seller is a business problem solver. She doesn’t wait for budgets, she helps create them. She avoids the watering hole where the herd gathers for RFPs and planning cycles. She hunts alone. She knows more about how the client’s business works – how he sells his products, who he sells them through and what gets them bought – than anyone but the client.

She sells. Every day. But she doesn’t sell ads. She helps the customer sell product.

Lightly edited, this post originally ran in 2017. Perhaps more relevant still today.

Deep State Advertising.

Over the 20+ years I’ve known him, I’ve always thought Rishad Tobaccowala (now with Publicis Groupe) was a national treasure.   He has that rare gift of being able to intellectually surround an issue and then quickly carve it down to its most essential point.  So it was with particular interest that I read his prediction that advertising would decline 30% over the next five years.

He’s right, of course.

The principle reason he cites for this decline is the flight to ad free environments.  “We don’t value (consumers’) time,” he explains, going on to quote the valuation as “less than minimum wage.”  I agree, but for a somewhat more elaborate set of reasons.

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I think too much of the “advertising industry” is just that:  an industry devoted to advertising… to generating more and more and more of it; to giving each other awards for it; to managing it’s migration into every nook and cranny of life.  If we’re honest we’ll admit that the “advertising industry” has become a self-referential deep state affair, hell-bent on its own survival.

We’ll also admit that many of us have lost sight of the original story-line, the real mission:  that the purpose of our work is not to win the next agency bake-off or secure a bigger share of “the budget.” We’re supposed to be devoted to helping marketers sell products, grow their businesses, build factories and employ workers. Small wonder that marketers have come to see advertising not as a source of growth but as a cost-center.

To paraphrase noted Vermonter and 30th president Calvin Coolidge, “the business of advertising is business.”  Or at least it should be.

Not to sound like too much of a relic, but when I started out at a small ad agency at age 22, part of my training program was delivering beer kegs, shadowing bank tellers and working in a shipping warehouse full of car polish.  It may seem quaint now, but we understood on a visceral level the business our clients were in. And by extension the business we were in.

We’ve lost a little something since then.  I hope we get some of it back.

Hack to the Future.

Hack to the FutureLast week in this space I published a post called “The Full Service Publisher,” in which I speculated that media companies were stepping into the full-service void created by decades of ad agency fragmentation and bureaucratic shuffling.   While I still see this as a hard trend, I was forwarded Mike Drexler’s excellent post from Media Village which might come under the heading “…not so fast!”

Drexler describes McDonald’s recent insistence that Omnicom create the equivalent of a full service agency to handle its business going forward.   It’s tempting to speculate – as Drexler does – that this “may be a snapshot of the future as more clients reexamine their business requirements in a complex and fast changing digital environment.”  Or not.

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I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it’s highly unlikely.  Here, in my humble opinion, is why:

  1. Like the best-selling book says, show me the incentives and I’ll show you the behavior.  The holding companies are incented to keep media buying and planning separate from other services because it’s probably the most profitable stand-alone business they have. Unless the climate continues to sour and margins get way smaller, leadership won’t act against their own financial interest.  People just don’t.
  2. The Lost Generation. Even if agency leadership was highly motivated to put the pieces back together, agency services have been siloed for so long that there’s just about no one left who remembers how integration is supposed to work.  See how many people in marketing today remember Jay Chiat, Bill Bernbach or Jerry Della Femina.  The code is lost, I fear.
  3. The Talent Vacuum. Every few months we focus on a new crop of hyper-talented agency leaders and anoint them as the saviors of the practice.  And every few months, 8 of every 10 leave; they move to the client side, they join media companies, and increasingly they throw in with platforms and social powers.  Re-animating the golden age of full-service agencies is a big job that calls for the best business thinkers on the planet.  Do agencies have the cachet – or cash – to attract and retain that talent?

Welcome to the dawn of the full service marketing age, which agencies may just sleep through.