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.

P&G’s Last Stand.

Last January at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, I followed Procter & Gamble CMO Marc Pritchard on stage after his speech about all that was wrong with the digital supply chain – the first of his ultimatums to the digital advertising channel.  It was a very impressive speech, and he said a lot that needed to be said.  Ten years ago we used to joke that P&G shouldn’t get to make any public pronouncements about digital advertising until it actually spent money on it; and here was the P&G CMO – who’d spent a lot in recent years – having his say.

But then came the Ides of March.  In an instant P&G cut $100 million in digital ad spend, with the implied threat that until we got our collective act together on fraud, viewability, standardization and more, that money wasn’t coming back.  I know many sales reps who did land office P&G business in 2016 and who are now seeing a big fat zero in that column.

But I wonder….

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I wonder if this is all as clear as it’s meant to look.  All that money went away:  will it really all come back once MRC accreditation kicks in?  I’m starting to think that it won’t.  And even if it does, I’m not sure it’s going to flow through the same pipes or look anything like the spending we all got used to in recent years.

I wonder if P&G cutting $100 million from digital wasn’t just the least painful, most justifiable way they could make a significant move away from above-the-line brand advertising.  The world has changed dramatically for P&G and other packaged goods giants in recent years, and the change doesn’t have all that much to do with viewability standards on digital banners.  The simple truth is that the distribution chain has been completely upended.  Amazon has become a dominant channel for the sale of packaged goods, household and personal care products, and they will continue to press the P&Gs of the world for deeper and deeper discounts.  That money has to come from someplace.

I wonder if those working so hard to win P&G’s digital advertising money back might be fighting the last war….as if we all just assumed that the biggest TV advertisers would morph into the biggest digital spenders.  I wonder if advertising isn’t being seen now as a cost center to be managed and if the goal might be to buy less and less of it.

I wonder if we all need to think less about how we’ll help P&G spend its shrinking pile of advertising cash and how – instead – we might help them sell more product in a world where there’s a new normal for distribution and consumer behavior.

I wonder if we’re not all missing the story line here.

Six Questions for Louis Rossetto, Father of Web Advertising

Louis Rossetto FinalYesterday, 10/27/14, marked exactly 20 years since Louis Rossetto and Wired Ventures launched the HotWired site, and with it created the first ads on the World Wide Web. I was honored to have been part of that organization and just last week caught up with Louis to hear his thoughts on that time and on what’s happened in the 20 intervening years.

1. Hot Wired launched exactly 20 years ago, giving birth to online advertising.  Did you ever think its offspring would be so numerous and prosperous?

When we were all standing around Brian Behlendorf’s screen and he threw the switch, I was just hoping the server wouldn’t crash when it got its first hit. No, actually, we believed that this was the future of media, and it would eclipse and subsume everything else we were doing. And all is proceeding according to plan.

2. You are first and foremost an editor and journalist.  What do you think of the writing and curation on the web today?

Actually, I’m first and foremost a troublemaker, which anyone who ever worked with me would attest to. But the web today — it’s like asking what do I think about the writing and curation of evolution. Because it’s the ecology itself that’s amazing. No one is writing or curating it, it is writing and curating itself. More and more, it’s becoming a quicksilver representation of the workings of the human brain — which is itself a manifestation of billions of years of evolution.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by comScore. For media sellers, comScore helps demonstrate the quality of their inventory in traditional and programmatic environments as well as provide tools for internal pricing and packaging. VIDEO and display environments benefit from detailed information about demographics, viewability and non-human traffic.

3. What companies do you feel are really pushing the consumers web experience forward?

Facebook, Twitter, Google, Airbnb, Kickstarter, WordPress, Pinterest, Flckr, Youtube, Spotify, Amazon, Nest, Gilt, Tripit, Wikipedia, Drudge, and Stumble Upon — sorry the list is pretty dull, but the biggest sites are driving experience, maybe because they are delivering most of it.

4. Wired was very much about privacy and the individual.  Big data is very much a part of all of this right now.  Thoughts?

I hate the fact that all of our life is ending up in databases we have no control over. Especially government databases. Non-government databases I am frankly less scared of. Government databases and intrusion, I guess you could try to curtail, either actively by making your life more opaque to them using technology, or trying to get laws passed — but we already have laws and fat lot of good it does. Profusion of private databases and big data analysis, on the other hand, is pretty much uncontrollable, I figure. In a village, there are no secrets, everyone knows everyone’s business. Well, today we live in the Global Village.

5. Wired used to list Marshall McLuhan on its masthead as “Patron Saint.”  Any new Patron Saints emerging today?

There are a lot of false prophets out there, so I’m not taking that bait. Who said “It would appear that instead of the advertising promoting the product, the product promotes the advertising. But that is not exactly right. Actually, the product promotes the consumer?”  Marshall McLuhan said it in 1995. But wait, Marshall died in 1980. This was Gary Wolf channeling Marshall in an email “interview” we published when I was editing Wired. Who needs another patron saint when you can just channel the original?

6. Give us one word or phrase to describe web advertising these last 20 years and another to describe what it might be in the next 20?

The web marked the “future” — you know, the one model we have in our head, that clean break from the past that will arrive someday, but we can’t say how, we can’t say when, and we can’t say what it will be. We just know it will be so “different” it won’t in any way be like the present.  The past 20 years after HotWired have been “prelude.” And the next 20 will be “prelude.” And then we will again be in the “future” that marks a clean break with life as we know it. (Although we may be there already).

To learn the full story of the birth of our medium, here are links to an article from Fast Company and an incredible podcast from the Internet History Project.


CrossdressingI just read about Walmart launching its own digital marketing platform, effectively becoming sort of a media buyer (and sort of an agency), leveraging a treasure trove of sales and behavioral data on behalf of its suppliers.  According to AdExchanger, through the new Walmart Exchange (WMX) the company is “harnessing purchase, loyalty and other unspecified third party data assets to help suppliers spend their media dollars.”

Maybe it’s because I’ve been around media and advertising for so many years – or perhaps because I binged on MadMen recently – but it feels like the marketing world is getting curiouser and curiouser, and that the basic notions of identity and structure in the advertising world are falling away.

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.

Let’s take a look at how things are shaping up.

  • Traditional “publishers” like Conde Nast, Hearst and others are increasingly offering creative services to marketers, edging themselves into traditional turf of creative agencies.
  • Agency holding companies are using their trading desks to pre-buy inventory and audiences and then holding that inventory – often briefly – for the future distribution of client ads.  In one sense of the term, they are becoming ad networks.
  • Marketers are getting into bed directly with publishers through native advertising executions.  When they’re not, they’re pursuing more of a direct content creation role through branded entertainment efforts.  Either way, they’re in the media business.
  • Xaxis, WPPs erstwhile trading desk, has morphed into more of an ad technology powerhouse, folding in the former publisher-side technologies (ad serving, etc.) of 24/7 Real Media.  So now they serve both the buyer and seller side of the markets.  Along the same lines, Rubicon Project once existed primarily as a sell-side platform (SSP) but now also offers some buyer-side tools and capabilities.
  • Walmart and Amazon are both retailers who opened their considerable online presences to advertising distribution.  Amazon the retailer is also Amazon the device company; Apple the device company became (through iTunes and terrestrial stores) Apple the retailer.
  • Any online publisher can now work with third parties to tag and find its site visitors when they are on other sites around the web, and/or find look alike customers.  By doing so, they can extend and fulfill ad buys beyond their own site borders.  So they are now media aggregators, something that agencies (and more recently, ad networks) used to do.

I could go on, but you probably get the picture by this point.  So who loses in this asymmetrical hall of mirrors?  Command and control based companies and channels.  In the past, they’ve clung to defined roles and control of access – to inventory, to audiences, to distribution of goods and content, to talent.  I think many of them will start to look very old and tired very quickly.

Who wins?  The nimble, the creative, the right-brain thinkers who solve problems and make order out of chaos.  Someday the generation that remembers a gentler, more stable time in the ad business – a time when agencies were agencies and media was media – will move on and institutional memory of role definition will fade.  There will be no us and them.  Only opportunity.

Maybe that day is already here?

Six Questions: Rishad Tobaccowala

Rishad TobaccowalaThe Drift is turning a new page this week.  We’re publishing the first in an irregular series of interviews with provocative media, marketing and communications thinkers.  This post features an edited interview with Rishad Tobaccowala, chairman of Digitas LBi and Razorfish and thought-leader within Publicis.  Rishad will be keynoting the Upstream Seller Forum on Tuesday October 29th in New York.

DOUG WEAVER:  What do you think of our industry’s talent level today?  What other disciplines or backgrounds could help us inform the work ahead?   

RISHAD TOBACCOWALA: We do not have enough talent that combines an awareness of business (IQ) and creativity/insight (EQ) and a digital mindset (TQ). As an industry…we need to a) invest in training, b) hire people who are good in one or two of these skills and expose them to opportunities to learn the others and c) aggressively hire folks without a college degree but who have taken courses in computers, or folks from Art Schools (who increasingly are very tech conversant) and d) place a real priority on minority hiring.

DW:  Is the idea of a “digital agency” or “digital specialist” already anachronistic?    

RT: In a networked world where people can speak with each other we have to invest in product and services and experiences more than just advertising. The mindset change is very significant, the processes are different and there is need for true tech and data expertise and a faster metabolic rate. In some cases digital groups will become part of what were historically analog agencies and in some cases digital experts will pick up offline/analog skills.

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.

DW: Does the concentration of power and insight by Google concern you at all?   And do you see a credible competitor assembling their own “ad technology stack?”

 RT:  Google is an important partner for us and clearly a dominant player. However there will be many other players emerging as data/creativity/commerce begins to blend with each other. There are at least half a dozen key players in the US including Facebook, Adobe, Amazon, Ebay, Aol, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter that can morph in some very interesting ways since they have identity, data, scale and lots more. Of these Amazon and Adobe and Aol are all working on building stacks. Salesforce and Oracle are also approaching the space from a CRM and employee focus.

DW: Do exchanges, trading desks and “bidding” for audiences have the potential to change the fundamental scope of the advertising business?  It seems like the weight has shifted toward distribution and connectivity and away from creativity. 

 RT: Exchanges, Trading Desks and Bidding for audiences is a growing reality and recognizes that marketers want to reach audiences rather than underwrite space and they want to do it as efficiently as possible. Relevance with tight controls is what this is delivering. However in building a brand we need more than plumbing we need poetry. We still need to plan the interaction.

 DW: Name something you read or watch regularly that keeps you grounded in the present and something that keeps you thinking about the future.

 RT: I chair a foundation in India that helps 10,000 poor people and reading about what we are doing and their stories gives you a sense of perspective. For me the Arts is what makes me think about the future because the best artists start with blank sheet of paper or canvas or space and create/see/visualize/make happen things that were never there, which really is about re-imagining reality.

DW: You’re coming to speak at the Upstream Seller Forum at the end of October.  In 12 words or less, tell us what we’ll be hearing.

 RT: The Key Trends That Publicis is Betting On. How to re-invent yourself.

For a full, unedited transcript of the interview — including additional questions — click here.