The Conference Imperative.

As I write this post, a few hundred of our industry’s best are at Dmexco, which folds right into New York’s Advertising Week which – before you know it – turns into CES and SXSW and Cannes and …. You get the picture. But it’s not just the big tent-pole gatherings; there are scores of smaller meet and greets peppered throughout the year from the likes of Digiday, ad:tech, iMedia, Digital Storytelling and even Upstream Group’s own Seller Forum. In a recent MediaVillage post, the value equation/boondoggle-factor of such events was briefly questioned.

Yet even as “can you believe how many events there are these days?” remains one of the most popular cocktail topics (at these very same events) the market value of human gathering is beyond question. Simple economics tells us so. If sponsors and attendees weren’t willingly ponying up the cash, many events would simply wither and die off. Yet here they are – again – blooming like dandelions. I’ve got a theory about why.

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The popularity of human focused events has grown in direct inverse proportion to the decline in day-to-day human contact between people who buy and sell stuff. In other words, the more that “connecting technology” – email, voicemail, texting, hangouts, shared documents – keeps us physically apart, the more we crave the handshake, the few minutes of eye contact, the nod of the head. Bitch all you want about whether a given event was “worth it” or not, human contact is at a premium and we will continue to pay that premium.

Now…to get your money’s worth out of any given event…

1. Have a plan. You’d be surprised how many people and companies don’t. Who do you aim to meet? How will you structure your time? Can you secure a formal or informal meeting spot? If you just show up, you’re just part of the crowd.
2. The first shall be first. As you attend parties or panels, get there first. Hosts and panelists remember the early arrivals. Then leave a little early to get a jump on the next one. No one will miss you at that point.
3. Spread out. People from the same company often stick together at conferences like 7th graders at the first middle school dance. If there are two of you in every conversation, one of you is irrelevant.
4. Write shit down. Give out a hundred business cards and collect two hundred. After each exchange, scribble a note on the back of a card. If someone doesn’t have a card, ask to take picture of their name badge with your phone, then text a copy of the photo to yourself with a short note. No matter how important the conversation or the customer, the connections are ephemeral unless you make sure they’re not.
5. Marketing, meet Sales! So often marketing and sales live in silos. Marketing buys a sponsorship and a bunch of passes to an event and then doesn’t get confirmation from sales about who’s attending until a few days before. Wasted dollars, wasted opportunity.

Human-to-Human matters more than ever. Make it count.

The Cone of Silence.

The Cone of SilenceThe topic of this week’s Drift changed when I was contacted by Digiday reporter Ricardo Bilton about the article he was writing about phone-phobic salespeople. I was happy to comment for the piece, but I also think there’s a bigger theme in play. If you’re a young seller, or someone who manages one, this Drift’s for you.

Do younger sellers tend to be phone-averse? Oh yeah. Somehow engaging with customers directly in a two-way, voice conversation is seen as rude, disruptive and overbearing.   Maybe it’s a millennial thing, maybe not. But we’ve nonetheless come to embrace the asynchronous, polite, wait-your-turn-and-wait-for-a-reply ethos of email and text. It’s about fear of discomfort; feeling it or causing it.

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And it doesn’t just impact buyer-seller relationships (the focus of Ricardo’s article). You see it within the home office environment too. I visit client companies all the time and watch as rows and rows of young workers, sitting only inches apart, send one another email after email, never thinking to stop the madness and have a clarifying conversation.

As a manager, you’ve got two concerns here. First, your people end up engaged in long, ponderous email strings over issues better resolved by intimate, immediate conversation. The clarifying question you can and should ask (in person) is “Did you talk about this face-to-face?” Ask it frequently enough and it becomes a mandate, then a habit.

Your second problem is that your salespeople are over-reliant on an email mindset that’s working against them. It’s not that email doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work the way the way they’re using it: in a vacuum and badly. Knowing that it takes between 9 and 12 attempts to elicit a response from an unknown customer, your reps should be thinking of their communication as a campaign. An email about one topic, followed by a well-planned voice mail, followed by another email introducing more information, followed by a Linked In in-mail. And then there’s the “don’t be a meathead” rule. When you do send email, avoid the “Poison Pills” and stop writing so much at one time: What fits on the screen of an iPhone is about right.

And while you’re at it, pick up the phone. It’s good for your relationship with your mom, with your co-workers and with your customers.

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.

No Peaking.

No PeakingThanks to Brian Morrissey’s Digiday article yesterday, I was introduced to the concept of Peak Advertising, as espoused in a working paper by Tim Hwang and Adi Kamdar of the Nesson Center for Internet Geophysics*.  The core concept here is that online advertising is at a point of diminishing returns; like “peak oil,” the paper contends, “peak advertising” portends a cratering of the economic viability of the internet itself.  “Worryingly,” the authors intone, “advertising is not well.”

Yes, advertising and marketing are the economic engines of a free web.  And yes, there are important questions of sustainability and value that need resolution.  And they deserve deeper consideration than the pseudo-scholarship offered here.

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The working paper leads off with a whopper.  “Consider the long-term trend:  when the first banner advertisement emerged online in 1994, it reported a (now) staggering clickthrough rate of 78%.”  We’re in trouble already.  I was on the team at HotWired that booked and managed that ad and I can tell you this is pure fiction.  Dynamic ad serving and analytics programs would not be invented for another year, so even if anyone at Wired or HotWired was counting clicks, there would have been no way to determine the denominator of the clickthrough fraction.  The authors uncritically took this bogus stat from “The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs,”  a blog post by Andrew Chen, who had uncritically accepted it from someone named @ottotimmons.

I won’t spend time here refuting the wildly inflated claims about ad blocking that the authors also cite, uncritically, as a pillar of their premise.  (If you want more on that, leave a comment to that effect below.)  The most damning thing about this paper and the conclusions it draws is the assumptions that ads –like oil – are a commodity and that there is a single global marketplace in which objective value can be determined.  Those of us paying attention to more than the latest heavy breathing of investors can see that the state of programmatic, exchange-based advertising is already getting far more nuanced and subjective.  Automation does not a marketplace make, and basing assumptions on such a premise is dangerous.

Digital advertising is not, after all, a pit of tradable commodities.  It’s as broad as an entire world of marketing options.  In the actual bricks and mortar world, the price of ads in the Pennysaver or the effective CPM of a billboard on the Long Island Expressway don’t  drag down the value of a TV spot on Monday Night Football.  The valuation of digital advertising is about a thousand different models across a dozen channels.

So why do Hwang and Kamdar insist on the false logic of market connectivity and the false value of clicks as a proxy for effectiveness?  They anticipated these challenges on pages nine and ten of the paper, but their rationale is – in my opinion – soft.  The real answer is that simple conclusions garner outsized attention.   Simplistic arguments like these are the Kardashians of research.  A sophisticated business full of smart, dedicated people warrants more thoughtful analysis.

(*Nesson Center for Internet Geophysics?  Please search for it.)

Whole Selling.

Whole SellingMy former Wired boss Louis Rossetto used to say that no medium ever replaces its predecessor – but it always changes it in some significant way.  TV didn’t eliminate radio, but radio changed quite a bit once it took root.  People didn’t stop going to movies when home video emerged, but the nature of theatrical movies evolved pretty rapidly from that point on.  With this in mind, it’s high time to end the silly debate about programmatic advertising somehow replacing human interaction.  Instead, let’s consider how the presence of automation will change that human-to-human seller/buyer relationship.

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Digiday – which has quickly become both mirror and conscience to our industry – was spot on with today’s article on how programmatic is changing sales teams.   There seem to be two significant intellectual threads among sales leaders.  One is the idea of the “barbell,” in which the programmatic and native advertising capabilities get bigger and more defined while competition for RFP-based buys withers and dies.  The other scenario — which I find more plausible – is that direct selling and programmatic selling soon become indistinguishable from one another; they become aspects of the same balanced sales organization, the same “Whole Seller.”  To those who challenge this notion because of the balkanized nature of agencies and trading desks, I say that successful agencies will adopt the same approach.  Call it “Whole Buying.”  A couple of thoughts in support of the idea:

First, let’s look at the real practice of “programmatic” advertising.  As it exists today, it’s far from automatic.  Trading desks still have planning teams, and sales organizations have reps making those planning teams aware of desirable inventory and audiences which can subsequently be bought through an automated transaction.  Next, look at the reality of direct site selling;  with the exception of the web’s very largest players, every erstwhile “native” player suffers from a fatal scale problem.  Your sponsorship or integration may be super special, but it’s just not big enough.

So the “Whole Sale” of tomorrow will look something like this.  The seller becomes an expert in identifying pools of audience/inventory that match up well with the consumers that marketers and their agencies want to reach (either on a campaign basis  or – more likely – in an “always on” fashion).  This audience/inventory may be under the site’s (or network’s) direct control, or it may be available on a “just-in-time” basis via public exchanges.  The Whole Seller will approach the Whole Buyer with a combination of (1) a core creative idea – possibly native – and recommendations on how to programmatically scale that idea across both (2) owned inventory and (3) attainable audiences.   Factor (1) is what we might call “native” or “sponsorship” today; factor (2) is what we might currently refer to as a “private exchange”  (exchange being  a verb, not a  noun); while (3) is reach extension and audience retargeting across open exchanges.

Those who cling to specialization on either side of the selling (or buying) barbell will end up marginalized.  The future belongs to Whole Sellers and Whole Buyers.  And the sooner organizations and individuals embrace this fact, the sooner they’ll assume their rightful place in that future.