As we began the second quarter-century of digital marketing on Monday, I’m choosing to republish an essay I was invited to write for the University of Florida’s “Captivate” program 5 years ago. Only the date context has been edited. It’s a longer read than you are used to in The Drift, but I hope you’ll feel it’s worth it.
It’s an interesting wrinkle in time for the colliding worlds of advertising and digital empowerment.
Exactly 25 years ago I was part of the team that sold the very first banner ads on the World Wide Web. On 10/27/94, Wired Magazine flipped the switch that lit up HotWired, the “cyberstation” that ushered brands like IBM, Volvo, MCI, Club Med and – famously – AT&T into the digital age. From the humble origin of a dozen brands paying $15,000 per month for static banner placement with zero analytics, web advertising is closing in on $50 billion in annual spending.
At precisely the same moment, the banner ad (and related forms like the 15-second video pre-roll and the mobile display ad) has become a social touchstone that evokes a firestorm of condescension and condemnation at every turn. Indeed, the 20th anniversary of web advertising has mobilized the kill-the-banner crowd like so many pitchfork-wielding peasants out to stop Dr. Frankenstein. To the casual observer this all may seem a bit schizophrenic: Can the digital ad business really have been built and sustained on top of such a flawed delivery vehicle? And if web advertising techniques are really so ham-handed, why are they now being co-opted by the behemoth of television in the forms of screen overlays, dynamic ad serving and programmatic distribution?
Interesting questions indeed. But they are also the wrong questions.
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Over my 22 very active years serving media companies other digital and traditional advertising players, I’ve had a front row seat for a show that is consistently mistranslated, misdiagnosed and misunderstood. Digital advertising was born to an internet that people read and watched. During that seminal period of tiny gif images and narrow, scrolling columns of type we started calling those who put content on the web “publishers” – a role that was even then retiring to a world of hagiographic nostalgia. And advertising – well, that was a science to be grafted onto the web from other forms of publishing and broadcasting as technology and bandwidth allowed. Those first crude banners were nothing more than outdoor ads writ small. That they gave way eventually to larger, more picturesque ‘magazine’ ads and then to TV-style video spots meant more and more growth, but it also continued to miss the larger point that defines the true value of digitization – and lights our path for what happens now.
Let’s be honest in admitting that we haven’t really been all that much of a literary culture for much of the last 50 years and the internet doesn’t change that. You’re now just over 400 words into this essay: statistically, it’s already one of the longest things most American’s will read on the internet today. Over these two decades, the web has become something everyone does – not something they watch or read. We look for answers, we pass jokes back and forth to one another, we settle arguments. We preen and strut, we compare and buy, we “snack” on short bits of video. We organize things, we plan projects, we opine. Does this mean that content no longer matters? Or that it matters more than ever? The maddeningly simple answer is that it matters when it matters; when it’s closely aligned with the experience the consumer is living at that moment in time. And not for its own sake.
This leads me to the crossroads confronting those who aim to create the next $50 billion of revenue through “digital advertising” and for the advertising industry as a whole. The rocket ride from 1994 to 2014 has been driven by a combination of shifting consumer behavior (the increased time spent on browsers and devices is inescapable even to the staunchest traditional media die hard) and our ability to efficiently “tag along” with the experiences consumers are choosing to create for themselves digitally. Always on, always in our hands, the internet has become an extension of us as people. But advertising, mostly, has not kept up.
Two dominant trends in digital advertising today are data optimization and the programmatic trading of advertising display opportunities. In the first, we are overlaying information to identify and make decisions about those who we might show our ads to. In the second, we are building the technology and functionality to trade “ad futures” with one another. Both of these are critically important, “hard trends,” and they’ll continue – to some point – to usher more dollars into digital channels. But they are also both exercises in division and reduction: help me show my ad to fewer of the people who don’t matter; help me buy fewer of the ads that don’t work or don’t’ matter.
So what, then, will create the next great wave of growth for the advertising business? I believe it will happen only by confronting the truth that advertising in a digital world matters most when it least resembles advertising. Google and (to a lesser and less consistent degree) Facebook start the value creation at the point of consumer action and intent. The form that “advertising” takes is malleable and built into the experience: a helpful suggestion via some text as they answer my search query; a post from a marketer on a topic around which I’m already active. Buzzfeed has made a huge splash by helping marketers create just the kind of snackable content-McNuggets that we already like to trade with one another across the very platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr – where we already trade them.
But this is the tip of the iceberg. Many current techniques will look as archaic in 2024 as the earliest banners look today. But the companies and leaders who will endure and thrive are those who consistently answer a different set of questions:
What is the consumer doing today with digital tools and how can I help her do it better?
How might we create new value by blending discovery, commerce and productivity into a new experience shared by consumer and marketer?
If there were no such thing as an “advertising budget,” how would we create a connection between consumers and brands, companies and products that can bring new value into the consumer’s life?
These are the questions to be confronted not only by “digital advertising” leaders; after all, what advertising will not be digital by the time we reach our next ten year milestone? No, this is the existential moment for all of what used to be called Madison Avenue and “the Media.” Because when Wired flipped that switch 20 years ago they also set in motion a chain of events that prompts the re-imagination of all advertising.
From this point forward, don’t call any of it advertising. It will either be something much, much bigger – or it will be background noise.