Something Very Real at the IAB.

Something pretty terrific happened yesterday at the IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting.  Leadership.

There are two moments in particular that I feel are worth calling out; one that I expected and one that I did not.  I fully anticipated IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg’s masterful illumination of the direct brand economy in which unencumbered upstarts like Dollar Shave Club, Glossier and Warby Parker soar at the expense of Gillette, L’Oréal and Lens Crafters.  Along the way he got very specific about the continued growth of these players, how they’ll reshape the businesses of the major corporations that compete with or perhaps acquire them, and how data becomes the new capital of the 21st Century.  R2 closed by committing the IAB toward adapting to and embracing the Direct-to-Consumer ethos.  That was big.

What was less expected was what happened next.  A 150-year-old multi-national marketer took the stage and gave what I considered one of the most important speeches in the history of the advertising business.  First, some background.

Last year at the same conference, Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard famously called out the tainted supply chain that the digital ad business had built over the past decade, a set of institutions and practices that had promulgated fraud, waste, lack of accountability, shady content adjacencies and more. And then he pulled all his company’s money until very specific steps were taken.  Pritchard lit a fuse that sent shock waves of immediate change throughout the business.

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This year Unilever’s Keith Weed did him one better.  In a well-crafted, visually-arresting presentation, Weed raised the stakes and the temperature.  While our “sleepwalking through the swamp of the digital supply chain” may have once (like in 2017) been seen as an advertising problem, it is now a full-blown social issue.  “Now it’s about how it’s impacting society.”  As the events of the last year have shown, the digital advertising machine has become a dependable financial bulwark for internet trolls, hate speech, misogyny and political destruction.  And Weed’s unambiguous message was that since marketers’ money had fed the beast, only the future use of that money could kill it.

He went on to say that that marketers will be defined and rewarded based on whether they end up on the right side of history on several closely-linked issues.  Yes, the kind of content a brand sponsors and enables is a critical responsibility.  But so is the battling of gender stereotypes in advertising and packaging; so is the protection of children; so is indirect stewardship of the environment; so is the economic treatment of growers and farmers and others in the physical supply chain.  The marketing dollar can either support good or evil in the world, and Weed has committed that Unilever’s dollars will stand for good.

Over a decade ago, Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s, one of the original direct-to-consumer, socially-conscious brands.  Up near my home in Vermont there was a righteous fear that Unilever would change Ben & Jerry’s.  Maybe just the opposite has happened.

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It may be just me, but the wind seems to be changing and radical ideas are afloat.

We’re now two weeks removed from the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Florida where President/CEO Randall Rothenberg blistered the crowd with a Jeremiad that was both bracing and very, very clear.  I’ll paraphrase:

This thing of ours has gotten pretty fucked up.  And if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.

This thing of ours, of course, is digital advertising and marketing.  And he’s right.  The very fact that the head of your industry organization is giving a speech called “Repair the Trust” tells you a lot.  Sure, we’ve had areas of disagreement and mushy standards for much of the last two decades.  But when the subjects were arcane things like terms & conditions, viewability and margin transparency, most of us just kept our eyes down and pushed our food around the plate.  Avoidance and obfuscation was a perfectly reasonable strategy.

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But no longer.  Because now the issue is fake news.  Remember that kid sitting in his kitchen in Macedonia pumping out fake news stories about Obama’s love child or the Papal endorsement of the Trump campaign?  Turns out we were collectively paying him.  Ouch.

The rotten system that blindly rewards page views and ad calls and shares has become the intravenous feeding tube for parasitic monsters who may realistically render the concept of truth itself irrelevant.  Fake traffic and fraudulent video numbers were bad.  Fake truth and moral relativism are much, much worse.

Randall made it very clear when he said “It’s time to get out of the fake anything business.”   Yes.  We are only as good and as moral as who our system pays and what it pays for.  Without ethical clarity, the next $50 billion in digital advertising revenue will be just so much drug money.  And each one of us has a part to play in making sure it’s not.

You see, our business is really just an average of the behaviors of our best and worst players.  It’s time to bring back the concept of shame.  If you employ the highest standards as a publisher, talk about them.  If you demand the highest standards as an advertiser, pay for them.  And whoever you are, get off the line and pick a side.

The world is watching.

Ad Blocking and True Things.

Ad blocking and True ThingsI’m not in Cannes this week, but I’m following the news and views from here on the rocky coast of Maine.  Like this recap of the ad blocking panel led by IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg.  I paid particular attention to this one because in the recent past I’ve admired Randy’s full-throated call-out of ad blocking companies as pirates, parasites, extortionists and worse.  In defense of publisher revenues and security, he goes full Heisenberg, and that’s as it should be.

The Cannes panel — “Block You: Why World Class Creativity Will Obliterate Ad Blocking” – focused not so much on the miscreants of ad blocking, but on how the Don Drapers of the world will begin rendering ads that are so targeted and creative and desirable that ad blocking will be rendered moot.   The tipping point – highlighted in the article’s headline – is the abomination that is the current state of mobile advertising.  Whatever problems we had on the desktop will only get much worse as attention and time shift to the smallest screen.

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Two things can be true at the same time:  yes, ad blockers are opportunistic d-bags and yes, we also need to do a better and more imaginative job of helping marketers engage consumers regardless of what screen they’re glued to.  But since we’re doing all this truth-telling, let’s add a couple more.

True thing number three is that ad blocking is just one of the many symptoms of a digital ad business built on the flawed premise of unlimited supply – the idea that more ads in more places is always part of the answer. As I posted in this space last October, we’ve had 20 years of infinite growth in page views, ad calls and impressions, and today none of it’s all that impressive.  Today’s business is plagued by non-viewable impressions, fraud, ad blocking and the perception of agency sleight of hand that drove the recent ANA/K2 Transparency report.  It might just be time for us to consider a business that leverages scarcity instead.

The final true thing is that the answer to too much advertising isn’t just better advertising. I’ve argued that we’re entering a fundamentally new era in which ‘advertising’ has become a low-value cost center – a commodity whose expense is to be managed by unsentimental procurement people.  It’s not time to fix advertising; it’s time to reinvent our approach to creating value for marketers and consumers…to work with the entire palette of marketing disciplines and tools.

The day we all embrace post-advertising strategy and creativity is the day ad blocking becomes completely irrelevant.

The Four P’s of Excellence.

The Four P's of ExcellenceWe naturally exalt success. Another great quarter…another deal won…achieving one more big number after another. But even as we congratulate one another on ‘crushing it,’ we can’t see that it’s crushing us. Success can be thrilling, but in the end it taxes and burns out and disempowers the sellers and organizations we count on.

On Sunday I spoke at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting about what might help our industry achieve the next $50 billion in marketer spending. I focused on creating cultures of sales excellence, and I broke it down to the four characteristics those cultures must include. We all know the four P’s of marketing – price, place, product and promotion; I’m suggesting the four P’s of digital sales excellence:

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Process. Every one of our companies has detailed processes for engineering, workflow, finance and more. But we cling to the idea that sales is somehow different; that just getting in front of the customer and talking is enough. It’s not. Process makes average sellers productive and helps great sellers soar. If you don’t have a uniform process and order to the way your people sell, you are handicapping them.

Practice. I’ve written about this concept before. Culturally, we are an industry that focuses almost exclusively on the games, and almost never on the practices. Sales managers are not patiently walking reps through the structure and content of client conversations in advance. The worst place to hone your skill is in front of the client. It’s what we do when the crowd’s not watching that matters most.

Pathos. This is the Greek word for ‘emotion’ and it’s missing from far too many of our client discussions. Embracing pathos means that we’re speaking to the important business situation facing our customers: the missing customer, the encroaching competitor, the ticking clock. Without an urgent business narrative, our products and stories have no immediacy or weight.

Point-of-View. Culturally, we are all very client centric. We ask our customers what they need and we fill out their RFPs. But in the name or service, we’ve become servants. As sales organizations, we’ve got to start taking positions. What we think and what we want for the customer are the beginning of account leadership. And in wide open era of digital marketing that’s ahead, our customers very much want to be led. If we don’t’ accept the challenge, someone else will.

Process. Practice. Pathos. Point-of-View. Simple, elegant and critical. I believe 2016 must be the year of digital sales excellence if we are ever to approach the levels of success that are ours for the earning.

The Next $50 Billion.

The Next $50 BillionNext month I’ll be speaking as part of opening night at the IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert, and I’m particularly intrigued by the theme of the conference: “The Next $50 Billion.” Having been on the IAB board back when we celebrated our first million (with an m) dollar year, I can tell you that $50 Billion was not something any of us could have visualized. Yet here we are.

No doubt there will be talk about how the industry prepares to ingest all that new money and about where it will come from. We’ll debate how much will be run programmatically and how data and personalization will drive and shape the spending. But I’ve got a simple question to overlay on the theme: How will we earn the next $50 Billion?

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Anyone who is simply counting on the realignment of advertising budgets to create that number will be sorely disappointed. While many of us romanticize advertising by binge-watching MadMen and staying glued to all the Super Bowl commercials, the reality is that to marketers advertising is a cost center: that’s why procurement gets called in to help manage that cost down. As I wrote earlier this year in my essay for the University of Florida’s Captivate program, we will unlock the next $50 billion “…only by confronting the truth that advertising in a digital world matters most when it least resembles advertising.” Brand want to come in out of the cold, damp world of ‘advertising’ and to bask in the warm sunlight of the consumer’s full attention. We have the keys in our hands to unlock that scenario. But first we must unlock our own imaginations.

The other thing I believe about the next $50 billion is that it will be spent with the companies and individuals who consistently operate “left of budget.” As the perceived importance of advertising shrinks, those waiting to feed at the trough of the ad budget will go hungry. Those who organize their work around major business, marketing and sales issues will be fed by a wide variety of budgets: sales promotion, CRM, public relations, research and more. To paraphrase Alec Baldwin’s soliloquy in Glengarry Glen Ross, “There’s money out there gents. If you earn it it’s yours. If you don’t, I got no sympathy for you.”

Are you a sales leader going to the Annual Leadership Meeting? Save your spot at the first ever Sales Leadership Summit at IAB ALM, Tuesday January 26th, lunch through dinner. Then save your company’s seats at each of the 2016 Seller Forums by purchasing your season pass. Put the wisdom of the crowd to work for your company and your sales team.