Tear Down This Wall!

At yesterday’s IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Phoenix, Chairman/CEO Randall Rothenberg doubled down (again) on the direct brand economy and how it’s flipping marketing models and gutting sacred cows of publisher strategy.  There was a ton of great information and examples, but there was one subtle point (Play #5 in the IAB’s new DTC Playbook: “How to Build a 21st Century Brand, Part Two”) that really grabbed my attention:

For Disruptors, branding must perform – and vice versa.

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This really spoke to me.  For all of the 35 years that I’ve been in media and 25 I’ve spent in digital, we’ve labored under the artificial and counterproductive divide between brand and performance advertising.  To performance advertisers (we were told), media was just so much raw material to be processed in getting to the number.  And brand advertisers (we were told) only cared about reach and audience and shooting beautiful commercials and visuals.

Now (we are told) the wall is coming down.  And disruptor/DTC brands are the ones holding the sledgehammer.  The myth that your solution must be either brand– or performance-focused has finally been exposed.   The answer to branding or performance is now – simply – yes.

In the same IAB Playbook (Play #3) we learn that Storytelling gets more acquisitions more cheaply.  Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) actually gets better in high quality, story-focused environments like podcasts.  It’s become clear that hybrid approaches – blending authentic storytelling, high engagement environments, and real performance – are the hottest vehicles on the lot.

But like William Gibson famously wrote, The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.

We can still screw this up.  We can retreat to the brain-dead, self-defeating apology tour of attribution and discounting. We can focus on the wrong metrics. We can choose to serve the status quo of the advertising business instead of embracing directly the complex, nuanced needs of a new generation of marketers.

If we only do what we’ve always done, we’ll only ever have what we’ve already got.  There’s a new beginning taking shape.  The wall that’s always stood between brand and performance has been breached.

As media sellers, I suggest we confidently walk through it.

Steal This Post!

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.

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.”

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The F Word.

The F WordI’m writing this from a center row at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert, where President/CEO Randall Rothenberg is lighting the place up. The conversation – no, the manifesto – is all about the F Word:  Fraud.   After years of politically safe, antiseptic dialogue about transparency, brand safety and other largely-meaningless terms, we’re finally calling our problem what it is.  It’s fraud.

According to Rothenberg, digital advertising will soon surpass broadcast as the biggest single line item on the marketers budget;  “Our challenge is no longer about growth; it’s the distribution of that growth.”  It’s raining hard, but not everybody is getting wet.  And the reason is all about our “porous, plug-and-play supply chain.”  The fact that any company – no matter how shady – can find its way into the ecosystem with relative ease.  “There’s plenty of blame to go around,” according to Randall:   from the publishers buying impressions from uninspected sources to marketers turning a blind eye to the whole issue.  Or as it was put so memorably in last week’s article in Business Insider:  “Our Industry has to stop having unprotected sex.”   I couldn’t agree more, and as one of the IAB’s earliest board members, I love the sound of leadership that I’m hearing!

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I’ve previously written about this issue in The Drift, most notably last year in light of the IAB’s full-throated defense of the third-party cookie.  I learned then, and know now, that there are a lot of complex dependencies within the ecosystem.  Unless the IAB defends the third party cookie, they cede the whole data pie to Google and Facebook; but in defending it, they keep the borders open for the potential bad actors.  Hard problem….much work ahead.  But the IAB has a sense of urgency.  More importantly, a sense of real leadership and purpose.

Language matters.  When incoming IAB Chair Vivek Shah put the word “F-R-A-U-D” on the screen yesterday afternoon that mattered a lot.  We can only deal with a problem when we leave behind the polite language of ambiguity and call it out in plain terms.  We’ve done that now.

I’ll close with something I wrote in The Drift way back in 2002“On the one hand, we have ‘the prime time Internet,’ awash with fresh content, clean environments and strong brands. On ‘the other Internet’ it’s always 1:30 in the morning and there’s nothing on but F-Troop reruns and per-inquiry spots for the Garden Weasel.”  The technology, the complexity and the stakes have all grown geometrically.  But we’re still making the same choice today.

Want to discuss these issues in a small group environment with Randall Rothenberg?  He’ll be appearing at The Upstream Seller Forum on Tuesday March 4th at the Hearst Building.  If you’re a CRO, EVP, SVP or VP of sales from a qualified company, reach out to us today for an invitationOnly a handful of seats remain.