20 Years.

This particular New Year’s Day was a special one for me.  It marked the 20th anniversary of the incorporation and launch of our company – Upstream Group. Some of you reading this may know us only as publishers of The Drift, but we’ve also led sales and management workshops for several hundred digital companies over the past two decades, and continue to produce The Seller Forum, a peer-to-peer gathering of digital sales leaders.  We also played an early role in helping Rick Parkhill launch the first iMedia events, launched and ran the “Upstream Habitat” program for two years, and have been close to several great companies and leaders during their primes.  All in all, a pretty great run so far.

But you don’t spend time reading this or any other blog for nostalgia or self-congratulation.  So that will be enough of that.  I’d like to spend the rest of this post on a part of the past 20 years that many of you as readers and customers don’t see.  The part about running a small business.  Specifically, I want to give away some of the ideas – often stumbled upon – that have allowed us to flourish over such a sustained period.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

Know Who You Serve.  We’ve always been super clear on this point. Our customer is the head of sales at the publisher, ad technology or data company.  Period.  Many businesses try to hedge their bets and keep all their options open, only to lose focus and belief.  With so much else uncertain, getting this one right early really helps.

Find a Repeatable Unit of Value to Deliver.   Early on, when your company is small and new, you’ll feel the pressure to chase all kinds of projects and contort your business to meet the latest needs of each new client.  Having one repeatable service you can offer quickly – in our case it’s been the sales team workshop – anchors your business financially and gives you something you can continue to get better at over time.  It also helps…

Make it Easy for Customers to Work with You.  When someone says “We should find a way to work together,” your response shouldn’t require more than a few words.  Having straightforward products and services and consistent pricing helps you two ways:  you quickly qualify and start business relationships with customers, and then – with the commitment settled – you can immediately begin to individualize and personalize your service.

Sweat the Details.  Your weakest moment can define your company in the eyes of a customer.  So be relentless about your execution, not just in your core product or service but on unsexy stuff like billing and logistics.  They will always remember how they felt about working with you.

Hire Well and Trust Quickly.  I’ve had to work on both of these. Especially when you have a small team, ask prospective employees process questions – get them to talk about how they’d solve a problem or overcome an obstacle.  Hire grit.  Then once you’ve brought someone on, trust them with more than you’re really comfortable.  They’ll either delight or disappoint you:  either way, you’ll have your answer.

Don’t Be Incremental.  Embrace big ideas and take big swings.  Approach each project and customer like you’re in a position to really change the world for them.  Great business relationships aren’t built on “one percent better.”  You will be defined by your ambition for your customers, and lack of that ambition means you will be forgotten.

If our small business has made a difference in your business or your life during the past 20 years, feel free to share a comment. Just click on the little grey envelope at the top of the post.  Thanks for reading, and here’s to starting the next 20!

The first Seller Forum of 2018 is happening Wednesday March 7th in New York.  If you’re a qualified digital media sales leader, request your invitation today.  Or go to to learn more.  

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.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

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.

Town Meeting Day.

Town Meeting DayToday, March 4th, is very special.  As my friend Cecilia Lang of the Washington Post reminded me, it’s the only day of the year that’s actually a command – March Forth! – which I now like to interpret as us all marching forth out of this lousy winter into a much better spring.  It’s also Seller Forum Day.  I’m writing this as I await the arrival of 50 Chief Revenue Officers to a beautiful spot at the top of the Hearst Building where we’ll share ideas and issues for the next several hours.  Which leads me to the third reason today is special:  In our home state of Vermont, it’s Town Meeting Day!

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Evidon MCM, marketing cloud management software for large enterprises. Powered by more than 20 million Ghostery users, Evidon provides large websites with transparency to see and control the vendors that have access to their customer data and their online assets.

All up and down the Green Mountain State, across 237 towns, nine cities and four “gores” (don’t ask) citizens are gathering in gymnasiums and town halls to participate in perhaps the last acts of pure democracy left in our republic.  While centered on passing or rejecting town and school budgets, Town Meetings also include often spontaneous referenda on everything from paving a local road to pot legalization to taking a stand on an international justice issue.  It’s messy, spontaneous, argumentative, enlightening and inspiring all at the same time.

Just like our online marketing, advertising and media world.

A brilliant tech executive explained to me back in the mid-90s that the internet had grown into a ubiquitous, uniform global network precisely because no one controlled it. Sure, there was a room full of nerds who would distribute domain names, but nobody gave you permission to be on the web or start a magazine or launch a store.  When it came to online advertising, we kind of stumbled and lurched our way forward, every so often stopping to lay in some minimum standards around ad size, technical capabilities and legal.

Along the way, we interactive people have our own town meetings.  At CES, the IAB, SXSW, ad: tech, iMedia, the Seller Forum and many others, we participate in sometimes confusing debate and messy democracy.  Together we’re marking the recent past of our business and iterating its near future.  To the casual observer, it may seem like we have a lot of conferences; that the chief product of the digital marketing economy is talk.  But I clearly have a different take.

We all live in an unfinished, asymmetrical world, moving too fast and divided and segregated by the very technology that’s supposed to bring us together. Heads down in our email or hunched over our phones, we create bubbles where our vision of the world around us gets more and more self-referential and our issues ever more intractable.  If you ask me, there are probably not enough conferences and events.  It’s only by getting face-to-face and elbow-to-elbow with our digital neighbors that we maintain our participation in the future of the business, as sloppy and wasteful as that might seem.

So find yourself a comfortable spot in the bleachers, bring a lunch, and settle in.  It’s Town Meeting Day.

Ten Years On.

I’m reading the conference agenda and I’m pretty engaged by the topics. “Interactive Brand Building: Where Next?”… “Rethinking the Rules: Managing Buyer-Seller Interaction”… “Common Currency: Developing Metrics and Measurement to Enable Cross Media Evaluation”… “Interactive and the Agency: Making Interactive a Profitable and Successful Medium for Madison Avenue.”  Sure sound like the right high-level topics to me. Not caught in the weeds of the latest microtargeting and data tactics. Just leadership on the issues that will continue to drive the digital channel forward.

Want to go? Well then, rev up the Way-Back machine, Sherman, because this is the agenda from the very first iMedia Summit which took pace ten years ago last week in Park City, Utah. Mark Zuckerberg was starting his senior year of high school, Google was three years old (and three years away from its IPO), and Barack Obama was a lawyer and community activist still smarting from his failed congressional campaign the year before.

Want to view the original iMedia Summit program and roster of attendees? You can see it here. And if you were in attendance at that first event, I’d love to get your thoughts and recollections in the comments section below.

While the iMedia brand is still going quite strong (there are both agency and brand summits, Breakthrough events, vertical market offerings and more), it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge this anniversary. Even if the original October conference dates hadn’t been pushed back by the events of 9/11,  Rick Parkhill and his team were making a big bet at a very challenging moment. The Internet bubble had burst, the industry was in the doldrums and back to sweeping up crumbs. Some would see this as a terrible time to launch a conference, but Rick’s counter-intuition got it right.  iMedia became a critically important community hub for the industry, a forum for describing a positive future, and — occasionally — much-needed group therapy.

I was fortunate to have Rick reach out to me that fall and offer me the opportunity to program that initial event and ultimately several that followed it. My relationship with iMedia continues to this day, as do the the friendships with so many of the people who shared the cozy atmosphere of those first few events. As proud as I am of being on the team that launched web advertising at Wired in 1994, I think I’m even prouder of the small contribution I made to getting iMedia off the ground. But make no mistake, iMedia has only one father and one doting uncle: Rick Parkhill is the guy who took all the risk and whose energy, vision and sheer will made this happen; and Mike Pubentz then helped make it financially viable by marshaling sponsors and guests during one of the worst possible times.

The conference circuit is now virtually saturated, of course, and it’s not easy for the casual observer to differentiate one from another. But for me the iMedia Summits will always hold a special place. But that place is not in the past; it’s still about the future that we all share in, a future that gets richer in possibility with each passing year.

So hats off and congratulations to Rick, Mike and the whole team that made that first event happen in the dark days of late 2001. May you always be proud of what you built, and may we all continue to find our way back.

Being Grateful.

It’s a short week at the close of a busy, hectic year.  It’s also the time when many of us take our last breath before the sprint to make Q4 numbers while simultaneously shopping for the holidays.  So during this all too short breather, a quick note about the people, ideas and values for which I’m really grateful. Thanks go out to…

The 3-4 sales people in every workshop I teach who are truly dedicated to the profession of media sales.  I recognize your ambition and commitment, and they inspire me to keep doing what I do.

Those who read, comment on and forward The Drift to others in their companies.  Because of you, meeting this weekly deadline has become something I look forward to.

Ad:tech and the past recipients of the Industry Achievement Award.  To be recognized by such an amazing group last spring was humbling and inspiring.  I feel like it’s something I have to continue to live up to in the years ahead.

My wife Sharon and my daughters, Lucy and Madeline.  I’m grateful that such amazing women choose to keep me around so that I can see  the great things you each do for the world.

The people at iMedia, ad:tech, the IAB, AdMonsters, Evidon and Business Insider who’ve all given me the chance to speak or moderate at their events this year.  I hope everyone who ascends your stages feels the same gratitude and commitment that I do.

Enduring, enriching friendships with people like Wenda Harris Millard, Scot McLernon, John Durham, Dave Morgan, Larry Kramer, Rick Parkhill, Tom Deierlein, Charlie Thomas and Mark McLaughlin.  Through inspiration, support  and advice, you’ve all contributed so much to what I do.

The advisors who continue to guide The Seller Forum into its tenth year, and the sponsors — Collective/Amp, PubMatic and Mojiva — who continue their commitment to this unique and valuable environment.

Tamara Clarke and Christina Ross who work hard every day making sure the experience of working with Upstream Group continues to be a great one.  None of this would work without you.

All the companies who’ve been our customers this year  — for training workshops, Seller Forum events, Drift sponsorships, consulting and more.  33 Across, A&E,, AccuWeather,, Adara Media, Adconion, Adobe, AdoTube, ad:tech, Amazon, AOL, AT&T AdWorks, BabyCenter, bizjournals, Bizo, Blue Kai, Bonnier Corp.,, Burda, Burst Media, Business Insider, Buysight, BuzzLogic,, CBS, Centro, Collective, Comcast Interactive, comScore, Condé Nast, ContextWeb (PulsePoint), D&B Digital, deviantART, Discovery Communications, Disney, DMG WorldMedia, eHarmony, ESPN, Everyday Health, eXelate, Facebook, Fairchild, FOX News, FOX Sports, Gawker, Google, Grab Networks, Halogen, Healthline, Hearst Digital Media, IAB, IGN Entertainment, iMedia, InflectionPointMedia, Interclick, ITN Digital, Jingle Networks, Jumpstart Automotive, Kontera, Krux Digital, Lotame, LucidMedia, Martini Media, Meebo, Meredith, Microsoft, Mojiva, Monster Media Networks, Move, Inc., MTV, MyWebGrocer, Nature Publishing Group, Navteq, NBC Universal, NCC Media, The New York Times, Newspaper National Network, Orbitz, PubMatic, quadrantONE, Quantcast, Reader’s Digest, Remedy Health Media, Resonate, RMM Online, RTL Netherlands, Seeking Alpha, Sojern, Sugar Inc., TechMediaNetwork, The Daily, Hollywood Reporter, Weather Channel,, Thomson Reuters, Travel Ad Network (Travora), Tremor Video, Triad Digital, Turner, TVGuide, Us Magazine, Undertone, Upromise Inc., Vertical Acuity, Washington Post, Weatherbug, WebMD,, Yahoo! and YuMe.

And last but not least, I’m grateful that none of this is even close to being finished.  That there are so many ideas yet to be conceived, so many mysteries yet to be framed, so much of the future left to be invented.  Here’s to being grateful for what this year has brought us, and to remaining excited about what the years ahead will offer.  Happy Thanksgiving.