Frenemies: A Review.

It’s not often that I’ve used this space to review or comment on business books.  But the blend of industry perspective and salacious beach reading found in Ken Auletta’s Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) is irresistible.

Auletta, longtime communication columnist for The New Yorker and author of Three Blind Mice and The Highwaymen, attempts to frame the collapse of the modern advertising business over the past two decades of technological displacement, radical shifts in media consumption and the shape-shifting and land-grabbing by technology platforms, consulting firms and media owners – the aforementioned Frenemies.

I say he attempts it because Frenemies is ambitious but flawed.  It’s also absolutely indispensable.

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What makes the book so readable is also what limits its perspective.  Auletta anchors his narrative on a handful of big personalities – then-WPP head Martin Sorrell; GroupM architect Irwin Gotlieb; R/GA founder Bob Greenberg; Facebook sales chief Carolyn Everson; and most heavily — and controversially – on MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan. (Full disclosure: My company Upstream Group has featured MediaLink executives at our events, and I have spoken at a MediaLink internal meeting.)  Reviewers have called Frenemies “DOA:  Dated on Arrival” because Sorrell was pushed out at WPP prior to publication.  But to me a bigger issue is that Auletta relies on the Great Men school of history; in a search for the modern-day heirs to Burnett, Bernbach and Lois, he tells his story through mostly older white men (Full disclosure: I am one.)  Everson, in her mid-40s with two decades of business experience as the book was written, is too often described as mentee and protégé.  While the featured subjects are noteworthy, none seem to really fill the shoes.  Or perhaps that’s just the point: advertising companies no longer have people’s names on the door.

What the book does extremely well – and what makes it required reading for younger executives in our industry – is to conjure up the disarray and displacement of today’s advertising establishment.  You get a clear picture of the absolute free-fall that holding companies and agencies are experiencing.  It’s a story of recrimination, confusion and customer abandonment that many in the industry have failed to see fully even as they’ve lived through it.  Like the proverbial frog in the pot, they’ve not fully felt the heat as it’s gradually increased.

This displacement and disarray prepares the ground for Kassan, who with no small amount of help from President and COO Wenda Harris Millard, has made MediaLink the glue in the fractured, fragmented world of media, marketing and communication.  Kassan gets far more ink in Frenemies than any of the other protagonists, and in its pages – as in the industry – we find MediaLink at the center of every meeting and the heart of every deal.  If Frenemies comes across as Kassan’s biography, it’s not an uncritical one:  Auletta presents him as a mashup of Chicago’s Billy Flynn and Tom Hagen from The Godfather.  But perhaps the prominence of a character like Kassan  – a fixer in a broken world – speaks volumes about the state of advertising today.

Perhaps that’s the point.


Six Questions: Wenda Harris Millard

Six Questions with WendaWenda has been my client, collaborator and friend for nearly 20 years, and is one of the most connected and influential people in the world of digital media, marketing and technology.  As President and COO of MediaLink, she advises scores of companies on the nuance and power balance in today’s landscape.  On Tuesday March 4th, she’ll be our keynote interview at The Upstream Seller Forum in New York.

Doug Weaver:  Last year during interactive week you were one of the first industry leaders I heard use the word “fraud.”  How big a problem is this and what can ad sellers and publishers do about it?

Wenda Harris Millard:   Fraud is one of the most serious issues facing digital media and marketing today.  It takes many forms – content theft, suspicious activity, clutter (ad collisions), non-viewable inventory and inappropriate content like hate speech and porn.  In all its forms it devalues digital media.  It’s a big business, not a cottage industry, and it’s harming consumers, content providers and marketers.  Just today the Digital Citizens Alliance published a report on work my MediaLink colleagues and I conducted over the last few months on content theft:  “Good Money Gone Bad:  Digital Thieves and the Hijacking of the Online Ad Business.”

DW: You led Yahoo! sales during a very good time.  Can the portals of that era – Yahoo!, Aol and MSN – play a critical role in an era dominated by Google, Facebook and Amazon?

WHM:  I believe they can if they focus on primarily on two things:  best-in-class utility offerings and high quality content.  Their roles will be different, but I wouldn’t rule out a comeback for these companies despite how much the competitive landscape has changed.

DW: Tell us three simple qualities that define a great leader in today’s digital landscape.

WHM:  Be curious about everything.  Look outward, not inward.  Never underestimate the consumer or your customer.

DW: Is there a red herring in our world?  What are we spending far too much time talking about?

WHM:  Big data…Enough!  Of course data is critical to almost every aspect of digital media and marketing.  But it’s not the data in and of itself that we should focus on.  It’s the derivative of that data – the insights – that matter. Consumer behavioral insights are what marketers want more than anything else.  Those insights are what should matter most to publishers, agencies, marketers and all the other players across the landscape.

DW: It’s clear that talent continues to be a major issue for our business.  What other industries or backgrounds should we be looking to raid?  We can’t keep going after the same 300 veteran media sellers, can we?

WHM:  As an industry we certainly need to bring in the data scientists, the statistics PhD’s, the mathematicians. We need engineers and product development people who want to build solutions for problems that actually exist – not the self-indulgent ones we’ve spent too much on already.  But looking to other industries for transferrable talent has not historically been part of our media and marketing world.  No, we cannot keep going after the same veteran media sellers; the skill sets we need today are very different than just ten years ago.  The combination of technical proficiency and the ability to read and connect with an audience and tell a great story – well, that’s a highly unusual individual.  But we live in a world of “and” now, not a world of “or.”

DW: Investors have their own way of determining value.  But what creates lasting value for a company in the digital landscape? What will define the companies that are still valuable and vital in 10 or 20 years?

WHM: Four things:  First, talent is everything so hire the very best and constantly trade up.  Second, culture will define your success, so pay attention to what you nurture and celebrate.  Third, being comfortable is dangerous, so constantly challenge everything. And finally, navel-gazing and looking in the mirror for answers is death.  You don’t have the answers; your customers, employees and others do.  Get over yourself!

There are a small handful of seats remaining for The Seller Forum.  If you’re a qualified CRO, EVP, SVP or VP of sales and would like to attend, contact us today.