Randall Rothenberg

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.


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.


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.


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 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.