The Watering Hole.

Occasionally someone asks about the origin of our company name – Upstream. I could go on about its deeper meanings, spiritual implications and more. But for purposes of today’s post, there’s a simpler meaning: Upstream is the opposite of the watering hole.

In any mature industry, the watering hole is the agreed upon place where we all drink. It’s the settled, transactional hub. It may be crowded, noisy, smelly and dangerous, but it’s the place we know and feel we understand. The upfront buying season is a watering hole.  So is the established advertising campaign and its most transactional component, the RFP. Today we have a new watering hole in the establishment of an ongoing programmatic marketplace. We have in turn complained about all of these watering holes: the levels are too low… the quality of the water is suspect… some members of the herd are getting unfair advantages. But we largely accept that our only options are to make incremental improvements to the watering hole experience: to clean it up a little… set up rules for consumption… better organize the herd.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Bionic for Ad Sales, which automates ad sales lead generation with software that pitches your ad inventory to hundreds of media planning teams while they are making media buying decisions. To learn more, go to bionic-ads.com/seller.

But today there are significant questions around the future of the watering hole and the survival of the average member of the herd.  Larger beasts that have never historically belonged to the advertising species (FB, G, A) have set up their own private watering holes, diverting much of the water before it ever gets downstream, to the place we traditionally drink. And those who have always been the source and tributaries – marketers and brands – are questioning the necessity and wisdom of even filling the watering hole anymore. The noisy, crowded, confusing spectacle downstream can seem increasingly disconnected from the intricate and timely work of brand marketing and product sales.

Upstream it’s different. The conversations there are not about spending the budget, they’re about creating new opportunity and wealth. Upstream we have specific business conversations and speak the language of the brand. We aim to solve problems and accelerate business success. And we’re rewarded with our own fresh water supply for doing so. Upstream we don’t spend time and energy cursing the darkness or arguing with the refs. It’s a place for doing. It can get lonely and treacherous upstream because the herd isn’t there and there are no established maps or rulebooks.

Upstream isn’t completely separate from the rest of world; the watering holes and herds still exist, on the periphery. It takes hard work and discipline to start spending time upstream, but individuals and companies make the journey every day. We help them.

Living and operating upstream from the watering hole and the herd is also a decision…a choice you make if you want to impact policy and strategy.  If you need motivation to make that choice, take a hard look at the watering hole that’s rapidly drying up right before your eyes.

We’ve just announced the schedule for the 2020 Seller Forum Series.  We’ll be gathering on March 18th, July 15th and October 21st, all in the beautiful Reuters space overlooking Times Square.  If you’re a qualified media sales leader, reach out today to request your invitation and learn more about setting up a season pass for your company.

Playing Offense: The RFO.

Irritation and push-back (from publishers, agencies and clients) on the increasingly irrelevant RFP (request-for-proposal) is a well-worn theme at this point.  Clients and agency leadership think they’re a waste of billable hours and an awful process for buyers.  For publishers and sales teams, they are at best the piñatas we all get to blindly swing at near the end of the party; at worst, they are the dumpster fire that consumes time, resources, morale and hope.

So why are so few companies doing anything about it?  Why are we continuing to throw people and money at a process that’s not only broken – it’s getting worse!  One answer is that nature abhors a vacuum: that without a clear alternative, people will cling to a deeply flawed behavior or broken relationship.  Just in case that’s what’s happening, I’ve got an alternative.

Stop answering RFPs.  Start writing RFOs.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Salesforce DMP. Salesforce DMP allows you to capture, unify, and activate your data to strengthen consumer relationships across every touchpoint. Find out more here.

The RFO – request-for-opportunity – isn’t an incremental change to the RFP; it is its complete opposite.  In the RFP process the seller reacts.  In the RFO process, the seller drives.  Where the RFP is based on a bunch of issues and qualifications that were agreed upon by various committees, the RFO is disruptive and driven by a strong POV.

The RFO is really quite simple.  It consists of just four steps.

  • Find a couple of higher level decision makers – senior account owners at agencies or practice leads at the client – for an account you covet. Don’t worry if they haven’t gotten budget or plans yet (that’s kind of the point!)
  • Do an hour’s research on the specific brand or product in question. Specifically, look for key competitors, core message they are conveying, hard-to-find audiences, disruption in their marketplace, key promotions or dates, etc.
  • Pick a problem you think you could help the customer solve and the means by which your company could solve it. (Pick one that’s big enough to matter, but small enough to fix…don’t go crazy.)  Write out the problem in plain English in just a couple dozen words.
  • Now send a very short email with a really clear headline: We’d like to help you (or your client) solve for X.  Avoid all the fluff, get to the point and stay focused on the problem.  They don’t care about your company background or any of that (yet).  Tell them your team has done some creative thinking on the account and you’d like to bring them into the collaboration.  (If talking to an agency exec, be sure to mention how this RFO might help them extend their capabilities, generate some incremental client spend and help them defend their business from encroachers.)

It’s not hard, just different.  You don’t have to be right, just credible.  Companies focused on answering RFPs are hoping for a sliver of the remaining budget.  Those who write RFOs are taking concrete steps toward creating budget.  If you think you’re already doing this, go back and read your outbound emails carefully.  Too often, you’re probably just leading with we’ve got a great idea! – which holds no water with the client.

It’s not about your product, it’s about their problem.  Don’t tell them what you sell; tell them what you solve.

The RFP: Back from the Dead?

According to Digiday’s Lucia Moses, “media buyers are ditching the much hated RFP.”   Clearly this was meant to be a crowd-pleasing idea:  both agencies and clients reportedly can’t stand them anymore, and to sellers they’ve been the nasty habit they just can’t seem to kick.  I think it all sounds a little too good to be true.

The RFP is the Freddy Krueger of the digital buying-selling process.  It’s the friend from college who crashed on your couch “for a night or two” but ends up staying for 10 months.  It’s the annoying song that’s stuck in our collective heads.  In theory, we all want to be rid of it.  In spirit and practice it’s still very much with us.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Salesforce DMP. Salesforce DMP allows you to capture, unify, and activate your data to strengthen consumer relationships across every touchpoint. Find out more here.

Yes it’s true that there are fewer digital RFPs being sent out (a look at Seller Crowd will back this up) and fewer winners in the process.  Programmatic buying has rightly taken a big chunk of those transactional dollars out of the system, and consolidation into the hands of Facebook and Google has taken more.  But the RFP is still very much with us: it’s just migrated.

Now that avails and standard ad units are off the table, buyers are using the RFP process to ask for things like custom videos, content marketing ideas, influencer campaigns and social posts.  If anything, this is worse.  Now a buyer can ask an unlimited number of questionably qualified publishers for things that are really difficult and expensive to bid on.  And sellers are taking the bait.  The arrival of every RFP – never mind how speculative – becomes like a crash cart rolling through the trauma unit of an ER.  Creatives, account management, pricing, events and talent are all dragged in to save the patient – who still expires 80-90 percent of the time.

The RFP was a weak idea when we were trading standard ad units for dollars.  In the content marketing era it’s a full-on dumpster fire.  Any seller who’s not connecting – proactively and directly — with clients and agency leadership is part of the problem.  Any publisher who’s ignoring the P&L of the weekly creative RFP lottery is mortgaging their future and tossing their most valuable resources – their ideas and the creativity of their people – into the wind.  Agencies won’t stop using the RFP.  Sales organizations can only control if, when and how they respond.

Qualify.  Qualify.  Qualify.

Return of the Dead (RFPs!)

Return of the DeadI’m reposting this item from a couple of years back.  Because Zombies never really get old, do they now?

Whether your company’s future is tied to programmatic selling or the development of native advertising concepts, it’s impossible not to feel the diminishing relevance of the legacy request-for-proposal (RFP) process.  But even though more of the digital ad dollar is flowing to automated buys or non-standard opportunities every day, a great many sellers and agencies apparently missed the memo.  They continue to party like it’s 1999:  drafting, over-distributing, responding, defending and evaluating cattle-call RFPs long after the practice spiraled into irrelevance.

Welcome to the age of Zombie RFPs.  Not realizing they’re dead, they continue to walk among us.  And they are eating the brain of your sales and marketing teams.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Lotame, whose data management platform enables you to make smarter advertising, product and business decisions. Through Lotame, you can learn more about your most valuable customers, find prospects that look and act exactly like them, and then execute campaigns that target them across any digital device. For more information, visit lotame.com

For the uninitiated, some quick background:  In the earliest days of digital publishing and advertising, we co-opted the RFP process common to the magazine industry.  When it came time to spend, ad buyers would prepare a document asking for availability of certain features, adjacencies, capabilities;  pricing; and of course that extra “big idea” that – if good enough — would  certainly clinch the deal.  But what was moderately effective when there were dozens or scores of competing sites quickly became a grotesque charade in an age of hundreds of networks and thousands of sites.

Yet still today – whether fueled by ignorance, inertia, cynicism or all three – the RFP staggers on at the center of buyer/seller interaction.  To foster the “illusion of inclusion,” buyers routinely include 8-10 vendors in the process for every one that will ultimately prevail.  Feeding off false hope, seller organizations burn money, time and creative energy each time an RFP hits the inbox.  And collectively the industry chases its tail in service of a buying practice that’s already dead.

Sanity must be restored.  The zombies must be dispatched.  And sales leadership holds the stake in its hand.

As I’ve suggested in a previous Drift, impose a triage evaluation process on the RFPs your team receives. Politely decline to participate on those where you had little to no advance notice and whose pricing or appropriateness to your company are spurious.  Respond fully and creatively to big dollar plans that seem clearly written with your property in mind.  And for group three – those in the middle – qualify, qualify, qualify.

Seller organizations can’t change the way in which agencies choose to field opportunity.  But we can control the way in which we respond.  And in doing so, perhaps we free ourselves to pursue a path of real innovation and value creation.   Free of zombies, life just gets better.

Best of the Drift, 2013: The Web Stuff.

Best of the Drift The Web StuffThis week we look back at the industry topics we wrote about in The Drift in 2013, and select a baker’s dozen issue that span the digital marketing landscape.  Revisit, enjoy, comment, pass along to your colleagues and customers.  Happy Holidays from all of us at Upstream Group.

Karaoke Data Marketing  What passes for digital data marketing today is just the warm up act.  If you’re tired of swilling warm beer while you’re listening to that cover band, get ready for the real thing.

“Letting Go of the Tiger’s Ears.”  DSPs were once very tightly aligned with holding company trading desks, but no longer.  Programmatic will now live everywhere.

“Breaking Better.”   When it comes to data-driven online marketing, we’ve passed through the Jesse Pinkman era of bluster and pretense and entered the Walter White period:  scale, attitude and serious science. But how does it end?

“Good Morning Vietnam.”  How is online inventory like coffee beans in Southeast Asia?  It’s all about moving up the distribution chain from commodity to specialty producer.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by PubMatic. With PubMatic’s platform, publishers have the ability to offer their inventory to over 400 global Demand Partners – ad networks, demand side platforms, ad exchanges, and agency trading desks – and have on demand access to all the software, tools and services they need to realize the full potential of their digital assets.

“Whole Selling.”  The rep of the future will need fluency in both direct and programmatic sales.  This is shaping up to be the industry’s latest “integrated selling” challenge.

“When the Music Stops.” Will there be a shakeout and consolidation in the ad technology world?  Oh yeah!  And it will make the end of days look like a suburban rave by comparison.

“Rebooting Premium.”  The CEO of one of the largest digital marketplaces says that quality content and context matter, while a leading research company tells us that half the stuff on exchanges is worthless crap.  Is it just me or did the ground just shift a little?

“Desktopocalypse.” Geoffrey Ramsey and eMarketer have called 2014 as the year when desktop web use will be eclipsed by other screens.  Two questions:  Are you ready?  And Didn’t this happen already?

“Zombie RFPs are Eating Your Brain” and “The Illusion of Inclusion” both call out the sheer folly of the RFP process that continues to cripple our business.  There’s got to be a better way!  There is.

“Six Words About Digital Marketing.” Hemingway challenged his drinking buddies to write a novel in just six words.  Here we summarize some digital marketing themes and memes in six word sound bites.  Say hello to Interactive Haiku!

“Going Native” and “Programmatic? Problematic” challenge the viability of the two dominant industry catch-all terms of the last few years.  We argue that the labels have become so broad and inclusive that they’ve become meaningless and intellectually lazy.

“The Big Tent Revisited.”  We kicked a fuss with this post, asking if the IAB hadn’t gone too far in its full-throated defense of third-party cookies.

Next Week:  “The Best of the Drift, 2013:  The Sales Stuff.”