Slicing the Bean.

There’s an old black and white cartoon from the 1930s that has two hobos settling in for a meal together.  After they set out plates and tie napkins around their skinny necks, they attack the main course:  a single bean, which they carefully slice in half and eat rather contentedly.

I’m reminded of this image when I see the online ad landscape slide created and popularized by investment banker Terry Kawaja of GCA Savvian.   Terry graphically and articulately lays out the dozens of sectors and hundreds of companies that make up the service and data chain between the marketer’s online ad investment and the dollars gathered by sites.  A central premise in his argument is that this process middleware (my term) is severely overcapitalized, and that the players there are all in competition to further dissect the relatively paltry online display space of today.  Like the two cartoon hobos, they’re not finding more food, simply making a big show of slicing the bean ever more finely.

I think that in our rush toward creating ever more process intelligence (data) and efficiency (targeting) we’ve gotten a little lost.  Investors,  marketers, agencies and media companies have stopped asking a very fundamental question of each new entrant into the already-overcrowded middle:  “How is what you do going to create new online wealth?”

It’s as though we all took the wrong lesson away from the record success of Google and the inevitable success of Facebook.  Each of them created something of value that was fundamentally different and new, something that spiked usage of the medium (Facebook driving massive, always-on usage)  or that brought significantly more dollars online (Google’s self-serve buying model aggregates zillions of dollars of mom and pop spending ).

The industry doesn’t need one more data source that’s going to refine targeting by a quarter of a point.  Nor do we need another technology or platform to shave a nickel off the CPM.  We do need great companies and products that are going to create new hours and new dollars in the space. There’s a time to sow and a time to reap.  The time for slicing up the bean is over.

Web Sustainability: The Data Compact

The more I think about the web marketing environment, the more it looks like a delicate ecosystem, a co-dependent web of often contentious species; marketers, media companies, consumers and the many parties that string them together.  As said in my iMedia Agency Summit keynote last week, like any ecosystem it can easily be thrown out of balance and destroyed.  And I think we may be closer to that point than any of us realize.

I’ll write more later on the issue of economic sustainability (the basis of value creation in our world is pretty much a house of cards) but today my issue is The Data Compact:  the unspoken agreement we have with consumers in this ecosystem.  In my opinion, we continue to make a very dangerous assumption about “targeting” consumers and harvesting, manipulating and packaging their data.  We assume that because we can, therefore we may.  We ignore (or simply pay lip service to) the fact that consumers want some kind of a tangible value exchange for all the cookies and tags and pixels  we deploy.

The most common rationale we fall back on are actually pretty limp. “Through targeting,  the consumer will get better, more relevant ads.”  Actually, they’ve just gotten more of the same…often a lot more.  “All this data manipulation is fueling a business that’s keeping your internet free.”  No, the consumer is actually paying Comcast or Verizon a good buck for that free internet, so that doesn’t really hold up either.

While I’m not advocating a rollback on audience targeting or draconian “opt-in” data policies, I am saying that our industry’s response to this unspoken compact has been shallow at best, cynical at its worst.  As I said to the iMedia audience, “if you dropped the average consumer into just one of our breakout sessions on micro-targeting he would be absolutely horrified.”  We’re careless in our language (who ever thought to call it ‘targeting’ in the first place?) and steadfast in our refusal to consider what’s really in all this for the consumer.  Because if the consumer decides this all goes away, it all goes away.  Look no further than the creation of the Do-Not-Call registry for proof.

I simply want to open a healthy debate on the subject.  So here’s a premise:  It may just be possible that our current maniacal focus on audience targeting may be creating an internet that’s actually worse for the consumer.  That by devaluing quality environment and context — and removing its financial premium — we may be economically disincenting companies who create them.  So the web becomes a nothing but long tail sites, mail, personal home pages and cookies.

Talk amongst yourselves.