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.

The Web’s Brand Crisis.

One of the best definitions I’ve heard for the term “brand” is “the premium a customer will pay for a product over its generic alternative.”  Simple, straightforward, measurable.   If we apply this standard to our world – where the product is online advertising and the customer is the marketer – then we have to admit our brand is in pretty awful shape.  In fact, the television brand would seem to be kicking our collective ass right now.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Krux Digital, which gives websites a platform to safeguard, manage, and make responsible use of consumer data signatures across multiple devices, sources, and formats. Find out how

Advertising Age just reported that this upfront could see a double digit increase in spending.  We digital folk love to ridicule the upfronts and call out the fallacy of marketers paying ever more for a TV audience the gets smaller every season.   But the truth is that they do pay more, and they do so willingly and with their eyes wide open.  Why?  The answer – I think – is in the brand halo that TV has created for itself in the eyes of the customer.  TV has come to stand for creativity, glamor, luxury, the sense of feeling important as a buyer.  Even though most of the new shows will fail within weeks, the TV brand still stands for fresh product, new ideas, a clean roster of actors who all look better than we do.  Even though we can rationalize that it’s the most traditional of media buys, TV has come to symbolize a better future to the marketer – a promotion, a chance to align with a hit show, a moment of satisfaction when your neighbor says he saw your spot on CSI: Miami last night.

It’s the ultimate irony that digital marketing – which is completely transformative in nature and application – labors under a brand that has become rather sad and incremental.  We have only ourselves to blame.  In contrast to the glitz and promise of television, we’ve come to look about as sexy as your Aunt Mimi clipping coupons and alerting you that there’s an extra $2 off on the big box of Friskies.  Last week Kendall Allen wrote about our “Math State.” But I would argue we don’t even talk about the exciting branches of math:  we focus almost exclusively on subtraction and division, instead of talking about how we are going to multiply the value of the advertising dollar or add value to the end product.

Is any of this fair or rational?  No.  But who says that’s the way the world works anyway?  Truth is that all the tools are at our disposal, the consumers have made what we do a core part of their everyday lives.  But until we quiet the din of confusing tech talk, still the chatter of all those amazing quants and begin connecting online advertising directly to a better future for the marketer, we will continue to be the harmless geek who studies for the tests.  The marketers may ask us if they can copy our papers, but they’re not going to fall in love with us.