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What's This Fascination with Ad Networks? (Or, the Online Media Business Will Be About Brands First, Technology Second)

By - March 16, 2008

Rc ColaBack a year ago, I wrote a three part series on the future of the media business. It began as an attempt to think out loud about a topic with which I had become obsessed, and it ended up becoming a manifesto of sorts about conversational media and marketing.

As you may recall, I started that last set of posts with the observation that major media companies – Time Warner, NewsCorp, CBS – had all fired or parted ways with the long time managers of their digital assets, opting instead for insiders or traditional media folks with whom they were more comfortable. Out were pioneers like Larry Kramer, Jon Miller, and Ross Levinsohn. In were people with whom the bosses were more comfortable – folks who, in the main, came from television advertising sales backgrounds, the very medium that built those selfsame major media companies. Not surprising – in fact, it kind of made sense. After all, brand marketers were starting to talk about moving serious dollars to the web (following their customers, who had already moved). Best to have folks in charge who have great relationships with brand advertisers, right?

Well, a sequel of sorts is brewing. And this time, the main characters aren’t the major media conglomerates, they’re the majors of the online world (minus Google – more on that in a second). They are the RC Colas, the Tabs, and the Pepsis to Google’s mighty Coke: AOL, Microsoft/MSN, and Yahoo.

And once again, the folks who are leaving or getting the ax are the folks who either built or saved those companies over the past ten years.

The much respected Wenda Millard Harris left (or was pushed out of) Yahoo last year. This was a head scratcher of sorts, because she was much beloved in the world of brand marketers. (And we all know what happened to Wenda’s boss Terry Semel late last year: the Hollywood brand genius, hailed as the savior of Yahoo just two years ago, was pushed out year later for failing to chart the right course for the newly floundering behemoth.)

And just last week over at AOL, the person charged with building the company’s entire “Platform A” strategy – Curt Viebranz – was either shown the door, or ran for it. Curt is a strong brand guy – he worked at HBO, for goodness sake.

Finally, Joanne Bradford left MSN last week – again, she was an executive who operated at the highest level of trust with major agencies and brand clients.

That’s all three people in charge of revenue at all three Google-chasers, all leaving within a span of half a year.



Huh.



Now, why are folks in charge of advertising sales shown the door? For not delivering sales, of course. But not all these folks were fired. In fact, I’m guessing that most of them left after losing a very clearly delineated strategic battle over one very simple question:

How do we truly create value in the media business?

Do we sell inventory to the highest bidder via algorithms, automated processes, and platforms? Or do partner with marketers and creators of media to build brands – both media brands, and consumer marketing brands?

I know how the folks who no longer work at AOL, Yahoo, or MSN feel about this question. They’re all brand people. And it’s entirely clear how the Google-chasers have answered that question: They’ve collectively spent billions of dollars amassing “access to inventory” and “ad platforms” in single-minded competition with Google.

It seems the future, according to AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft, is in ad networks.

It has to be, right? After all, after buying a ton of ad networks, isn’t AOL betting its future on “Platform A” – a one stop solution for all your advertising needs? And, after buying a ton of ad networks, isn’t Yahoo betting its future on “Apex” – a place where, in Sue Decker’s words, “ad operations is sexy” and Yahoo can “eliminate all the friction and complexity that advertisers, publishers, agencies, and exchanges deal with so they can focus on reaching the right audiences and driving greater monetization“? And, after buying a ton of ad networks, isn’t Microsoft betting its future on weaving a platform out of aQuantive, AdECN, Rapt, and Yahoo itself? (Not to mention all the chess moves blocking Google out with non-economic deals on Facebook, Viacom, and others – a practice has Yahoo engaged in as well.)

The reason for all these moves, of course, is that Google already had the biggest ad platform of them all – Adsense – and last year, it won Doubleclick to boot. Google is building the biggest, baddest, most futuristic network of them all.

And every single one of their competitors – AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo – are chasing Google’s tail.

Straight down a rat hole. (A direct response rathole, I might add – the majority of dollars on the web are still in DR).

Because while it makes perfect sense for a company like Google to build out a killer ad platform, it makes a lot less sense for companies like AOL, MSN, or Yahoo to do so. The reason is simple: AOL, MSN, and Yahoo are in essence media-driven companies. Google is driven by scale and technology. Brands are about media. Ad networks are about scale and technology.

I see the logic in why AOL, MSN and Yahoo are chasing the ad network dream. They have a ton of inventory. Most of it is making money at very low CPMs – as low as 50 cents on average. If they can drive that CPM to 75 cents through an ad network strategy, their margins go way up, and they all come out looking like heroes.

But then what?

The future of marketing isn’t going to be built by ad networks, exchanges, or platforms. These scaled technologies are not going to address most pressing issues that marketers now face online. In fact, ad networks have become the problem. Not because they don’t have a place, or don’t add value- they most certainly do. No, ad networks are the problem for one simple reason: the very companies who just two years ago were best positioned to help major brands move online have turned away from the principles dearest to brand marketing, and instead convinced themselves that if they only build the coolest platform with tons of inventory, scaled pools of market liquidity, and the best algorithms to sew it all together, they too can achieve what Google has done: win in the marketplace.

But they’re wrong.

While technology and ad platforms are essential components of digital marketing’s future, they fail to address the core needs of brand marketers: engagement. And they fail to address the core needs of digital publishers: the support of marketers that allow them to make a decent living. And while Google is amazing, Google isn’t a brand marketing-driven company. It’s revolutionized direct response, to be sure. It’s the most efficient harvester of brand equity in the world, but it’s not built to create that equity. It has pulled the curtain back on many of the foibles and follies of brand marketing. But until someone writes an algorithm for human conversation, Google will not lead the way toward the next step in marketing brands online.

Let me elaborate. I’ve spent the past three years in a very deep conversation with two types of media players. First, the creators of a new kind of media property. I call this kind of property “conversational media” but you may as well just call it a “publication” – sites on the web that, at their core, are about passionate audiences engaged in the creation and consumption of media that feeds them in some way. Properties that are, in essence, brands. Brands like Dooce, Boing Boing, Protrade, Watercooler, Ask A Ninja, Left Lane News. I am drawn to these brands – I believe they represent the best the Web has to offer. Everywhere you look, new ones are popping up, driven by entrepreneurial creators who, sure, would like to make a buck, but in the end, couldn’t really see themselves doing anything else but make media.

I love these folks.

The other type of media player with whom I have been in deep conversation is the brand marketer. From GM to Procter, Intel to Sears, Ogilvy to Carat, McCann to Media Kitchen, I have spent countless hours in extremely engaging conversations with the people who are charged with creating, nurturing, building, and curating consumer brands. And you know what? I love these folks too. These are the folks who truly believe in media. These are the folks who helped us build the magazine industry, the television industry, and the first version of the online industry.

And I have to tell you, neither the publishers nor the brand marketers believe that a magical ad platform will somehow address their needs online. Sure, brand marketers will spend 5-15% of their budget on lower-CPM “pray and spray” DR and awareness campaigns. And sure, publishers are happy – thrilled! – to see algorithms drive up their backfill or remnant inventory CPMs. But none of them believe that ad networks provide the same kind of engagement and brand building opportunities that a simple two-page spread or 30-second spot does in the offline world.

So what *are* their needs? To address that, we need to step back, and think about media brands and marketing brands, and why there’s such a symbiotic relationship between the two. Clearly, brands have built what I’ve called “packaged goods media.” And in the past few years, I’ve come to the same conclusion about online media. In short, I think brands will also build the next batch of great online media companies. And up until recently, I thought Yahoo, AOL, and MSN were best positioned to be those companies. Now, I’m not so sure.

And as much as I’d like to keep going, that will have to come in the second post in this series (and that may be a few days, as I am traveling, again, for at least half of this week). This post is already 1500 words long, and I’m as tired as you all are, I am sure. So thanks for listening, and let me know what you think so far in the comments….

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LiveBlogging Jerry Yang and Sue Decker At IAB Conference

By - February 25, 2008



Yang Iab

Jerry Yang had the grace to not cancel on the IAB keynote interview today, not sure I would have done the same were I in his shoes. We spoke briefly before he went on, he seemed in good spirits, though clearly the reality of Yahoo’s situation sat heavy in the air.

He and President Sue Decker (that was a surprise) took the stage together, and Jerry spoke solo for a bit. Notes:

The journey has been anything but boring and we are on the cusp of something more interesting….will be talking about role of technology in the advertising business…what is Yahoo? We need to continue to innovate and lead….Yahoo as the “starting point”…focus on key starting points: home page, Yahoo mail, search, and mobile. And then three key vertical content areas: Finance, News, Sports.

Yang alludes again to open platform for Yahoo….but gives no details. Mentions “social aspect” – namechecks the social graph, says it’s still early.

So far, no mention of the MSFT hostile bid, or the trouble the company is in. I think the audience is waiting for it…but they are not going to get it in his prepared comments.

Jerry introduces Sue. Sue is going to talk about Yahoo’s advertising strategy in a post Panama world. Sue is the architect of Yahoo’s approach to the ad network business (ie buying a ton of them)….Sue:

Need to simplify things…it’s highly complex to do digital advertising…need a powerful platform…that’s what Yahoo is building…we are building a cutting edge ad platform running across search, display, video…capable of harnessing Yahoo and non Yahoo properties….we’re trying to revolutionize the online industry…a lofty goal (and one Microsoft, AOL, Google also are trying to do)….

For a publisher: Imagine being able to distribute an advertisers’ campaign across your audience, as well as other publishers audiences….(hmmmm not sure publishers would want to do that, though I can see it if the publishers are aligned). This is clearly central to Yahoo’s strategy, as well as doing the same with advertisers. Hmmm. Much to talk about there..

Sue Iab

From and advertiser point of view – simplification of campaign flighting and operations (which I can tell you from personal experience is a major issue).

For agencies – streamline the buying process. For Ad Networks, connect your publishers to more advertisers.

An open platform could simplify the process. True, but it’s a boil the ocean ecosystem play.

Too much time is spent on the bring part of the business, not enough time on the creative (I hear that).

OK, the comments from both are over, and now Randall is going to ask questions.

Jerry asks if the first question is about Microsoft. Joke about the Oscars.

So the Microsoft question: We can’t say a whole lot about it. “It’s been galvanizing for us.” Yahoo is a unique asset, and we have to think it through…

Sue: There’s a big impact on the workforce but…she is focusing on the day to day business. We had to clean up some old deals that were no longer market (I think this is a reference to their third party ad selling deals with folks like WebMD, etc. – version 1.0 of the strategy they are now talking about on stage).

Randall: Branded publishers are scared of commoditization of their inventory. What is your response? We see the exchange as a critical part of the broader platform…driving openness and scale….if we could decrease the friction it should increase the yield for publishers (er…well, not if you are selling high premium inventory. I think if you are sold out of high yield inventory, perhaps you can reach into this platform to get more, but then it’s not YOUR inventory, it’s not your engaged audience. So how does this help? I’m not getting this…but …Lord knows I don’t always get everything all at once…). She pitches the idea of publisher’s adding Yahoo inventory to what the publisher’s sell (this idea bears more consideration in another post). Also, Yahoo driving traffic to partner sites (ie the newspaper deals Yahoo has been leading).

Discussion of Yahoo’s newspaper deals follows. I’ll spare you the details. It’s actually interesting, structurally, and I sure hope it works. She mentions that Yahoo’s work in display is far more complicated than search and Panama – because inventory is negotiated, not auction, and very fragmented. APeX is the name – Advertiser Publisher Exchange…

Yes, it is more complicated. I think I need to spend some time grokking this with the Yahoo folks…

Yahoo has reengineered its sales force to be integrated across all channels – solutions based, not channel based. A good move.

To be honest, while it’s clear these guys have spent a fair amount of time staring at this problem, it’s not clear to me what the big vision is…and neither Jerry nor Sue landed any counterpunches with regard to the Microsoft threat. They were very careful to say…pretty much nothing.

But Jerry pulls one out in the end: By 2013, he says, online advertising will be the biggest medium in the US, by ad spend. Now that’s something folks gathered under the banner of the IAB can certainly applaud.



The MySpace Platform

By - February 05, 2008

Facebook, watch out, the big guys are in the house…having MySpace launch a platform means real competition, and that is good for folks who were worried about Facebook changing the game on them once revenue became a reality.

Respect Talent, No, Wait, Screw That, Talent Wins

By - January 27, 2008

Dave Winer has a good post about how talent – in particular, writers and “content creators” – have forever had a raw deal from corporations who profit on the back of the creators’ work. Dave posits that this is about to change, thanks to many trends, including the commoditization of distribution, means of production, and audience aggregation (well, I may have added that last one).

I certainly agree change is in the wind, and started FM on the premise that independent creators of great sites on the web deserve not only the majority of the revenue fostered by their work, but complete control over their intellectual property to boot. Well said, Dave.

Mail That Baby, Baby

By - January 20, 2008

I was going to wait to post this till the start of a mobile posting campaign that Microsoft is very kindly launching, but I just can’t let it wait (for those who might care, Microsoft is going to underwrite a bunch of FM authors, including me, posting mobile stuff like photos and maps and voice posts). Anyway, I was in JFK airport and I saw an arresting image in a Pitney Bowes ad.

Dumb Baby

Now, what does Pitney Bowes do? Well, turns out I have some knowledge in this area, as my father, ever the itinerant entrepreneur, tried to compete with Pitney in the 80s by creating a better postage meter. He didn’t get very far. Pitney is the Microsoft of postage meter companies. They own the market.

So they are doing a corporate campaign, apparently, and somehow, they came to the conclusion that slapping postage on a newborn baby – wait, let me say it – a not very pretty newborn baby – is somehow a powerful statement of corporate purpose. (That bracelet is actually a postage label).

Now, am I off here, or does this simply offend at too many levels to really go into? Do they really want to be seen as “putting a stamp” on newborn babies? Are they out of their minds? Anyway, a funny ad, a funny photo, taken as I was, perhaps, a bit funny myself, given I was two beers in waiting for my delayed flight…

Memo to the Writers Who Want To Start Their Own Company

By - January 12, 2008

Guys, it’s a great idea. But don’t make the same stupid mistakes your bosses made and claim you need $30 million to do it.

Did it cost $30mm for Ninja, RocketBoom, WebbAlert or Diggnation to make serious money? Nope, it did not. Don’t take VC money and fail. Do it smart, lean and right on the web. In short, don’t do it in a packaged goods way. Do it conversational.

Update: I know that these guys want to make traditional movies, but there are so many new ways to finance movies as well. You don’t need to finance the company to the tune of $30mm to do it…

Computational Advertising

By - January 10, 2008

I think humans are required anytime you want to connect a brand with a person in any kind of meaningful way. But “computational advertising” is one way to optimize that connection, for sure. This talk by Yahoo’s A. Broder does look interesting (via Greg).

PS – Greg is starting at MSFT next week. Great hire, and congrats Greg!

It's Time For Services on The Web to Compete On More Than Data

By - January 04, 2008

The recent kerscobuffle around data portability got me thinking out loud about what the value of a social network really is – and by extension, any service that might claim to have “lock in” around our personal data.

For years now, a core (unresolved) issue in the Web 2 world has been data portability – with most of us – including me – arguing vaguely for the right to take our data where we want, when we want, without undue interference from the service that helped us aggregate it.

As the debate deepens, it seems there are two camps – first, the camp that says Facebook has either A. a right and/or B. an economic necessity to create a walled garden for our data. The second camp argues that Facebook – and any other walled garden – is A. Stupid or B. Greedy or C. Both.

I think I’ve been pretty consistent in my support of the less-than-nuanced second group of campers.

But I’m not entirely sure the debate is framed correctly. It assumes the key question is about whether or not the data can be ported. Instead the real value creation of a service is what that service allows a person to *do* with that data, once it’s found its way there.

To frame the discussion, think about the idea of competing on the lowest price. This has always been a major point of pain in retail commerce – how can I compete on price if my costs of goods sold is the same (or, shudder, *higher*) than my competitors? My answer is to change the game: Don’t compete on price. Compete on *service*.

An example. My local market charges far more for a good bottle of wine than many shops that are nearby. But there’s a wine guy who works at that market who knows wine cold, and who I trust. Also, the market is close to my home, and I have a personal relationship with the fellow (OK, here’s the reference to the book I’m working on – I have a “conversation” going with this merchant). Those factors, combined with a certain ambiance at the store that I really like, all lead to one result: I buy my wine at the more expensive store. Why? Because the store competes on more than price.

It’s time that services on the web compete on more than just the data they aggregate.

I think the data portability crowd is driven by this idea, in the main – once we have real data portability, personal data becomes a commodity, and services then live or die not on data lock in, but on *service* lock in. Imagine a world where my identity and my social graph is truly *mine*, and is represented in a machine readable manner. Were that the case, the entrepreneurial opportunities to create second order value are immense.

Is this the goal of Open Social? I’m not sure. Danny has pointed out how Google is of two mouths when it comes to the idea.

The problem is, no one seems ready to truly set the social graph free. Till now.

With one move, Facebook can change the face (sorry) of this debate by making it falling-down easy to export your social graph. And I predict that it will.

Why? Because I think in the end, Facebook will win based on the services it provides for that data. Set the data free, and it will come back to roost wherever it’s best used. And if Facebook doesn’t win that race, well, it’ll lose over time anyway. Such a move is entirely in line with the company’s nascent philosophy, and would be a massively popular move within the ouroborosphere (my name for all things Techmeme).

Compete on service, Facebook, it’s where the world is headed anyway!

The "VRI": Doc Wonders If Technology Can Help Us Talk With Companies

By -

Doc notes my post on conversations and asks why we, as consumers, are not more empowered to control our conversations/interactions with businesses who have tons of information about us and our use of their products/services.

I think what we need is something like an API. Let’s call it an VRI: Vendor Relationship Interface. Through it I could know, and see, what I’m getting from each vendor with which I “relate”. On top of that the dashboard could be built.

An interesting thing here is that I really don’t want to have a conversation of the literal kind with most of these companies, unless there’s a problem. I do want to relate with them, however. That is, I would like to request or arrange for services, pay bills and occasionally make suggestions or provide feedback. Most of that does not require wasting the time of another human being. A lot of that could be automated.