Randall Rothenberg: March 2008 Archives

blog-header-rr.gifAn Ecosystem 2.0 Post-Mortem

Those of you who were part of the sold-out crowd know that IAB’s just-concluded Annual Meeting in Phoenix was a soaring success: We made news repeatedly, we celebrated the difference-makers who are building the interactive industry, we facilitated deal-making among member companies, and - most importantly — we brought into the open, for public debate, the sorest, most troublesome issue for our membership: Are advertising and the media that convey it just another commodity, or do they have transcendent value for marketers and consumers?

My answer: Both.

The debate was exquisitely captured over the three days in a thrust by IAB’s new chair, Wenda Harris Millard, and a parry by Doubleclick executive Michael Rubenstein. In a widely blogged comment in her speech opening the Annual, Ms. Millard, the president, media, of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, told the packed house, “We must not trade our advertising inventory like pork bellies.” Mr. Rubenstein, the head of Doubleclick’s new online advertising exchange, responded two days later, during his appearance on a panel debating the pros and cons of exchanges. Noting that the trading mechanism and the value of the traded product are distinct from each other, as they are in the gem exchanges of Antwerp, he said: “We like to think of our publisher impressions as diamonds, not pork bellies.”

Please note that at the end of this clog, I intend to give a major-league plug for our March 31 conference that is devoted solely to this subject, “IAB Marketplace: Networks & Xchanges,” an all-day deep dive in New York. But now (and over the next several weeks, if I can hold to a schedule), I’d like to offer some history and analysis about the progress of advertising, and why the IAB has made the evolution of our value chain a top strategic priority for 2008.


Portals Become Platforms

Midway through 2007, I became aware of tonal and contextual changes in the way many corporate leaders in the interactive industry were speaking. Chief Executives of several “portals” were rebranding their companies as “platforms.” A portal, according to Wikipedia, is “a site that functions as a point of access to information on the World Wide Web… [and] offer[s] other services such as e-mail, news, stock prices, infotainment and various other features.” Central to their user-friendliness in the early days of the Web, “portals provide a way for enterprises to provide a consistent look and feel with access control and procedures for multiple applications, which otherwise would have been different entities altogether.”

In other words, portals portrayed themselves to consumers as the only interactive resource they would ever need - hence their attractiveness to financiers and advertisers in the late 1990’s, and the fear they struck in the hearts of branded media incumbents. The widespread belief was that one or two portals would establish themselves as the Web’s operating systems - closed structures with enormous influence over consumer and business behaviors.

Platforms appeared to be something different altogether, and in conversations over the course of last year with Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and AOL CEO Randy Falco, I heard the language of control being replaced by the language of participation. At the Right Media Open last October, Mr. Yang defined a platform as “a business that has a set of standards that allows a set of companies to participate and find benefit from it.” He added: “Yahoo will have to embrace openness.”

At roughly the same time, Mr. Falco, less than a year into his tenure as Chairman and Chief Executive, unveiled what seemed a similar strategy for AOL. “With the increasing fragmentation of online audiences, the best way to serve advertisers is to enable them to harness massive advertising networks that reach across the entire Internet, not just our AOL websites,” he said. The new aggregation of third-party sites and tools and services for advertisers and publishers would become its own business inside AOL, called Platform A. “With the launch of Platform A, we are unleashing this powerful network to deliver unrivaled transparency and return on investment for our marketing partners,” Mr. Falco said.

Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, now running a social-network facilitation service called Ning, confirmed that the shift from control to openness was more than linguistic. “A ‘platform,’” he wrote in a widely-circulated blog posting, “is a system that can be programmed and therefore customized by outside developers — users — and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform’s original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate.”

“The key term in the definition of platform is “programmed,” he added. “If you can program it, then it’s a platform. If you can’t, then it’s not.”

Network of Fear

But there is a problem, Houston: A lot of the intended beneficiaries simply do not believe the behemoths. In most of my conversations with branded-media providers in our membership, the old fears of portal control are still extant and, if anything, more jagged in the dawning era of platforms. Everywhere they turn, media incumbents are seeing threats to their ability to hold their audiences, or price their ads appropriately to the value they deliver: Online ad exchanges are driving their advertising prices down… Widgets on social networks are decontextualizing their expensively-built content… Online networks are delivering ads to tiny sites, many of which are built on links to the major media sites whose lunch they’re eating… Behavioral targeting technologies are divorcing ads from context entirely…

That open platforms seem as much of a danger as closed portals became clear when I started doing formal interviews with members of IAB’s Board of Directors to prepare our 2008 strategy and operating budget. To the question, “What new technologies, platforms, or application categories do you see as potentially disruptive threats or opportunities to your business?,” the answers - from both our network-based members and our branded-media members - were startlingly consistent: Behavioral targeting vs. contextual targeting… Pricing challenges… The value of the differentiated user experience… Supply chain efficiencies in an increasingly fragmented media environment… Interoperability standards that could synchronize millions of sites and hundreds of agencies… Agreement on core metrics… Teaching marketers, agencies, and media alike about the new opportunities and challenges…

Thus was born the theme for our Annual Meeting, Ecosystem 2.0. The interactive industry needed a place to air its concerns and showcase its opportunities - to ourselves. And that means all of us - platforms, publishers, marketers, and agencies - for, as became abundantly clear through the multiple presentations last week, the boundaries that once cleanly separated buyers and sellers, clients and agencies, service providers and customers, are shifting, even eroding.

Benjamin Franklin argued a variation of this challenge when he urged the 13 fractious colonies to come together and declare independence from Great Britain. “We must, indeed, all hang together,” the Colonial pop philosopher said, “or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

At our conference, though, Federated Media founder (and IAB Board member) John Battelle argued it more succinctly. “We’re all in each others’ shorts,” he said.

Heat and Light

Mr. Battelle’s contention wasn’t a complaint; it was a simple affirmation of truth. It echoed the refrain Ms. Millard repeated throughout her keynote: “My space is your space.”

But if you listened closely to what Ms. Millard was saying, you realized that she was doing more than describing our evolution: She was issuing an invitation.

Let’s not minimize the tensions in the marketing-media ecosystem. Forbes.com CEO and IAB Board member Jim Spanfeller opened the onstage debate we structured on the role of online exchanges by charging that “the fully-executed concept of networks and exchanges is to disassociate content from the advertising.

“That’s not good for the end user or for the advertiser,” he said.

Bill Wise, the General Manager of Yahoo’s advertising exchange, responded that exchanges like his provide media like Mr. Spanfeller’s an opportunity to sell advertising more efficiently. “There’s a lot of inventory that doesn’t need a sales force,” he offered. But Patrick Keane, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of CBS Digital - and a former senior Google executive before leaving that “portal” for the branded-media world last year - captured the essential concern on the “contextual” side of the industry.

“I remember trying to get Jim and his team to ‘surrender’ premium inventory to Adsense,” Mr. Keane, an IAB Board member, told panel moderator Michael J. Wolf, the former Chief Operating Officer of MTV Networks. Adsense is Google’s advertising network. “Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I know we have a sales force with great client relationships, and it’s hard to surrender those relationships to the four-letter-word called ‘auction process.’”

Nor could the jockeying for position among the various platforms that occurred during the Ecosystem 2.0 conference have been comforting for branded-content leaders like Mr. Spanfeller and Mr. Keane. While Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang and President Sue Decker took pains to reassure publishers that their intentions toward them are honorable —- their forthcoming platform, the Advertiser-Publisher Exchange, or Apex, will optimize advertising for agencies and publishers alike, they said - a vision of oligopoly could not have been far from the minds of many. Microsoft Advertiser and Publisher Solutions Group Senior Vice President Brian McAndrews calmly predicted that if his company’s bid for Yahoo! is successful, there will be only two platforms in the industry, his and Google’s. That prompted AOL CEO Falco to retort the next day: “”Microsoft and Google can ignore us and leave us off of charts if they want, but they do that at their own peril.”

I did find some of the argument a-historical. Television advertising, almost from the dawn of network broadcasting in 1949, always disassociated advertising from content. Once the “Quiz Show Scandals” killed sponsored programming, TV advertising was dominated by spots created to air promiscuously across all forms of programming on all the networks, with only the barest demographic differences entering into agencies’ calculations of where to place the ads. That’s why the television industry has been able to use an exchange — albeit an opaque and non-mechanical one — to sell so much of its inventory. It’s called the annual Upfront Marketplace.

Still, for all the drama, it was clear to all during the conference that relationships are changing, as technology allows competition to take new forms and all of us face rivals we couldn’t have dreamed of 10 years ago. Microsoft, the world’s wealthiest technology company, now owns one of the most prominent interactive ad agencies, Avenue A/Razorfish, and in bidding for Yahoo, hopes to take in the largest interactive advertising distribution network and content provider in the world. The WPP Group, the world’s second largest marketing-communications company, is now a media company; its acquisition of the 24/7 Real Media ad network makes it both a buyer and a seller of inventory.

Put another way, both WPP and Microsoft now have units in the IAB and the AAAA. They won’t be the last ones, either: We’re all in each others’ shorts.

Marketing-Media Hermaphrodites

Many less-recognized examples of these new competitive dynamics surfaced during Ecosystem 2.0. On the Battelle-moderated panel on coopetition, Lauren Wiener, Senior Vice President of Meredith Interactive Media, reported that the venerable women’s magazine company has expanded dramatically into other forms and functions, and is now both a distributor of Kraft advertising and the food company’s CRM agency-of-record. Group M Interaction CEO Rob Norman, in a spellbinding presentation that shifted tone from the comic to the complex, revealed that agencies like his are likely to start buying and trading media for their own accounts.

Face it, we’re living in an industry composed increasingly of marketing-media hermaphrodites. “The media company is rather redefined in digital,” Christopher Vollmer, head of the U.S. Media and Entertainment Practice at Booz Allen Hamilton, said in presenting the latest findings from “Marketing-Media Ecosystem 2010,” the groundbreaking collaboration between the global strategy and technology consulting firm and the IAB, the Association of National Advertisers, and the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

The Booz Allen research provides startling evidence of the degree to which we’re all in each others’ shorts. Ninety-one percent of the media companies surveyed said they are currently providing agency-like services. Eighty-eight percent say they are providing campaign development and strategic services directly to marketers.

Yet for all that, media still are under-leveraging their opportunities: While two-thirds of media companies are providing consumer insights to marketers, it was only no. 7 on the list of agency-like services they offer. Perceiving an unexploited opportunity, Mr. Vollmer told media companies they should feel anything but threatened. “The antidote to commoditization is to have much more granular data on your consumer,” the Booz Allen consultant told the audience, “almost to the point of managing relationship marketing.”

No wonder Ad Age titled its post-mortem on the conference, “Why You Should Be in the Media Sales Business.”

Marketers Want Relationships

Marketers appear to like the situation: Almost half say they anticipate their relationships with media companies increasingly to resemble the relationships large retailers currently have with major consumer-products manufacturers. That is, they expect major cross-platform publishers to have teams living at General Motors and Unilever, the way Procter & Gamble currently has a team living in Bentonville, Arkansas, to keep the relationship with Wal-Mart successful, profitable, and fully optimized.

Kim Kadlec, Chief Media Officer of Johnson & Johnson, agreed. “Media companies are the most underleveraged resource for insights that exist,” she said. She then introduced Tina Sharkey, the chair of Babycenter LLC - the largest destination site on the Internet for new and expectant mothers.

Babycenter is yet another of the hermaphrodites populating our industry: Supported by revenues from multiple advertisers, as befits a leading media company, it also happens to be wholly-owned by J&J, which has managed to keep the relationship between the two companies sufficiently bounded to protect Babycenter’s business and integrity, while mining it for useful consumer insights. As Ms. Sharkey (an IAB Board member) showed in her fascinating (and highly buzzed) presentation, the insights derive from analysis of blogs, observed consumer behaviors, and the myriad other interactions that take place between users and the company, and among users themselves, as they traverse pregnancy and early motherhood.

“BabyCenter has taught us that media companies don’t just sell pork bellies, they sell much more,” Ms. Kadlec said.

Blogger and Edelman Worldwide public relations executive Steve Rubel caught the drift. Publishers, he wrote, are “disintermediating agencies — even as they all downplay it.”

Interactive Boot Camp

Add up Ms. Kadlec’s, Ms. Sharkey’s, and Mr. Vollmer’s analyses, and you get a strikingly different view of the evolving ecosystem than the commoditization fears convey. Marketers are not looking for cheap inventory; they are looking for relationships. They understand - quite correctly, as my earlier blog post on the history of social marketing, showed - that strong relationships with consumers breed more consumers, and more sales. Individuals talking to other individuals about their preferences and purchases spur more and more enduring sales opportunities than all the “spots and dots” shotgunned across the media. “Advocacy trumps awareness” is how Booz Allen summarized the new view of marketers toward media.

Marketers have been crystal clear that relationships are what they are seeking. When H.J. Heinz invited the IAB to facilitate our Interactive Boot Camp for Senior Marketers for its entire senior marketing team in Pittsburgh recently, the revered food marketer owned up to one primary interest: Using social marketing and social media to build closer alliances with its consumers and customers. We brought a senior executive from Myspace, as well as DDB CEO Chuck Brymer, to help teach them the ropes.

Companies will need to train themselves with a new ‘dialogue’ skill set and build expertise to leverage a whole new set of available tools,” Heinz CMO Brian Hansberry told us afterward. “IAB’s marketing boot camp enabled us at Heinz to begin that work.”

But note something vital here: We brought a great agency executive in that room along with some great interactive media companies. Even as the competitive boundaries change, the importance of classic, discrete skill sets remains undiminished. It is unlikely that media companies will be able to hire enough strategic marketing expertise to fill clients’ needs. And even as the best agencies help their clients develop sites that look, sound, and feel like infotainment (as Digitas has done for Kraft, to cite one ready example), it’s unlikely that agencies will be able to insource all the independent, audience-gathering skills that the best media companies manage.

The media agree; they don’t want to take on the burden of providing most agency services. While they intend to compete in generating insights - “It’s a competition for good ideas, and good ideas get funded,” IAC Media and Advertising CEO Peter Horan explained at our conference — by a 3-1 ratio, media execs told Booz Allen that creative production should remain the province of agencies. They are equally sure that communications planning and media planning are the agency’s responsibility.

Clients see it the same way. “We don’t need media companies to be our agencies,” J&J’s Ms. Kadlec told the IAB crowd. “We need media companies to do what they do best: Create great content, and draw audiences to it.”

Networks & Exchanges

It is not a simple charge. Drawing audiences now fragmented across tens of millions of sites is hard, hard work. That challenge will only grow more daunting once addressable television enters our dens. And creating great content? If that were easy, every blogger would be a best-selling author, and every Youtube uploader a James Cameron.

Which is why I believe the dichotomy between environment and commodity - as represented in the debate between branded-content sites and platforms, or the contest between behavioral targeting and contextual targeting - is a false one. Both have their place, each serves different marketer needs, and neither is likely to be able to exist without the other. To create advocates, marketers require the relationships that engaging content creates. They need the trust forged by The New York Times, the comfort purveyed by Martha Stewart, the style identified with Conde Nast, the technological savvy conveyed by CNET, the wonder associated with Disney.

Marketers also will need to go deeper into those attachments, which is why they and their agencies will use networks to find the smaller sites, many of them without direct sales forces, that inflame the passions of consumers everywhere: The laughter generated by FunnyorDie.com… The nesting tips on Askthebuilder.com… The insider gossip on Gawker.com… The felinophilia of Icanhascheezburger.com… and on and on, ad infinitum (or so it seems). For these reasons, marketers and agencies will use networks - vertical networks for depth, and broad networks for reach. Yes, reach: As important as relationships are, marketing cannot live on advocacy alone.

Already, we are seeing the merger between the seemingly opposing forces of context and commodity. Many branded-media sites are launching their own vertical networks - catching portions of the Web’s long tail and sheltering them within their brand environments. Indeed, the clean segmentation that used to characterize the media is breaking down. The Booz Allen research shows 84 percent of media companies offering contextual targeting services, 70 percent offering behavioral targeting, and about half providing clients with performance marketing services, email marketing, or both.

For such reasons, I expect many branded media will start using exchanges to help lower their average cost of sales, freeing capital to invest in the enhanced services, insights generation, consultative services, and audience gathering that marketers and agencies need.

Marketplace of Ideas

Which is why IAB is inaugurating a new type of conference on March 31. We call it “IAB Marketplace.” It aims explicitly to take a developing segment of the interactive media marketplace and to provide marketers, agencies and media companies close-in views of that segment as it evolves in real time - as well as introductions to providers they may want to partner with. We chose “Networks & Xchanges” as our first marketplace to showcase for one reason and one reason only: It’s the most controversial.

And as Ecosystem 2.0 showed, IAB loves controversy - because out of heat comes light. “It’s one of the most exciting conferences I’ve ever attended,” Doubleclick research and industry relations director Rick Bruner wrote in his blog. Thanks, Rick! But it’s nothing next to the excitement of our ecosystem as it evolves before our eyes.

Imagine the shorts we’ll be wearing!