Commentary

The Next Evolution

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that like you, I read and fret a great deal about our industry. I have calm discussions and heated debates almost daily about this industry, often discussing what someone else had written that day in a column like this. I've realized lately that I care more and talk more about it than I did 3 or 4 years ago. I'm not sure there's necessarily more to read, or that there is more to talk about than there was three years ago, but I do know that I seem to struggle more to keep up with it all. I do, however, know that we're headed in a better direction than we were three years ago, and I’m solidly convinced of this. But this coming year, more than any year behind us, will be instrumental in setting the fundamentals and the ground rules for years to come. Why?

Earlier I mentioned how I read the rhetoric of our industry pundits and let me go on record as saying that they often do a great job of identifying much of what’s wrong, and also what's right in our industry. Now is the year that we need to act on many of those issues. Fortunately for us, people such as Greg Stuart of the IAB, Michael Zimbalist of the OPA, and Rick Parkhill of iMedia are forming groups of individuals to help move the meter, and will assist in moving our industry in the right direction. We, as good soldiers, MUST follow. We need to heed to the call and we need to listen to these industry leaders and their initiatives. Then we need to take the message back to our respective bases and act on it. If we do, then an industry swell shall occur. Of this I'm certain. Follow along for another minute and you'll see there is already history to prove that this can happen.

Three short years ago we were having an industry-wide party. The Industry Standard was still in business and banners were still the predominant ad practice for most sites. There was still a lot of dot-com money around, and one dot-com was simply fueling another. There was very little REAL money from REAL companies being spent on banners, buttons or text links. The real money was standing over on the sidelines quite bemused by it all, and telling the few of us that cared to listen that they'd be somewhat interested in our space if or when we got our act together. Their primary concerns involved how terribly complex everything was, that measurement was an issue, that there was little to no standardization of the ad placements, and that those that were standardized were predominately banners and were just awful. I won't go into a dissertation about the banner, but for us to think that 468 pixels of space would support all the content below it leads me to think we were terribly misguided, or horribly arrogant. Consider or remember that traditional print media has been a 50/50 ratio of content to ads practically since its inception, and you'll get a clearer picture of the absurdity of it all.

Now enters the much-needed rich media evolution. Shortly after the painful dot-com implosion, the NY Times and CNET launched their 336 by 280 rectangle ad units. They strategically placed them right into the middle of their pages, and right into the hearts and new attitudes of traditional advertisers. Many fellow publishers quickly followed suit, and along with the IAB adopting the units as a standard, this forever altered the ad landscape of the Web. Finally we had made the needed strides toward the future and toward traditional advertisers recognizing this medium for all of its valuable attributes. Now let me ease a little of your pain - we can't be expected to perfect a brand new industry in only a few short years, but I think the job has now really begun.

The next couple of sentences are not intended as self-promotion, but as a part of something I deeply believe in: This year CBS MarketWatch launched a new rich media ad unit we call the Intro-Message to great success and very little user criticism. Most of you reading this have very likely seen them. When crafted well, the Intro-Message and its synched front-page units can really be stunning. Just recently Jaguar and Master Card have used it extremely well. It can emote. It can brand. It can be memorable. And it is in sore need of standardization.

My good friend Doug Weaver of Upstream told me almost two years ago that 90% of the Web’s potential advertisers hadn't been on the Web yet. I think he was right and I'll state here that percentage has now shrunk dramatically. This summer was the turning point. It was finally the time that I heard and saw hundreds of traditional advertisers using multiple websites with a variety of great rich media ad solutions. They are now recognizing the Web as a critical or necessary part of their media plan.

So I think it’s time for more direction, more guidance, more rules and codes to live by. Agencies and clients should be able to build one rich media unit and place it 100 times rather than build 100 different specs to place each one once. I think we've reached a point where we can take much needed and deserved market share from other media, but we need to make some critical decisions for the next evolution of Web ad standards and practices. So I for one say to the IAB's Greg Stuart, OPA's Michael Zimbalist, Rick Parkhill and anyone else who cares to listen…I'm ready for the next evolution - just tell me what to do.

Scot McLernon is EVP, Sales & Marketing at CBS MarketWatch. He may be reached at SMclernon@marketwatch.com

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