Going, Going, Gone!

In theory, the Internet was supposed to be the promised land of infinite inventory, where every eyeball added another impression and Web sites produced bottomless pits of available placements.

Well, theory just ain't what it used to be. "Jumpstart's network of contextual auto sites was 100 percent sold out in 2005," says Mitch Lowe, the CEO of Jumpstart Media. To be sure, the ad crunch is specific to categories like auto, pharmaceuticals, and entertainment, which increased online media spends. The increases, coupled with discrete targeting strategies and scheduling requirements, conspire to make premium online real estate scarce.

Auto marketers streamed online last year, but some of the strongest return on investment comes from hitting in-market buyers at contextually relevant sites like Vehix.com and Automotive.com, which Lowe sells. The next step for Jumpstart is a behavioral network that follows in-market users outside of the auto context and onto other general information sites. "Demand for this is high also," Lowe notes.

Time-sensitive movie studio clients find that scheduling creates a choke point. Agencies finalize budgets late in the game for TV, and movie promotions need to run in a tight time frame. Missing the weeks up to an opening weekend can spell disaster. Often when insertion orders finally come in, "the inventory is not there," says Jason Heller, managing director, Horizon Interactive.

Obtaining prime real estate on TVGuide.com, NYTimes.com, Yahoo Entertainment and Movies, and even AOL's Instant Messenger raises scheduling conflicts as multiple advertisers try to hit similar days and day parts. "It's not a problem we run into on every campaign, but we're running into it a lot more," Heller says. Even when they create new content to add high-impact rich and streaming media inventory, publishers still need to control the frequency and clutter on such in-demand formats. "It's not really a bottomless pit. There's a lot of unsold inventory, but often in places advertisers don't want," Heller says, adding, as an example, "We don't want to advertise in chat."

For segments like insurance and financial services that are casting for leads, second- and third-tier run-of-site inventory remains plentiful and cheap. But it's not always easy for pharmaceutical clients to find space where acid reflux sufferers dwell. Running in general health content isn't effective, especially as regulators press drug companies to keep direct-to-consumer advertising targeted to people with relevant maladies. "They want condition-specific content in very targeted verticals, and they are willing to pay a premium if you can supply them," says Paul DeBraccio, CEO of Interevco, an ad rep firm.

For example, there is a finite number of sites offering niche content on specific kinds of cancer or arthritis. "At Prevention.com and ThirdAge.com, we're almost always in a sold-out situation," DeBraccio says. WebMD, known for ailment-specific areas that are booked well in advance, has expanded its inventory around broadband video-rich programming, with pre-roll video from Lunesta and a breast cancer awareness campaign from Astra-Zeneca. "We are in discussions with virtually every pharmaceutical and medical device company" for this space, says MacLean Guthrie, WebMD's public relations director.

So will there be a cable and broadcast TV-like upfront for Web ad sales? It already exists on an ad hoc basis. Heller's planners regularly craft such deals with UGO, Real Networks, and Yahoo! And Interevco has contracts for health inventory well into 2006 which include clauses for rate re-negotiations if traffic increases 20 percent by a certain time.