Bring The Train Back To The Station

Ever since this thing we call online got started, we have been claiming credit for the actions taken by the consumers advertisers pay us to reach. That's like taking credit for the sale of coffee because you work the cash register at Dunkin' Donuts. And yet this is the flag we came out of the shoots waving, which is why nobody liked us back when nobody liked us.

The person working the cash register is a complement to the process of selling things to people. And that is all a media property can really be: a unique and engaging complement to a communication plan advertisers and their agencies have strategically established.

But back in the late '90s, at the height of our arrogance and immaturity, we were not interested in being a unique complement; we were taking over the world of advertising, remember? We brazenly told clients we had the answer to their quest for a return on their investment (ROI). Armed with "the answer," we talked fast, dressed casual, and told clients the train was leaving the station, and they had better jump on before they missed out.

It was at some point back then, somewhere in the Bay Area would be my guess, in some client's office, someone selling online confused our ability to measure an action with the ability to cause an action -- and the beast was born. This was a colossal mistake made with premeditated intentions. By claiming credit for delivering an action (versus measuring one) we as a medium were able to essentially secure more marketing dollars at a greater pace than a new medium should have earned. We bought into the hype we sold, and it served us well in the short term. But as a result, we never earned and acquired tangible value for anything beyond the actions we now promised clients. Fast-forward to today, and this struggle remains glaringly apparent.

What's worse is, we continue to repeat this mistake. All of the technical wizardry delivered by third-party developers, portals, ad networks, ad exchanges and the like are universally positioned by their respective sales forces as a way to improve the performance of a campaign -- as if somehow we alone control the minds and actions of consumers.

How obtuse and arrogant of us to think that by placing the right ad in front of the right person at the right time and at the right price, we are solely responsible for a consumer's decision to click, conduct a search, submit an email address or become a customer. Are we ever going to realize consumers' actions are based on a myriad of experiences with a brand's product or service, and we play a role -- not the entire hand?

This self-created direct-response pigeonhole we are stuck in can be traced back to our failure to learn how to patiently and tactfully position our medium as a unique and engaging complement to an overall media plan. And that's why the disparity between consumer time spent online and the dollars allocated by clients to online advertising exists. Not enough clients want to work with us or understand how to, and our reaction is, "they don't get it" -- when in fact, we don't "get" them.

Is it too late for us to start acting as if we can see the whole picture and where we fit in? Is it too late for us to start using common words and phrases our clients understand, versus expecting them to learn our language?

Imagine if we could manage to do that? More clients would likely enjoy talking further with us, would understand us better, and might want to see the value we deliver beyond the spreadsheet. If we stopped acting like everything we invent is the answer and instead presented our innovations as unique complements, clients would spend more money with us without feeling like they have a train to catch.

5 comments about "Bring The Train Back To The Station".
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  1. Greg Zerovnik from Zerovnik & Co., July 16, 2009 at 12:17 p.m.

    "came out of the SHOOTS"???? Ari, please, that would be "chutes." Tsk, tsk. Apart from that, however, yes--it's best to give credit where it's due and not take credit without cause.

  2. Patrick Fitzgerald, July 16, 2009 at 12:43 p.m.

    Ari, Bravo! A terrific insight and a real understanding of media and how it is valued. Having a good deal of expereince in traditional media, I have seen an attitude of digital being "The New, New Thing." for ten years. Still one of the primary drivers is the ability to provide metrics. To be sure, this is a differentiator, but it has been elevated to the value proposition. In fact digital media represents an important evolution in the media landscape. There are aspects that truly represent a new value proposition to brands. By emphasizing the ROI piece the industry devalues the medium and runs the risk of reducing it to a commodity. The digital space provides brands the opportunity to engage their targets and should be valued accordingly.
    Digital sales professionals would marvel at the negotiations by their brothers in TV and cable. The notion that Fox or ABC would accept that Budweiser will pay them only when the viewer leaves the football game to go get a beer is beyond preposterous.
    By the same token, digital publishers need to effectively communicate the value of the engagement opportunity to the brands, and to the agencies that control the ad dollars. There is a tipping point in the future where TV will necessarily become the medium of reach, and digital becomes the medium of engagement. The digital space can expedite the process by educating the clients and agencies in the methods and practices that will provide them the full measure of their investment, in terms more complex, and meaningful, than click throughs.

  3. Jeff Weitzman from Go Factory, July 16, 2009 at 12:59 p.m.

    The late 90's....good times, good times.... Nice article Ari. No doubt we all oversold a bit in the early days, but we shouldn't flagellate ourselves too severely. Remember the IAB's cross-media study? A very strong effort to position online media as an important part of an overall media mix, one that both allowed better measurement and was demonstrated to improve overall performance. There has also been a strong push on "integrated marketing" to show the benefits of online/offline promotions. Maybe the horse was already out of the barn, but I don't think the industry was blind to the issue.

    We also need to look at the buy side. You no doubt remember the major push P&G made to organize advertisers to pay only on a cost-per-click or CPA basis. As much as we on the sell side wanted to believe we could change everything, the buy side was looking for a way out of the "I know I'm wasting half my money but don't know which half" dilemma they faced in TV and other traditional media. In our efforts to break into budgets, we were only too eager to feed the beast, so to speak.

    It will be interesting to see if we've all learned our lessons as social media finds its niche. Every day on Twitter I see marketers declaring that nothing else matters, social media will make all other forms of media irrelevant. Tweets from Twits, I say. Learn from the past, people!

  4. Mike Kelly from LIN Media, July 16, 2009 at 2:39 p.m.

    Right on the mark Ari. In our zest to be new and accountable we lost sight of the fact that not only do our clicks have do view-throughs as evidenced by a half dozen studies in the last few months. Clients do need to cost-shift from less efficient media like radio, yellow pages, outdoor branding (pleeease) and print, but we have to do a better job of understanding THEIR business. If print was held to the same standard of accountability as new media, the presses would have stopped with Gutenberg.

  5. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, July 16, 2009 at 5:31 p.m.

    Greg -- I owe you and the rest of the readers an apology for my grammatical mishap :)

    Jeff -- absolutely true, buyers own half of this colossal error and contribute to its ongoing existence.

    Mike -- we are on the same page thanks for saying so.

    Appreciate the thoughtful feedback.


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