The session turned quickly into six separately prepared sales pitches. Listening to all of the presentations in a row provided some side-by-side clarity. It does appear individual companies in this space are trying to differentiate themselves, but the fundamentals tying them all together remain intact. They are reselling something they buy rather than create, so the less they pay initially, the more they make. Everything in between becomes fair game to ad networks as they structure favorable arrangements for themselves, filled with promises they have little intention of keeping with the publishers they have become so reliant upon.
I heard plenty of false claims made during these presentations, such as delivering click-through rates 14,000% higher than average display yields, and CPM returns to participating publishers well north of reality. But I also witnessed how loaded ad networks are with innovation, all driven by the desire of incredibly talented people.
Ad networks could fuel the online industry to greater heights -- but the way they currently approach their partnerships with publishers will stall them. The issues are many, but none bigger (or broader) than channel conflict.
One initial way ad networks tried to soothe this fear for their publishing partners was to make a promise of blind buys. The advertiser (and their buyer) would not be allowed to know which specific publishing brand's inventory was part of the sale, allowing publishers to collect incremental revenue without publicly commoditizing their value.
So as this meeting approached its conclusion I posed this question to the panel: "Given the significant issue of channel conflict, what policies do you have in place at your company to enforce this promise of publisher anonymity -- and how do you hold your sales team accountable if they break this promise by sharing specific sites an advertiser will run on?"
One ad network executive answered, "We no longer promise blind buys" so if a publisher wants to be part of his network they must allow his sales team to use their brand name in their sales efforts. Another answered, "We take the rep out back and shoot them," and the room responded with laughter. When the laughter died down, I reiterated my question was a legitimate one and that was met by awkward silence until the moderator stepped in and moved the meeting to closure.
How do these or any ad network for that matter, plan on fulfilling this contractual promise of anonymity for their publishing partners without any formal internal plan or process in place to do so? And if the resolution to this issue mirrors the one answer given, than how does complete transparency solve the problem of channel conflict? It doesn't.
Three weeks ago I endured and enjoyed a three-day juice cleanse -- nothing but freshly prepared vegetable juices and lots of water for three whole days. Once you take the planning of what to eat, the execution of that plan, and the digestion of your decision out of your daily existence, you allow your body to eliminate toxins that have stored up through daily food choices. The benefits are amazing. By day two, your energy level is off the chart, the world around you slows down and the clarity of your own thinking and feeling sky rockets.
The current way ad networks structure deals with publishers is toxic. So I challenge any publisher who engages ad networks alongside a direct sales team, to hit the pause button for 90 days on all ad-network-run campaigns. Then turn to your sales team and tell them they have 90 days to show you this was the right decision.
If they don't respond with greater sales energy, and if you don't see the toxic value ad networks deliver with greater clarity, then turn the hose back on. In the meantime, ad networks ought to focus on solving the problems they create for their publishing partners instead of on the solutions they can't sell without them.
Then both parties can try this thing all over again.