Online Advertising Recall

I have been working in the interactive advertising industry since April of 1999. I started writing about online advertising for Mediapost in September of 2004. I teach salespeople with experience selling other media, how to effectively sell online. I earned a patent for an online advertising pricing model. And yet I feel strangely disconnected to the online advertising world I work in.

I feel this way because I find the fundamentals ushered in by "the majority" influencing our industry's collective direction to be both misguided and short-sighted. I felt this way from day one. Our early leaders made monumental mistakes, and our current leaders continue to sweep these errors under the rug instead of cleaning them up.

In our exuberant immaturity of the mid '90s, we made an active decision to tie our perceived value to the success metrics of the campaigns we sold. We did this to circumvent the natural "proving process" any new medium must endure in order to earn a greater share of the overall marketing pie. Instant advertising sales success was our overt goal, and patience was not in our nature. So we waved our click-through flags and said, look at us -- look at what we can do that the other media cannot.



This forced us to over-focus on producing pinpoint targeting solutions in order to improve campaign performance metrics -- AKA, our perceived value. Prior media had audience response data to work with, but none were foolish enough to wave this data in front of advertisers as primary benefits the way online publishers and agencies bragged about clicks and conversions.

This error in judgment, in turn, led our collective conscience to excuse behavior that jeopardized user privacy. The more information we could obtain without implicit consumer consent, the more targeting we could sell -- which in theory meant ads would perform better and we'd make more money selling them. The business folks started to overwhelm the consumer marketing people in dot-com conference rooms, and monetizing user attention dominated our obligation to reward it with vigilant protection of user privacy.

No medium before us threw consumer privacy so blatantly under the bus, and now this has all caught up to us. Our business practices have drawn the ire and attention of those living in the Beltway, far outside our dot-com world. And they appear to be arriving at the question, "What is it that you dot-com guys are doing without implicit consumer consent?"

This from a recent story by MediaPost's Wendy Davis: "Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has said he plans to introduce privacy legislation this year. While the details of any planned bills still aren't known, the IAB fears that Boucher's bill would require companies to obtain Web users' opt-in consent before data is shared with third parties."

The IAB is worried that if users have to opt in to grant consent on what we do with their information, our business will suffer. If requiring consumer consent hurts the ability of a business to function properly, that business is flawed to begin with, no?

Instead of licking our wounds and considering how our world can change for the better if we recalled all of the practices that make online advertising "creepy," our anointed leaders keep telling anyone who will listen that we can clean this mess up ourselves. We'll just make it clearer for users to understand how they are being tracked "anonymously," and why our picking through their trash bins of personal data makes things better for them.

Except that this "we do it for your benefit" claim is also flawed. First, the tracking of personal data to serve highly targeted ads is no longer anonymous when the ads show up. If I am on Facebook or Yahoo, and my new girlfriend is sitting next to me, and ads for dating sites are constantly displayed, the targeting is no longer anonymous, is it? Now explain how these targeted ads are making things better for me?

"Better" is a relative term most accurately defined by each individual. Making a broad, sweeping proclamation that serving targeted ads based on collected data without direct consent is better for all users, is ridiculous. Oxygen is good for everyone. Water is good for everyone. A targeted ad served without implicit consent is neither air nor oxygen.

Our business is littered with wrongdoings when it comes to consumer privacy, but the solution to clean this up is not complicated. We can still do many of the things we currently do, but only when we get direct opt-in permission from the user.

Asking for permission is an easy concept for children to understand. Why is it so hard for us?

12 comments about "Online Advertising Recall".
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  1. Carly Figliulo from Assignment Desk, March 4, 2010 at 1:49 p.m.

    Great article Ari Rosenberg!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 4, 2010 at 2:28 p.m.

    Follow the money and you will find your answer to why it is so hard.

  3. Joelle Kaufman from BloomReach, March 4, 2010 at 2:45 p.m.

    Asking for permission is only part of the problem and if we address only that part without addressing the insights in the first half of your article, we will undermine the online advertising industry. CEOs are always seeking the return on investment for advertising - and good heads of marketing do analyze the performance of all their marketing - advertising and otherwise. But to tie a specific ad to a specific outcome is either the holy grail or fools gold. And that's what our industry has done - to ourselves and to much of the rest of the advertising industry.

    To influence a consumer at the point of purchase is amazing - hence why Ad Words are such a great business (one of the reasons). But to build interest in a particular product and brand and to build affinity for a specific brand and model, that takes repeat experiences, strong word of mouth and compelling advertising. The only performance that ultimately matters is revenue - not just today or this month, but long term, sustainable, repeatable revenue. Online advertising needs answers to help brands build those relationships, intentions and preferences.

  4. R.J. Lewis from e-Healthcare Solutions, LLC, March 4, 2010 at 2:45 p.m.


    Great article very on point as always. The thing to consider is not every company has gone this way. I've always been incredibly concerned over behavioral targeting in the healthcare space, and we've refused to bend on that stance even though it would be very lucrative to do so. Doing the right thing is simply good business in the long-run. Doing the wrong thing might be highly profitable (even for years) but eventually it catches up to you. This is what principles are all about. This is what a mission and vision statement are all about. We can delivery highly targeted advertising to a niche audience without having to compromise user privacy.

    One point I would make here though is that the "blame" is should not solely be placed on media/publishing companies. Advertisers and agencies speak with their dollars, and they can and should be very concerned about this. When a big pot of money is held out as incentive, the pressure to bend principles becomes great.

    If we COULD prove without a doubt, that a new advertising technology when employed subconsciously could completely brainwash consumers to buy brand X 100% of the time, without causing them any other side effects.... how many brands would line up with open wallets to participate? Some would call that advertising, and advertising has even had its run at subliminal messaging.... But it is questions like this (and the one in congress today regarding BT) that are the reason we have government. Because man has been proven again and again to not have sufficient principles for self-regulation. I am a huge capitalist, but capitalism left unchecked will carry things to an unhealthy extreme. Look no further that our current banking crisis for proof of that.

    Great article.

  5. Craig Flax from goodthingsgreen, March 4, 2010 at 2:59 p.m.

    Good article,

    As a "friend of the company" and former client advisor for DoubleClick, I've lived through much of the privacy mess. The same issue has always existed with the Direct Marketing world. What business in their right mind would continue to have potential customers SO pissed off?

    I'm not sure that your example (while certainly funny- or if true maybe not so funny) really fits the bill. I'd say the potential advantages of targeted advertising outweigh the dating or viagra ad problems. Nobody says targeting was hitting bullseyes. And if it were, maybe you'd need more transparency in your relationships...

    This isn't a difficult subject. But like anything that requires a profitable entity to change, the industry needs to see the true advantages of moving forward, engaging with consumers and doing the right thing. Perhaps the threat of legislation is the only hope this industry has to save itself from itself. We're about to find out.

  6. Courtland Smith from Adify, March 4, 2010 at 3:15 p.m.

    Great article Ari.

  7. Zack Zeiler, March 4, 2010 at 4:08 p.m.

    This is very true and important from things from ads to online promotions (sweepstakes), etc. The market information goes back to clients and that information cannot be shared and shouldn't be shared without prior consent. When we do secured, online and offline promotions for clients we make sure that in the rules its incorporated in what we do.

    At the same time, emailing around results and people's information that happens SO OFTEN ITS CRAZY is a huge mistake in management of private information.

    With what we've done over 15 years at VPI.Net is always zip, encrypt and securely download the winners list for clients. If they cannot comply, then we'll put it on a DVD or CD (way back in the day) and mail it to them.

    However, so many companies overlook this and the problem is not just IAB and banner ads. Its privacy everywhere.

    Very good article, by the way--it makes you think about the privacy of everything posted. Even here!

  8. Ross Bradley from Qeg Pty Ltd, March 5, 2010 at 3:02 a.m.

    Very good - I too liked it Ari Rosenberg.

    (Hands Ari back his cap that he dropped from his hand, whilst he was delivering the article).

    But after all that you have written and on top of the spate of Omiture announcements (and a few others) in recent days, I just don't know why I still feel a little like 'Goldilocks' on her way to a visit @ Grandma's house?

    Still ........It all LOOK's good to me, though. :)

  9. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., March 5, 2010 at 3:07 a.m.

    Bravo Ari. Your article really serves the public discourse.

  10. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, March 6, 2010 at 12:41 p.m.

    I heard and read the original about the recall by the FDA which left me with the dangerously described "little bit of knowledge" so upon further investigation found additional info here - -

    but, the reason I'm writing is that when I got to this article later in the day, my first instinct was to assume that it was about Online Advertising RECALL - Ha! Gave me alot of good thoughts as I/WE/US mobile into the future.

    If your strategy, methods, ads, or something else is faulty - it ees time to analyze, and maybe re-strategize and decide if what you're doing is worth saving.

  11. Larry Allen from, March 11, 2010 at 11:57 a.m.

    Ari - this is spot on. So much so that I was compelled to blog about it in relation to what we are working on at kikin.

  12. Anthony Piwarun, March 19, 2010 at 10:06 a.m.

    Ari, great article!

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