Be Careful What You Wish For

Towards the end of the movie Little Big Man, the old Indian knows he is about to die. His labors on earth complete, he dons his ceremonial costume, climbs his tribe’s sacred mountain, and lies down at the summit. Crossing his arms over his chest and facing the sky, he closes his eyes and awaits the inevitable end. Quite a few long seconds tick by as the camera slowly closes in on the Indian’s face. It begins to rain, gently at first, then quite hard. The Indian’s eyes twitch at the impact of the raindrops. When it becomes clear to him that death is in fact not imminent, he says: “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

For those of us in the Web media business, 2001 was a very frustrating year. After a decade of the longest uninterrupted economic expansion in American history, after years of spectacular — even irrational — exuberance in our sector, it became clear in the early months of the year that the magic was no longer working. Despite logical arguments, emotional pleas, and desperate entreaties (some published in this very column), the bloom was off the rose that had been Web advertising. If a rising tide lifts all boats, then the opposite is true as well: the ebb tide of advertising expenditures not only lowered all boats, it also managed to strand quite a few on the rocks.



The magic that had attracted so much investor capital to the industry, the magic that had promised a new economy and a new way of valuing success, the magic that had enticed so many into leaving mainstream careers to become Web pioneers, that magic was no longer working.

At a recent industry holiday party, the host wished for 2002 to be “an exciting year.” Overhearing him, a guest politely disagreed. “Be careful what you wish for,” he said. “Prosperous, peaceful, happy — yes. But 2001 gave us enough excitement to last for quite a while.” But in discussing the events of 2001, a guest at the same party — an ad sales manager — dismissed the September 11th attacks as causing the industry’s troubles. “By that time the damage had been done,” he said. “September 11th just became a convenient excuse for advertisers to bail out of their commitments.”

So, as we reach the end of this too-exciting year, we struggle to maintain the optimism that has sustained us. But it is troubling to see that, in a review of reputable estimates of 2001 US online ad spending, the difference between the low and the high is almost 100%. If you want to know how to get somewhere, the saying goes, you must first know where you are.

Success in 2002 is going to take more than magic — it’s back to managing the basics: Who’s the audience? What do they want and need? And how can they be reached most efficiently and effectively? And sometimes the magic does work.

Random thoughts.

Random year.

-- Michael Kubin is co-CEO of Evaliant, one of the web's leading sources for online ad data.

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