Question from a buyer: "Websites don't seem to be breaking the norms for innovation in the space, which is scary since DSPs are going to be the way to buy banners. So why is it that all new media ideas are actually rich-media executions in standard banners?"
Jason says: Whoa. Or should I say, "woe." Allow me to escort you down memory lane in the way-back machine. Ten years ago, we were already trying to move away from only using standard banners and measuring clicks.
My good friend, Scot McLernon, and the team at MarketWatch decided to stop reporting the number of click-throughs on banner ads. At nytimes.com, we started something called "surround sessions," which surrounded a reader's web session with ads exclusively from one advertiser per session. We later created an ad that literally took up half the page. What did we call it? Why, the "half page ad," of course.
Fast-forward to 2010. AOL does the same thing, says it has created something brand-new and calls it, "Project Devil." (I thought our name was more to the point.) And now, everything old is new again! So much for innovation.
Back then, we recognized that just putting ads in front of readers was only going to get you so far. The landscape existed of content sites and portals, so the innovation was going to come from the creators of the content who had the most audience to offer advertisers. Why is it now that publishers are not innovating any new part of the ad process? Has the landscape for developing new products been ceded to technology companies and ad networks? Last year, the Online Publishers Association created a new round of creative formats to be used within its member companies. I am sure it was successful to an extent, but I suspect it is exactly what you are lamenting about, media buyer.
What are the new innovations? Behavioral targeting, audience re-targeting, engagement pricing, digital branded entertainment and more all seem to have originated from technology companies and ad networks. It remains to be seen whether the website owners themselves will get back into the creation game to stay relevant or if they will live perpetually in the holiday spirit and simply "re-gift" things from others. Which reminds me, Amy, how are you enjoying those Cold Stone Creamery gift certificates I bought just for you?
Amy says: Jason, I've regifted those to my cousin in Florida. It's too cold for ice cream here. And it is the height of regifting season, after all.
Innovation in digital advertising was definitely easier in the early days; some of the tactics you mentioned are now today's best practices. The maturation of the industry has made the companies of today, who are relatively big, less nimble and more risk-averse to trying new things. They say the bigger you are, the harder you fall, so if a website's attempt at trying something new fails, there is definitely a hard business cost to that wasted time and energy. Rich media is an easy upgrade, I guess, for many publishers who may have finally figured out some other business challenges, like inventory management and billing. Making rich media a "new" offering is an easy add-on.
But I share the frustration of this buyer. In the new world of paid, owned and earned media, paid media is going to have to try hard to keep up. Search and social media channels are dominating consumers' time, and paid media's role as a source of information and entertainment for consumers is changing. We have seen what has happened to traditional media companies that didn't innovate fast enough. They have seen audiences decline, their business models fall apart -- and the worst of it is, layoffs in the paid media space still continue. Former industry titans like Myspace and Yahoo are not immune to failures within a short time frame, so no paid media company can afford to be complacent.
Innovation in digital is also a challenge because it cannot be easily seen. How do you showcase the success of a new data targeting method that increases efficiencies by X%? It's hard to frame that and hang it on your wall -- or put in the agency sizzle reel in the lobby at reception.
I would like to propose that the industry take its cue from the wisdom of Willy Wonka: We are the dreamers of dreams. It is our job to move this industry forward and be brave enough to change what we are doing to keep ourselves relevant. Maybe we can make this our collective New Year's resolution. We will see what 2011 brings in terms of innovations now that we have humbly shared our perspective. Happy new year, all!!