Internet Upfront: A Bad Idea Waiting to Happen?

When Starcom MediaVest Group chief executive Jack Klues was invited to speak at the recent iMedia Summit, a friend of his suggested that he was put on the agenda only so that the Internet industry could curry his favor. But, no, he said, he wanted to attend because the Internet is a major opportunity for his company and clients and he thought he could learn something of value from the interactive industry.

One wonders if Mr. Klues' enthusiasm for the Web influenced two SMG clients, Coke and McDonald's, when they recently acknowledged the marketing power of the Internet? In a widely-reported announcement from the podium, Mr. Klues said he wants his upfront market to now include a network of broadband providers, not just TV networks.

While the suggestion of an upfront market may seem like a seminal moment in Internet advertising, an acknowledgement that the Internet can deliver significant audiences at a time when every ad planner's favorite spend is still network TV, an upfront online market might do more harm than good.

Note that Mr. Klues only included "broadband providers," mentioning Atom Shockwave, Yahoo Platinum and Unicast by name, in his upfront (although other SMG execs said that was not an exclusive list). Does that mean the only Internet advertising of perceived value to Mr. Klues is streaming video that approximates what can be seen on TV? If so, he overlooks the issue of user control. If online users don't like your steaming video ad, they can simply close it or click off to another page (something sure to make publishers who host the ads very unhappy).

One of the many reasons TV networks are losing audience is that audiences want to control what they watch and WHEN they watch it. PVRs like TiVo scare the hell out of the networks because with high enough PVR penetration, the nets can no longer promise advertisers they will reach the desired audience when and where the advertiser makes the buy. Moreover, PVR users can fast forward past commercials. BUT, they can also save them.

My acquisitive son often replays TiVo recorded commercials to recheck product specification or to show them to me so I will buy him EXACTLY what's on the commercial. What this in microcosm proves is that advertising which delivers a product or service of real interest in a compelling way to audiences, is valued. This become paramount in a medium where the user has nearly total control over what he/she hears and watches.

So porting TV commercials to the Internet may seem on the surface to be a way to resolve falling network audience numbers, it inadvertently categorizes the Internet as just another mass medium. And while the Internet can deliver boxcar numbers, its true value lies in being able to deliver ad of REAL interest to its audience.

While I would love to see Coke ads across the Internet with the same weight and frequency as its past TV spending, I would be more interested in seeing marketers use the targetablity of the Web to reach consumers with an affinity for their products and services. At Interep we deliver proven business consumers thought the small business sites we rep, investors through the finance sites we rep, TV watchers and moviegoers though the entertainment sites we rep.

Gone are the days when people randomly surfed the net "to see what's on." Now people go to sites they have book marked for specific information they seek. They make repeat visits as their loyalty builds. They want (and respond to) ads that meet their proven interests. New audience management technology can help us reach online consumers based on their stated AND implied interests.

This doesn't mean that we sell only medical ads on our health sites, indeed we sell the attributes of the site audience to non-endemic advertisers, but what we don't do is force-feed one-size-fit-all ads to a mass audience.

And if that's what an Internet upfront is all about, we will lose more than we gain by it.

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