Last week, in my column on New Year’s “Resolutions for The Digital Industry,” I gave a fair amount of criticism to the UK office of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). I bemoaned the fact that they seem to be more focussed on producing events than working and campaigning on behalf of the digital industry, more satisfied about bringing big-name celebrities to their conferences rather than working on important issues. I got lot of messages about this from some pretty senior people in the UK digital industry who were broadly supportive of my view and who also were pretty scathing about trade associations across the board.
I should lay my cards on the table here. As the former publisher of New Media Age and currently head of content with The Drum, I’ve worked pretty closely with many of the trade bodies in the UK. I even served for a year on the board of the British Interactive Media Association. I know that, generally, these associations are well meaning, do some great research and employ some great people. But how relevant are they to the digital media industry of 2014? I would contend that in parallel with the issues their members face, digital media trade bodies are struggling with their single-platform roots in what has become a multi-platform world.
Let’s take a look at the Association of Online Publishers (AOP). They claim to be “The voice of premium digital publishers”. Well, that’s great as publishers are the most beleaguered sector in our industry. Four years ago, under the dynamic leadership of Lee Baker, I confidently told anybody who would listen to me that these guys were the ones to watch. This was their time, and they would thrive. And for a while they did, and everybody was happy. But with the advent of programmatic trading and falling yields, they seemed to go very quiet so I spoke to Baker and asked him why. He told me that the problem was that the AOP had no mandate to campaign. So much for being our voice.
They also have another problem. In a bid to extend its influence, the IAB has reached out to the publishers who defined traditional IAB Portal/Search engine members as the “competition”. However, this in turn now gives the IAB a new issue — How on earth do you keep all these divergent interests happy? Google (who by most reports is the biggest contributor in terms of membership subs) is said to influence an agenda that does not necessarily serve any second-tier content publisher, and, in fact, on some occasions acts against their best interest.
Our friends at AOP have the reverse concern as the spectrum of its constituent members is much tighter. The groups (commercial, B2B, product development and research), in contrast to the IAB councils, are locked out to vendors, except by invitation. As a result, the egalitarian nature makes for more open sharing of information. But, it has nothing like the resources of the IAB, and word has reached me that they are letting sales staff go.
AOP and IAB face similar challenges. If they are honest with themselves, they should accept that they cannot fight on all fronts, and openly embrace single-issue groups and thought leaders. They cannot go into the depths that the single-issue groups such as the Digital Trading Standards Group (DTSG), a UK group comprising representatives of the display advertising market, or Open Video View, who are working towards a standard ad viewability solution which boasts founder members such as TubeMogul, BrightRoll, Innovid, LiveRail and SpotXchange.
But, that requires an inherently strong management structure and the confidence to steer, or even publicly criticise members who are not adhering to any idea of “good practice”. The question must be asked, would the IAB ever have the balls to tell Microsoft or Google to adhere to what DTSG recommend? Increasingly, less likely. In a similar vein, how will a major broadcaster feel if the AOP attempted to get them to invest in a single-source viewability measure? In short, we must ask if those in the senior positions are up to the challenge. Is anybody?
The problem all trade associations have is that, as they grow to reflect their markets, it becomes increasingly hard to keep all members happy. As an industry, we need to demand more from these bodies, become active in working with them and draw attention to issues where necessary. As Lee Baker told me recently, “In the end, you get the trade body you deserve”.