The Sounds Of Settling

When a house gets older, it starts to make noises.  Those creaks and crackles are not the sounds of ghosts; they are the sounds of a house settling.

I am hearing those same sounds in the online ad world.  A press release here, a news report there, and comments heard in the course of business, all start to add up.  It has been 20 years since we sold our first banner and we’re starting to settle as an industry.  For all the talk about how much has changed in online over this time, the reality is, so much more has not changed.

My friend Bak taught me something about relationships.  He said, “Take a picture (of your relationship).  If you like what you see, great. But if not, move on, because that picture is not gonna change.” 

So let’s take a look at a portrait of the online advertising industry and see what has settled into our picture.

1.  Clicks. Been there from day one.  Clicks are what we used to cut the line to get ahead of other media back in the ‘90’s, and they’re what make Google, Google. So clicks are not going anywhere.  Some day publishers crushed under the scrutiny of delivering a better cost-per-acquisition will wish for the days of being judged on delivering a more effective cost-per click.  In the meantime, we will continue to measure additional forms of interactions between ads and users and call them engaging names, but they're basically a variation of the click.



2.  Intrusive ad units. We’ve been perceived as a direct-response medium from the beginning, and that’s not going to change.  So publishers (and buyers) will continue to game the system to inflate response metrics that make ads look as if they performed better.  That’s why pop-ups that ran back in the day are still floating and expanding across our page views in one form or another, annoying users enough to act out.  Then the combination of poor aim and deceitfully placed “X” marks consistently inflate the CTR buyers and sellers will gleefully report when good, and downplay when it’s not.

3. Lack of privacy. Do-not-track is a bad joke.  It’s virtually impossible to execute.  Did you read about the pregnant woman who dedicated herself to ensuring her status was not uncovered through her Internet behavior? She did whatever she could not to be tracked online. As she explains, the exercise was well beyond what any normal person wishing to maintain her privacy should have to go through.

Yahoo’s recent announcement that its default setting will no longer be set to “do not track” was the sound of an industry no longer even interested in pretending to care about consumer privacy.

4. Programmatic. What started as behavioral targeting has morphed into programmatic buying, and it will continue to be a fixture in our industry picture.  Programmatic buying will remain -- not because it adds value or reduces workflow, but instead for one reason alone: Publishers can’t resist collecting revenue without making a sale.

Programmatic buying will always show our worst side.  Not just because it cheapens inventory or flushes the industry with ugly ads and fraudulent traffic.  Programmatic is an indictment of our moral values. It can only exist by feeding off data no one ever gave us permission to take.  Programmatic advertising invaded consumers’ privacy and beat it into submission.

5.  Arrogant.  The mid-'90’s dot-com sales army marched into clients' offices, announced, “The train is leaving the station,” and walked out with million-dollar orders. We still walk around with that sense of arrogance that we know more than anyone we talk to.

Michael Wolff put it best in his cutting piece on the NewFronts when he wrote, “The basic business driver of the Internet is that it always has a new future, which is unquestioned because everybody, in this lock-step business, embraces it.”

Arrogantly selling the future has served our financial goals well to date, but clients are catching the bullshit. They are just not calling us out on it (yet).

6.  Brilliant. Can you imagine life without search?  How about without GPS or smartphones?  Can you imagine buying a CD?  What about life that doesn’t include Facebook? Can you imagine a major news event happening that doesn’t first get reported on Twitter?  Can you imagine calling your travel agent?

All of “this” feels like it happened “yesterday” because of the brilliance and bravery of the people in the online industry. 

And that’s who we are.  We’re brilliant, we’re arrogant, and we will do anything to succeed. We popped up out of nowhere 20 years ago, and everything just sort of clicked.

So, do you like this picture?  It’s not changing.

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