Commentary

Winter Is Coming

I don’t watch “Game of Thrones,” but I understand it’s layered with pessimism.  I am an optimist, but am having real trouble ignoring the cold realities of the digital publishing market.

Last week, a dear friend and former employee of mine was laid off from Time Inc.  Last year that iconic publishing company bought him a Rolex for being one of their salespeople of the year.

Time Inc. has been laying people off on a regular basis since 2014.  Gannett had major layoffs in the past two years.  Meredith cut ties with 100 employees last year.  Conde Nast had layoffs last year, and so did The New York Times.  Vice media and smaller pubs like IBT Media and Mashable also laid people off in the past 12 months.   The list goes on and on.

There isn’t a sales or marketing person working at a big name premium publisher, or a smaller-tier vertical one, who isn’t looking over his shoulder.

There are no saviors.

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Mobile ad spending isn’t going to save digital publishing jobs, because mobile advertising is one big lie.  Reported mobile click-through rates (CTRs) are hundreds of percentage points higher than desktop.  But mobile CTRs aren’t really high. We are, if we think those clicks — or what we now refer to as engagements — are on purpose.  I would bet a buck 99.999% of all mobile clicks are accidental — causing consumers greater angst — and are not a reflection of consumers' increased interest.   The mobile pure-play companies are all showing 12 and will draw a king and bust in 2017, dumping more people into the digital publishing unemployment line.

If a pre-roll ad runs on a Web site and no one sticks around to hear it, does it make a sound? Online video isn’t going to save digital publishing jobs, either.  Neither will native advertising.  These “ads” just remind us how desperate we are — and remind consumers not to trust us.

In the coming months, many more people in the publishing world will be fired than hired.  The same thing will happen within ad tech, where the smoke will clear, mirrors will be removed, and the VC faucet will drip.  

The scariest part is that the biggest layoffs to hit the digital publishing industry are yet to come.

There will be massive layoffs at Yahoo, now that AOL, Yahoo (and MSN) are operating under Verizon and Tim Armstrong.

Tim will say all the right things now to maximize revenue from those coming to work today, but he knows there’s no reason for a salesperson from Yahoo and AOL, along with the respective account service teams, to handle the same advertiser or ad agency.  That’s going to change in 2017, when many more bodies will be out in the cold.

Want more bad news?  Facebook employs over 12,600 people.  Its stock is flying, as ad dollars (mostly mobile) are flowing.  But the thing is, people are getting over Facebook.

I have been completely Facebook-free since May — and feel 100x better than when I gave up gluten for a week.  Turns out, visiting Facebook makes people feel bad — and there has been a steady decline in time spent addicted to feeling bad.  

In addition to this decline in time spent on FB, the recent P&G announcement that the company will pull back from running targeted ads on Facebook is like hot-dog-eating champion Joey Chestnut announcing he’s now a vegetarian.  Advertisers are always the last ones to recognize a party is over, so this day of reckoning at Facebook is still a ways away — but, like winter, it’s coming.

This is all so reminiscent of the dot-com 1.0 bust, but without the flip-flops. (If you lived in San Francisco and were let go from a dot-com, you wore flip-flops as a sign of your misfortune). 

The truth no one will ever utter is that beyond search, if digital advertising went away tomorrow, advertisers would shrug and then go spend more money on TV.

4 comments about "Winter Is Coming".
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  1. Kevin Lee from Didit, August 18, 2016 at 11:29 a.m.

    Indeed...
    So SEM and SEO will be in perpetual spring ;-)  Good to hear.  But SEM doesn't work  in a vacuum.  It's all the otehr media that if purchased effectively can stimulate search behavior along with earned media.
    The shakeout has been coming for a while and Terry Kawaja upgraded his "coming" to "here" earlier in August. with a eye-popping chart showing IPO performance.   https://twitter.com/tkawaja/status/761645452789944320

  2. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, August 18, 2016 at 11:38 a.m.

    Ari, while this is going on, TV is becoming more targetable by audience, and Smart TV will grow as a share of the market. So ad tech will be applied there. too.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 18, 2016 at 1:03 p.m.

    Absolutely, you are a million times correct. The future, so to speak, moved and is moving faster than the planet can adapt. It is the survival of the most adaptable species not the fittest (all over Galapagos) or even the wisest and evolution moves very very very slowly in order to work. Otherwise, we suicide ourselves. Technology makes winter come faster.

  4. Daniel Ambrose from ambro.com, corp., August 19, 2016 at 12:24 p.m.

    Ari, I agree.  Mobile advertising can't be as effective as claimed...not enough room for a message, and too much control by the viewer.  For the premuim publishers we know and love, the solution will be digital subscriptions.  There is a lot of negative talk that "people won't  pay."  But the real situation is that publishers haven't learned how to market digital subs...and they will.  

    If "people won't pay," why does Netflix thrive in a world of 100 free channels?  Because people will pay for the GOOD STUFF.  Publishers need to better understand what kind of content is worth paying for.  

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