Commentary

The Rich Media Technology Tableau

Just when I'm feeling like the market can't bear another one, I'll get a call from a new rich media company. Invariably the caller wants to talk about the company's technology. What I'll want to discuss is the company's service model: How many client-service engineers are on staff? How thoroughly are ads tested? How do you service agencies and publishers?

These are crucial questions because, more so than technology, proper execution at the service end of the continuum represents the bedrock of rich media's rise. In the rich media space, differentiating on technology is frequently a matter of nuance and infinite interpretation. Differentiating on service is not. Consequently, these technology conversations are often quite short.

Any capable programmer could build any of the existing rich media formats. But it requires a real business to offer the processes and services that are required by the industry. Rich media today is not so much about technology innovation as it is about execution of the day-to-day service requirements of the industry. The short stroke is this: Rich media companies are rarely technology companies, but that doesn't matter. As far back as 1999, you could throw a stick in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and New York (and possibly even Laredo, Texas, Saginaw, Mich. and Topeka, Kan.) and hit 10 Flash designers, each eminently capable of authoring a floating or expanding Flash ad. The problem: What publisher was going to accept it? And if one did, would others?

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Publishers saw this problem (and the opportunity) and responded with proprietary rich-media formats of their own. But this created a new problem: the inability of agencies to create a single ad for multiple placements across multiple publishers. The publishers and agencies were not going to solve this problem between themselves, and the large third-party ad servers were focused on other areas, such as media planning tools and search optimization. Business, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and suddenly there was a new link on the value chain: The rich-media company was born.

So rich media companies largely share a tableau of technology, and more often than not, the technology is not definitively theirs. Flash may not be an open standard, but it might as well be. The story is similar for the various scripting technologies that, along with Flash, constitute the underpinnings of rich-media "technology." There are exceptions: Eyeblaster Inc. has an impressive Web-based planning console. Viewpoint Corp. has a proprietary media player that is adroitly distributed to a solid segment of the planet's computers. In the latter example, however, is the lesson  perhaps the key lesson: As great as the Viewpoint technology might be, the company did not have a compelling story for advertisers until its recent acquisition of Unicast Communications Corp., a company whose solid brand was built on an attentive service model.

Even today, as ad formats become more powerful and complex, rich media companies must not lose sight of their key value proposition: bridging the complexity gap between the buy side and publishers. Competing to make sight, sound, and motion advertising as easy as possible for their complementary core constituencies  agencies and publishers  should remain the place where rich media companies compete and differentiate.

As a sector, the rich media companies have a shelf life. As agencies and publishers grow more comfortable creating, trafficking, and fulfilling sight, sound, and motion campaigns, it is inevitable that self-service options will take market share from the traditional rich media players. But until that happens, the companies that understand their business is the service business will do quite well.

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