As part of a consolidation of coverage at MediaPost, this will be my last column. I‘d like to summarize what I have learned over the past year, and process it through my experience covering media — and actually participating in the online revolution — over several decades.
If one wanted to put it all on a graph, there would be this incredible Internet surge, or bubble, that happened in the ‘90s and abruptly came to a stop in early 2000. I recall the harbinger of doom, a piece titled “Burning Up” by Jack Willoughby in Barron’s that appeared on March 20, 2000. “Warning: Internet companies are running out of cash — fast,” bellowed the subhed. “When will the Internet bubble burst?” Willoughby queried. It was one of those Emperor’s New Clothes moments, when everyone came to his or her senses.
The shakeout that followed was brutal. All those eponymous Web sites that took all their startup money and gave it to AOL just disappeared. Google didn’t go public until 2004. And Facebook was founded the same year.
I doubt many saw these two almost simultaneous events as all that momentous, but 13 years later, we live in their shadow. Throughout the year or so I have done this column, I’ve gradually become acclimated to a new reality. It’s hard to write about anything other than the Google-Facebook duopoly when covering programmatic advertising because the two are almost the whole story. Everything else is just trade talk. Who really cares?
Another important harbinger occurred in April of last year, when Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak told the New York Times that 85% “of every new dollar spent on online advertising” would go to Facebook and Google. What a statistic. In any other industry, the also-rans would be screaming about unfair competition and trying to get the duopoly broken up, an eventuality that columnist Bob Garfield calls for in his last column.
I am not that draconian. But I will note that it’s not surprising that there are few calls like this. Consider the recent 10-Q from Snap. In it, we’re told that Google could easily destroy Snap by terminating its cloud agreement and a few other moves that Snap is nice enough to outline. Snap, one of the few online entities that has something Google might covet (a great app that youth love), is hardly in a position to challenge Google, and now we know why.
So, given that President Trump campaigned against restrictive regulations, I don’t expect a breakup of Google or Facebook anytime soon. And who else could accomplish such a major step? Maybe it will happen in 2020, if President Warren is so inclined.
Perhaps the next column about programmatic should be called Duopoly Advertising and focus entirely on Google and Facebook. But that would be kind of boring. Having read several books on Google, I find them somewhat bloodless. Sergey Brin and Larry Page seem to have started with a simple concept — that machines do things better — and applied that to search technology and everything else in their purview.
I read a lot and recently read a book about the book publisher Houghton Mifflin. What comes out in that book is the indomitable spirit of one man, Oscar Houghton, and his quest for quality publishing. Nothing that colorful comes out of the books on Google, including the fawning hagiography authored by Ken Auletta. That's because Brin and Page aren’t all that more interesting than the Mac Mini I am writing this on. Try to imagine Walter Isaacson writing a book about them that would rival his Steve Jobs bio and you get what I mean. Jobs, whatever else you can say about him, was an interesting guy, fond of such foibles as walking into business meetings barefoot, going to India in search of a guru, and demanding insanely great results of his quivering subordinates.
Brin and Page? Not so interesting. Yes, I know there is a movie about Facebook, but Mark Zuckerberg gets less colorful the richer he gets. Sooner or later, he’ll be just like Bill Gates, retiring to give money away while others come in and run his now unassailable company.
One calls to mind 100 different sci-fi classics, like “The Terminator,” in which the machines take over. In my view, they already have. Mao Tse-tung once called for “a hundred flowers to bloom” while establishing his Cultural Revolution. But in reality, his minions simply wanted dissidents to come out of the woodwork so they could arrest them. Likewise, the Internet Revolution promised a huge panoply of choices, a cornucopia. But really, if only two companies in the space are really viable, it’s less a cornucopia and more a, well, duopoly.
And you don’t need dozens of columns to cover a duopoly. Maybe one or two will suffice.