Birth of the Internet and The Toddler Years / 1994-1999
At the start, the internet was really just seen as another channel, and most of the effort was put into figuring where the money should come from to pay for it while using the buying models of old media. What content and demographics does a publisher claim to have? How much does it cost to buy one of those banner things? And where the hell do I send them if they click on it?
Elementary School and Beyond the Banner / 1999-2005
Clients and agencies quickly became bored of the static banner that was not as creatively interesting or flexible as anything you could do in any other medium. Like any elementary school kid, this age for the internet was all about expressing its newfound creativity.
This second age was really all about leveraging the richness that HTML offered to add more dynamism to the message. Banners were creatively limiting and this was the rise of the ad formats -- Eyeblaster and Eyewonder and whatever other new company existed that allowed you to swing a monkey out your banner dropping exploding bananas all over the article that the poor unsuspecting individual had come there to read.
While creativity flourished, the contribution of media strategy was diminished and based on whether a site supported one of these new dynamic formats.
Growing Pains and Cookies / 2005-2020
Then came the difficult teenage years as the internet went through growing pains, got into a few scrapes and desperately tried to become a responsible adult.
The intention has always been right -- to leverage the newfound scale of the internet with the ability to buy ads one by one by targeting person by person, at scale. But the arrival of retargeting (Criteo) and the focus almost exclusively on serving ads based on a consumer's browsing history pointed the industry and an avalanche of AdTech in a sometimes misguided direction. Everything became about the individual and their past behavior and the message and current context was largely forgotten in the process.
Now the cookie is in peril, and brands are rightfully asking if all the investment in data and technology infrastructure was worth it!
Responsible Adulthood and Context is King (again) / 2021+
At some point the grown-ups have to make an intervention. GDPR, CCPA and government legislation around the world has been enacted to protect the privacy of consumers exposing some of the internet's less savory practices while seeking a more responsible way forward.
Unfortunately, some will cling to the old ways and try to create audience segments based on non-PII models, but black-box aggregation methods did not work in the past and won't work in the future.
The good news is that innovation has always been the stimulus for industry growth and is our most likely savior. A vibrant sector of independent companies are already bringing to market new solutions built from the ground up that comply with data regulations while powering the new GARM (Global Alliance for Responsible Media) guidelines to support publishers. A subtle but major shift from brand-safety blocking to more nuanced brand-suitability targeting will lead the charge.
Most importantly, these new companies will help us break our addiction to behavioral targeting, which might have been able to find you the right person, but almost always employed without consideration of context resulting in marketers speaking at people, but often going unheard.
As this next age of the internet plays out, brands must embrace a subtle, but incredibly important, evolution from simply targeting consumers to targeting consumers in the moment. This one small change will act as the force that shifts our focus to delivering brand and sales conversions and not cookies reached.
But like most things that come full circle, we cannot expect the contextual-targeting solutions invented in our younger years to meet current needs. The new era of solutions must answer the modern marketer's question: Does this represent a moment of consumer receptivity?
My hope is that a new breed of companies will build solutions from the ground-up using AI and NLP technology to finally enable marketers to target video based on imagery not just audio track, empower us with richer page analysis that brings to the fore a nuanced understanding that goes beyond looking at a few keywords on the page -- and most importantly, breaks down the existing data silos to create a single outcomes platform to provides transparency into what really drives consumer receptivity.
So, as the next age of the internet plays out, new companies that are focused on understanding, identifying and leveraging the right moments and respecting consumer's right to privacy, will be the ones that succeed.
This will be good for the whole ecosystem -- agencies will once again be able to make a more strategic contribution to a client's business beyond audience targeting. Media owners will be able to extract the true value of their content investment.
And working with a new generation of partners, brands will be able to redirect the significant investments made in first-party data, third-party data integrations and tech infrastructure towards a new contextual approach and fully realize the potential of the internet as it -- finally -- grows up.