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But we don’t just work
with brands... We started with brands, but in the end, we realized that the problems brands had online were just the beginning - other entities needed help with their digital marketing needs. Entities that may not traditionally hire an “agency” - tech companies, rock stars, startups...
Ah ha! Publishers! We’ve been
working directly with publishers for 3 or 4 years now. Prior to that, we worked with brands, traditional creative agencies and digital agencies, providing online creative display advertising.
1994: The first banner ad
appears on HotWired. Prognostications were made of great fortunes being made with these little babies. They were touted as “trackable,” since marketers could measure how many people clicked on them. At the time, we thought this was a good thing. It would be 15 years before we realized that was more or less bunk. Ironically, even the headline of this banner, in hindsight, proved to be wrong.
1996: Flash is introduced. Now,
not only could we click on a banner, and measure that, we could measure how long people played with the banner. This would prove to be a blessing and a curse.
1997 - 2001: That whole
“tech bubble” happened. Advertising wasn’t really a part of that. People were going public and getting bought by other firms. Advertising on the web was still a rare and bold proposition. Most money stayed firmly in “traditional media.”
2002 - 2008: Two things
happened to online advertising. First, Advertisers surprisingly didn’t retrench after the bust. They kept experimenting and trying different things online. Occasionally things would work, but often they were just that - experiments.
And, secondly, there was that
whole Web 2.0 thing. Web 2.0 was all about failing fast and failing cheap. It was about being nimble, and starting small companies that reached profitability quickly. Not coincidentally, many of these companies had the same basic business plan: make money through advertising.
Publishers have spent the last
decade trying different things to migrate their businesses online. I am not one of those “old media is dumb media” people. I’ve watched ten years of attempts at figuring out how to take a profitable publishing concern and move it to the web.
But Clicks ! Marketing Success
We became over-obsessed with the click as our only metric. We ignored hundreds of years of advertising knowledge and only focused on ads that made people click.
But life was good, and
the economy was good. Advertisers were moving their budgets over from “traditional” to “digital,” in amounts large enough to let the ad industry feel like it had growth sectors, but not so quickly as to decimate print’s revenue stream prematurely. Part of the reason money was moving slowly was because of the whole “click trap.” They called it “banner blindness,” but really it was “tactics blindness.”
Everyone knew this. Marketers knew
online advertising was still nascent and the click wasn’t enough to throw out 50 years of Nielsen. Publishers knew the clock was ticking, but thought they had time. Advertisers knew change was coming, but played a defensive game.
To Make Matters Worse... Other
factors were making things rougher for the publishers The web zeitgeist demanded “free” content - the small amount of money publishers got from subscriptions offline wasn’t replicated online in a widespread manner, negating an obvious supplementary income. Advertisers were still in “experimental” mode and paid only a fraction online for the same number of eyeballs offline. Many advertisers outsourced their display ad sales to one of a gazillion ad networks, thus lowering standards and profitability. That whole web 2.0 thing caused a glut of display ad inventory online, thus lowering prices even more. Blogs stole a lot of their glory.
Suddenly, engagement was all the
rage. Everyone suddenly remembered that clicks ! marketing success, and started complaining about banner blindness. The social media revolution compounded this. Who would click on a banner when they could get a recommendation from a friend? The only things that generated buzz online have proven to be custom, unique engagements.
...and advertisers finally admitted that
clicks weren’t nearly as important as “engagement” - the logic being the longer that you’re exposed to the brand, the more prone you are to consider it. Just like TV saturation.
Which brings us to today.
Custom engagements are the holy grail - publishers and marketers partnering to offer something unique to the visitor that no other publisher can offer. And brands are willing to pay.
So what’s gone wrong? Successful,
effective, custom engagements are still rare. Advertisers are still having trouble measuring success. Publishers are still ill-equipped to provide unique selling propositions. “Engagement” is a dodgy proposition (remember the billboard and TV spot - do they “engage?”), though we all seem to be ignoring that for now.
Publishers? - Not really known
for their creative prowess. - Don’t fully understand the client’s needs. - Custom delivery is often hard to pull of logistically (production). - Sales staffs may be in need of retraining after “the banner years.” - Tend to try to offer repeat solutions with nominal “engagement.” - Creative (“editorial”) staff views sponsor-driven work with disdain.
Creative Agencies? - Don’t control
the purse strings. - Have brilliant executions, but are one-offs. - Limited relationships with publishers. - Limited technical prowess for custom production. - Traditionally view the brands as their client, not the publisher.
Media Agencies? Well, they got
rid of all their creatives years ago in the great agency split. Every single one of these is a unique, delicate flower. Thought up as a custom idea just for this brand and this publisher. To really work with the consumer, it has to be compelling, useful, groundbreaking and moving. Why would any of the people who can do all that be working at a media agency?
The Future Publishers may elect
to develop more robust in-house concepting capabilities, but will find challenges in recruiting, retention, and editorial/sponsorship. Also, as more and more advertisers submit RFPs requesting “custom opportunities for engagement,” the staffing needs will be felt acutely.
The Future I believe shops
will rise to fill the niche - shops dedicated to creating unique interactive experiences for publishers and clients. New revenue streams can arise: Working on deals with publishers to develop a stable of unique digital offerings, collecting payment when they’re sold. Creative concepting services sold to media agencies. Indeed, TBG is already seeing a notable portion of our revenue - perhaps 10% - coming from these types of engagements.
Finally, I believe the banner
may make a comeback yet. Banner economics are changing dramatically as prices fall. Solid offline print alternatives are diminishing. New analytics packages are drawing the line from multiple views of banners to impact, whether the user clicks or not. Don’t count out the banner just yet.