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The Digiday Agency conference was a wealth of information on the ever-expanding digital ad world.

The Digiday Agency conference was a wealth of information on the ever-expanding digital ad world.

This week, it dawned on me that the world of digital advertising has become a morning commute from hell. I envision sun glare, tractor trailers overturned on off ramps, gaper delays, highway construction crews, crumbling infrastructure, and side streets not designed to handle the traffic they are swollen with.

What led me to that conclusion was sitting in on the excellent, well-attended Digiday Agency conference on Monday. Digiday assembled a sterling lineup of industry experts from the agency, publisher, and technology sides who made individual presentations, participated in panel discussions, and offered wide-ranging articulate opinions on the landscape of all things consumer digital advertising. I was probably the only business-to-business guy and one of the few creatives present, so I came to listen and learn. Here is what I came away with:

  • Things continue to morph faster than anyone can keep up with, let alone get ahead of. Digital now encompasses digital display, search, social, video/rich media, mobile, and more across a vast span of publisher and affiliate sites, plus desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphones that accept advertising. Throw in TV advertising that leverages and attempts to cross-link digital, social, etc. and you have media planning that often collapses under its own cleverness and targeting potential.
  • Analytics and metrics are overrated. One of the more incredible statements of the conference was a derisive one about digital display advertising measurement being still stuck in the stone age — specifically, the continued importance placed on click-through rates. The speaker noted that the demographic of those most likely to click on display ads is populated with low/no income types, online gamblers, and assorted tire kickers.
  • Video, Social, and Mobile are the future. Pretty obvious shift driven generationally and by tablets and smartphones. Of course, by the time that the ad industry sorts it all out, we will be on to other new technologies and tools.
  • Remarketing (retargeting) via browser cookies of those who visit advertiser web sites is only going to get bigger. A number of speakers used the funnel analogy of awareness advertising at the top and very targeted, directed messaging at the bottom to catch buyers when they are now informed and ready to make a purchase.  The theory is great. I just don’t believe that ads relentlessly targeting people whom cookie data has identified as hot prospects is going to be ultimately successful or a great idea. I still believe that the average person is suspicious of Big Brother approaches and privacy concerns trump marketing opportunities.
  • Digital media buying has been reduced to an RFP process. Publishers spoke about how hard it was working with agencies in digital space because the media planning contacts are all junior people and there is a revolving door between agencies. Not much time or room for relationship building and value adding when it becomes a “give me your best deal” RFP request.
  • Agencies are being courted as digital advertising venture capitalists. That seemed like a completely foreign concept to me because running lean and mean continues to be the norm outside of Madison Avenue; however, a number of shops spoke very intelligently on this subject.

Ironically, a couple of days after the conference, I came across this article on Adobe investing heavily in traditional agency territory and challenging Madison Avenue in the data sweepstakes of this space. There were a lot of technology companies like Google present at the conference, but Adobe wasn’t one of them. I suspect they will be heavily discussed when Digiday holds the west coast version of this event in Los Angeles in early 2012.

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Conan turns to blimps and digital and tv to build his brand.

Conan turns to blimps and digital and tv to build his brand.

No wonder advertisers get confused about how to allocate media dollars. It is an absolute free-for-all. A day does not go by without another news item suggesting how one medium or platform is overtaking or supplanting another. I routinely remind myself of the progression that TV did not kill radio when it came on the scene, and likewise, the Internet did not replace TV. Every form of media is still in active use (papyrus scrolls and carrier pigeons excepted). I see latest Conan TV ads feature blimp advertising blended with mobile platforms. As a big fan of Team Coco, I am hoping for Goodyear associations, not Hindenberg.

A quick sampling of recent stories should give everyone pause about claiming superiority over another medium or about writing a competing medium’s obituary.

This intriguing story from Advertising Age suggests Facebook is voraciously eating the lunch of major magazine brands. It left me scratching my head about how Burberry, frozen in my own brain as a conservative British purveyor of fine raincoats, has attracted over 8 million followers on Facebook. I visited their pages and came away still scratching my head. This Google search revealed a few clues — fashion launches via Facebook and iPads, free samples of a new fragrance, interactive videos, and easy-to-follow followers like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Still, that is a staggering number of followers, but more power to them. Whatever Burberry is doing, it’s working.

Next up, two stories from Digiday. One reveals how Google is preparing a full frontal assault on newspapers’ biggest cash cow — Sunday circulars. Imagine a digital version of a circular that gives a retailer all kinds of local control to customize content by store, pricing, and product category. Also from Digiday is a rather depressing, confusing  picture of the landscape of digital advertising tech companies. The bar is low for entrants. The result is a mixed bag of options and results for advertisers. Not sure who is being served by this.

This week, New York magazine devotes an extended article to Twitter and whether it is becoming too big for its 140-character britches, er tweets.

If you’re not completely boggled yet, here is video reporting by the print-based Wall Street Journal delivered online from their web site to explain how tv ad spending can be rising as viewership is dropping. Got that?

My next media recommendation? Burma-shave style billboards but delivered with a twist — constantly changing messaging on a series of digital billboards. The product? Attention-deficit disorder drugs.

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This week’s post theme song is brought to you by Wilco. Also, two pretty well-known companies named Facebook and Burson-Marsteller.  You may not be familiar with the latter, but it happens to be one of the biggest and most respected firms in the PR field. While online privacy continues to be a hot button issue, incredibly Facebook used the matter as a cudgel to whack rival Google over social media turf wars. Burson-Marsteller allowed itself to be used as the messenger to plant the story via a tech blog without revealing who had hired them. What’s worse, the charge appears to be about activities Facebook was engaged in themselves.

There are plenty of accounts like this one about the nefarious deed and most of them read like inside baseball about the way Facebook and Google manage/leverage the privacy of their zillions of users. Increasingly, it is clear there are two eight hundred pound gorillas in the digital world and they don’t like sharing with each other. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s scooping up of Skype looks like an act of attention-grabbing desperation. More examples of mega corporations growing fat and stupid and ceasing to care about their many users. Where is the focus on innovation, new products, and exclusive benefits?

Anyone who has watched The Social Network should not be surprised that brilliant Mark Zuckerberg can also be vengeful Mark Zuckerberg. The aspect of this story that is most troubling to me, however, is Burson-Marsteller’s monumental lapse in judgment.

PR firms are trusted counselors and when they start acting like minions scurrying to do the bidding of Dr. Evil, it is time for self-flagellation. Public relations is all about taking positive messages to the market place, or when there are genuine problems, helping clients put the bad news in the best possible light (spin control if you will).  When a client asked you to anonymously badmouth a competitor, all the internal alarm bells should go off at once.

A few days ago, I came across this devastating piece of satire about my profession in ultimate humor site, The Onion —

“PR Firm Kills Innocent Child

‘Kills is a Harsh Word,’ Spokesperson Says.”

I thought it a little over the top that The Onion considered it not a stretch for public relations execs to murder a child in the park, then mount an upbeat campaign to downplay the crime. That was a few days ago. Ouch!

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The definition of advertising has gotten stretched in some weird digital ways lately and it is only getting worse.  When I received this e-blast yesterday from IBM company, Coremetrics, my head came very close to exploding in the style of David Cronenberg’s 1981 sci fi flick “Scanners.” There isn’t much that gets my attention in the way of templated assembly-lined e-mails, but this one broke through all the clutter. Unfortunately, it was not in a good way. This isn’t Big Blue’s finest hour.

Coremetrics confuses with this e-mail that has little to do with true advertising.

Coremetrics confuses with this e-mail that has little to do with true advertising.

The word, Advertising, drew me in strictly by way of association, because I am in the profession, and only because it was the largest font on the page. That’s not setting the bar very high. I skimmed the copy to see what Coremetrics was selling. The promise of a free white paper led me to the following instructive title: “Appropriate Attribution: Addressing the Dramatic Inaccuracies Associated with Last-Based Campaign Attribution in Digital Analysis.” Now, I admit I am not an online media metrics wonk, but I know a few and if they were ever confronted with this phraseology, their craniums would self-immolate, too.

Granted, complex tech topics depend on audience knowledge of industry trends, jargon, and conventional wisdom and methods. However, this is the very antithesis of what advertising and marketing stand for — copy and design working together to dramatically and effectively convey a single simple idea. Eventually, if anyone ever gets that far, there is a Voice of Reason web site that explains this e-mail campaign and the Coremetrics value proposition in great detail.

And that in a nutshell is my main gripe with online advertising — it may be measurable, it may be metrics-rich, it may be analyzable, but it is seldom anything I would describe as advertising.  Similarly, Google deserves special derision for naming its PPC program, Adwords. Random search words on a web page do not an ad make. They may fall under a marketing budget and they may generate a lot of revenue for Google, but they are not ads.

As the economy and business continue to flop around on the deck like a fish desperate for H2O, many companies (including some in the Fortune 500) seem to miss basic truths and common sense approaches. I recently saw the chief marketing officer of a large global chemical company proudly quoted about the transformation of his employer into a company now known for science instead of chemicals. The problem is that the products his company manufactures and sells are chemicals. The products that his customers buy are chemicals. He can market science all he wants, and thought leadership is important, but he ultimately risks confusing prospects.

As Coremetrics’ approach ably demonstrates, clarity is in short supply these days. I’ll take the measurability of a revelatory, idea-and-results-driven print or broadcast ad’s two-by-four upside the head Eureka moment over any click-through rate any day.

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Despite Facebook getting so much face time with The Social Network movie buzz this fall, that other online giant Google managed to get my attention in two big ways last week.
The first was a news story that basically underscored how wildly successful and smart Google is. During an economy when most employers are laying off, holding tight, or freezing pay, Google just announced a 10% across-the-board increase to all employees as a carrot to discourage migration elsewhere and to attract more of industry’s top talent. Jealous? It’s simply capitalism hard at work. Become the best in your category and enjoy the rewards. To stay on top, keep getting better.

Clicking the magnifying glass icon lets you preview the home page.

Clicking the magnifying glass icon lets you preview the home page.

That brings me to that other development, which is one of those ongoing Google innovations — the launch of its “Easy Preview” feature, which allows searchers to browse by calling up home page glimpses without ever leaving the search results page. Clicking on the little magnifying glass icon to the right of the search result brings up an instant screenshot of the home page. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. What that means is more and more businesses are going to be forced to focus on professional web design and fresh and compelling content. Sites that look like a dog’s breakfast will be passed over in favor of the visually appealing and inviting. Sites that take a long time to load will drop down the rankings. Sites that are overrun by pop-ups and intersitials will appear as the carnival sideshows they are. As a result of this preview feature, searchers will be able to react more quickly (positively and negatively) to the appearance of your site.

Visually appealing sites will compelling content will attract visitors. The opposite will get skipped.

Visually appealing sites will compelling content will attract visitors. The opposite will get skipped.

Businesses that rely on do-it-yourself designs and overly familiar templates and SEO tricks to boost search rankings are in for a jolt when their site traffic drops because discerning prospects get a sneak peek and elect to go elsewhere before they ever visit the home page. While Easy Preview will change the face of the familiar all-text Google rankings page format forever, the functionality is welcome and long overdue. Google, the 800 pound gorilla of search and so much more, just got prettier.

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