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GUEST COLUMN: Randy Kilgore

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Thinking back to online advertising in 2000 is like looking at your junior high class photos; both make you cringe. Not that 2000 was such a bad year for online-the pain didn't require serious medication until 2001. But just like the junior high photos, you can't help but wish you knew then what you know now.

Before April 2000, the sky was the limit. If you could recite 25 buzz phrases, you were probably the vice president of either marketing or business development somewhere, and in some cases, you were probably quite wealthy-on paper. After April, the sky started to fall and people stopped bringing their dogs to work.

Although the ad dollars were flowing freely in early 2000, the landscape was confusing. Everyone with a Web site was trying to "monetize their eyeballs." I'm pretty sure we lost business to HappyPuppy.com. Heck, our own advertisers competed with us by selling ads on their sites. The Media Metrix rankings routinely showed the "adult" sites mixed in with content publishers.

In 2000, rich media was at best a Flash ad, and the idea of video online was still prepubescent. Every sales call started with "why you should consider advertising online" and getting an Internet connection to show your site was always iffy. Wireless, ha.

By the end of 2000, e-commerce companies were shutting down daily, and yet a few brave souls predicted growth in 2001. During all the craziness of that time, some among us actually had hoped for a shakeout (you try selling against HappyPuppy.com), though none of us could have understood how trying the next two years would be.

Yet the shakeout did rid the market of pretenders, allowed some smart media companies to lay the foundations for future growth and, most important, forced the industry to focus with laserlike intensity. I'm a defender of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), but even detractors must admit that the professionalism and the progress that the downturn forced on that organization have been exceedingly positive for the industry. Think XMOS.

As we worked through the lean years, it was traditional marketers that came to understand the growing potential of the Internet as, indeed, online grew in importance to consumers. For every five "We-tried-the-Internet-and-it-didn't-work" conversations, there was at least one that went, "We see the budget increasing for online next year." Just this week, I listened to a blue chip company saying all the right things about online and integrated media ideas. This very same company shooed me away for years because its own research showed that C-level executives "didn't use online." Apparently something has changed.

What will we say five years from now? We may well wax nostalgic for the days when we collaborated on building a new way for advertisers to reach consumers. Up until now, anyone involved in online selling or buying is both chief cook and bottle washer. We perform, certainly, the most labor-intensive ad sales process and yet we find it ridiculously rewarding. We're often making the ideas up as we go along, then executing, then optimizing; and all the while working with more and more clients. We feel rewarded because we're so immersed. Going forward, greater specialization and increased automation will become the norm. Change is inevitable, but we'll lose some of the "we're-all-in-this-together" feeling that pervades this business now.

That said, the online salesperson of today is the prototype media salesperson of tomorrow. The same can be said about the agency side of the business dedicated to online. People in this "space" (another good 2000 buzzword) are flexible, consultative, able to think about true integration, not afraid to try new ideas and above all battle-tested.

Put differently, online folks may be the only ones truly looking forward to the next five years.

Randy Kilgore is senior VP-advertising at Dow Jones Online and a board member of the Online Publishers Association and the Interactive Advertising Bureau. You can reach him at randy.kilgore @dowjones.com.

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