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Panel explores relationship between publishers’ brands, ad networks

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Publishers have the opportunity to “take back control of their brands” via advertising networks but must use them with care, according to agency and publisher panelists featured at a conference last week in New York.

Sponsored by ContextWeb, which offers an ad network product called Adsdaq, the event delved into a publishing dilemma: how to extend a brand’s reach through ad networks without diluting the qualified nature of its audience.

“There always has been this relationship between scale and relevance, but a main question has been how to combine the two,” said Randall Rothenberg, president-CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, who moderated the panel. “The issue of online ad networks is the secret sauce that solves the conflict between scale and relevance.”

Ad networks can be used to sell interior Web pages, for example, with less-trafficked content that can’t attract ads. Alternately, for brands that run out of inventory, incremental revenue can come via ad networks that, in essence, create new inventory via complementary Web sites.

Panelist William Morrison, Internet analyst and senior partner at ThinkPanmure, made particular note of the growing number of special interest sites, blogs and forums that publishers now can partner with via an ad network sale.

“There are some 50 million to 60 million active domain names in existence, with about 1% to 2% of those that are monetized,” he said. “But the question is, should publishers embrace or reject these networks?”

Morrison stressed that, traditionally, ad networks have not given publishers much control over pricing, nor a connection with really pertinent sites where their customers’ ads will appear.

“You want to win on brand, not so much on scale,” said panelist Ari Brandt, general manager-digital media with the Condé Nast Business Media Group. “You need to sell advertisers on the value of your audience. If a publisher can provide 10 people that an advertiser wants to talk to, the advertiser will pay for that.”

Anand Subramanian, ContextWeb CEO, agreed.

“Advertisers don’t want to buy blind. They want to know what they’re buying. You don’t want to sell sites, you want to sell context.”

Publisher control over ad rates and audience is valuable, since ad networks typically sell ads at rates much lower than publishers would want to sell space for themselves. In the case of distressed inventory that would not otherwise be sold but for an ad network deal, the desperation could lead to serious brand dilution, panelists said.

“The potential with ad networks is that they can commoditize a publisher’s inventory, and that the discussion is all about price,” said Wenda Harris Millard, co-CEO and president of media, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

“Something has to replace scale,” she said, but cautioned against a reliance on technology that promises perfect relevance between audience and ad. She stressed the importance of creativity.

“Technology is not advertising,” she said. “Ads are the art of persuasion. Art doesn’t give you answers, it gives you possibilities.”

Also participating on the panel was Sean Muzzy, senior partner at Neo@Ogilvy.

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