"Go big or go home" is the mantra that drives the current ad-tech gold rush. It refers to the prize that awaits ventures capable of scaling their audiences -- the faster the better -- guaranteeing huge ad budgets in the rapid shift from traditional to digital media.
Advertisers, for their part, were seduced by ad tech's undeniable appeal for "predictable" marketing -- devoid of quirky, error-prone human intuition. Powerful ad-buying platforms promised billions of impressions, delivered faster and cheaper than ever before.
But, as in every other gold rush, a few "unicorn" successes don't guarantee a sustainable ad-tech industry. The recent weakness of some high-flying ventures like Say Media, which is scaling back, Sulia, which shut down, or Rocket Fuel, post IPO, reflect how underwhelmed advertisers are by the performance of "scalable" ad-tech platforms.
Their disappointment is well-founded. Ad tech's performance paints a sobering picture, demanding a critical look at the "scale" game.
There's rampant ad fraud driven by arbitrage incentives endemic throughout the ad-buying process.
There's shocking low quality to all the billions of impressions delivered, frustrating advertisers' desire for quality engagement with real people.
All these symptoms are the toxic results of the unbridled drive to scale. Ad tech confused the internet's ability to scale technically to billions of digital nodes with marketing's desire to reach billions of people. This colossal "bait-and-switch" scale game left advertisers deeply mistrustful of ad-tech, as all those algorithms stomped on the very human and delicate brand/consumer digital dance. This leaves us with retargeting ads that follow us relentlessly and banner ad blindness that's more acute than ever.
It's time to put people first
What's going to make it right? A fundamental shift that replaces our slavish devotion to "Go big or go home" with a focus on innovation that delivers human-scaled, "people-first" digital marketing.
Believe it or not, this "people-first" vision was the foundational inspiration for the very earliest, heady internet days, circa 1996. We felt giddy at the possibility of experiencing a personal, human-scaled internet -- an internet of "me."
This was the era of Yahoo's exuberant "Do You Yahoo" tagline with a whimsical personal portal expressing the joy implicit in its name. AOL, MySpace, Google
Alas, the technologies needed to deliver that noble vision were decades away. In the intervening 20 years, that personal internet vision got lost in a sea of scale.
For those of us fortunate enough to have experienced those early, wondrous internet days, we know that social, content and mobile tech can now realize the promises made so long ago of a "people-first" internet. As "Judy consumer" continues to strengthen her digital muscle, scale must expand to also include the technological expressions of human dynamics like relevancy, trust and contextual engagement.
Practically speaking, the ad-tech landscape will look quite different than today. Here are some trends that will drive the next era of ad tech:
- The internet is a content-serving engine that, increasingly, will reward those ventures that can deliver hard-to-find niche topics integrated into local search, local commerce and hyper-topic digital communities.
- The emergence of engagement-based private exchanges with quality, albeit smaller, audiences.
- Metrics will evolve to be smarter around "intention" and "attention" of audiences.
- The introduction of "pull" or opt-in marketing platforms that deliver real people ready to engage (don't look for a billion anything in these platforms).
- Programmatic technologies that can interpret the correct context throughout an offline/online user experience.
For those with the courage to push the redo button, "Go small or go home" will be how the next wave of ad tech will evolve into new marketing tech ventures of tomorrow. These ventures will get very big indeed.