OPINION: Who should serve ads? Marketers say they will

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It was only a year ago that the Internet ad industry was in an uproar over Procter & Gamble's click-through policy.

Although the marketer was expressing a perfectly rational desire--to have more control over its Internet ad expenditures--many media sites screamed bloody murder. They didn't want to be held accountable for the success or failure of their clients' advertising.

Fast-forward to April 1997, and the Internet ad industry is verging on another uproar. Major marketers and Internet ad agencies are starting to serve their own advertising to Web sites.


It's as if General Motors bought a spot on "Seinfeld," but instead of delivering the tape to the network ahead of time, it waited until the appropriate time slot came up and placed the commercial itself.

You can imagine the problems that would occur: Someone programs the cues wrong, and the ad doesn't run. Or someone hits the wrong button, transmitting a 60-second spot for a 30-second slot. A commercial made for sports runs during a prime-time sitcom.

Such a system couldn't work on TV, of course. But marketers view the Web differently. If it's so accountable, they harp, then why can't I get better information about how my ads are performing?

Enter the marketer as ad server. GM is, in fact, one of the major advertisers testing such a system on the Web. AT&T and others may not be far behind.

While the fight last April was for control of the ads' creative, this year, publishers and marketers will wage war over control of valuable customer information.

Simply put, if marketers serve their own ads, they also control the data generated from the ads.

For media sites, giving up that information is like rolling over and playing dead. They lose control over a key asset: information about how people respond to marketing messages.

"Why would we allow a client to hold our entire site hostage?" asked Starwave Corp.'s Shelley Morrison during a panel discussion at last week's Web Advertising '97 conference.


While I empathize with marketers who are frustrated by a lack of good reporting on their ads' performance, the answer is not to become ad Grinches, doling out banners to so many hungry sites. Why steal Christmas from them?

Ad serving can be a technological nightmare. Media sites have no way of knowing if a client has the appropriate technology to serve its own ads. Once ads start funneling in from servers across the country, site performance could go down.

Even more critical for media sites is the business side of the issue. Companies like Starwave have spent significantly to develop sophisticated ad serving systems. They make more money from targeted ads and sponsorships.

If marketers serve their own ads, they take away the intelligence that helps media sites sell: what creative works best and what types of advertisers are best suited to their site.

Marketers will push for this because they can. And because they hold the purse strings, some of them probably will get their way. But like so many things on the Net, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Copyright April 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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