Not since the Microsoft of the mid-`90s have we had so much angst over the ambitions of an evil empire bent on taking control of the entire universe. Oh, stop it. Google is a brilliant company and one of the forces redefining the advertising model. And it's taking a big chunk of ad change off the table -more than $6 billion this year.
But despite fear-tinged media reports (including those in our pages) and the concerns of industry executives, the search engine is not about to put every magazine, cable network, ad agency and lemonade stand out of business. Industry leaders need to quit acting as if it will and focus on how they can innovate and adapt to a changing marketplace. Stop complaining, start competing.
Ad Age, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal all ran fresh stories last week on Google's Madison Ave. ambitions. The Times' piece made the company sound particularly frightening, and on Halloween the paper carried a scary full-page ad from Google recruiting sales managers with promises of an entrepreneurial environment.
My guess is the company was flooded with resumes, but that's a reflection not only of Google's smarts but on how complacent Big Media has gotten. The appeal stemmed at least in part from how relatively unappealing other media companies have made themselves seem by comparison.
Yes, Google is likely to try its hand at TV advertising, but it would be wrong to assume the company will revolutionize and dominate any segment it enters. It's also a stretch to believe the computer science model that serves it so well in delivering relevant online text ads will replace all the value of human relationships and creativity. Marketing accountability is a science, but God help us if art and emotion are drained in the quest for it.
The Times noted that Google is "looking toward a world of digital cable boxes and Internet-delivered television that will allow it to show commercials tailored for each viewer." Well, get in line; Google is far from the first to recognize the opportunity to deliver targeted TV creative in a digital environment. This is not to say Google won't succeed in extending its model to other media; merely that it should encounter vigorous competition in trying to.
To determine whether my theory-that Googlephobia has jumped the shark-holds water, I put in a call to Jim Cramer. The hyperactive host of CNBC's cult hit "Mad Money" is as astute a media observer as he is a stock picker, and would delightedly call bullshit on me if I deserved it.
As a stock, Cramer remains bullish on Google: "Oh my God, it goes much higher," he told me. "It has a $100 billion market cap and a lot of cash."
Cramer's view on Big Media's irrational fear of Google is that-as with all fears-it's born of ignorance. "The cowering has to do with the fact that they don't even know what the Web offers. They're clueless."
Although he writes magazine and newspaper columns, and does radio and TV, Cramer believes traditional-media execs don't have a deep enough understanding of their online and digital-media rivals to compete. In particular, he puts daily newspapers on the endangered list-"they're dead," he shouted into his cellphone as he made his way to the studio one morning. "Kids are never going to get papers. It's idiotic, like getting milk delivered to your door." Subtle, he isn't.
Traditional media's only hope, he says, is to learn more about the enemy and figure out how to counterattack. "It would be really helpful if they went on Yahoo and figured out that it's more than a chat board. At least they'd be able to program against it."