Ad servers are networked computers that allow companies to present, monitor the effectiveness of and change online advertising. As the service develops, independent companies outside the mainstream agency business are forming to specialize in ad serving.
But that wasn't the complaint of the agency and media executives gathered at the Amelia Island, Fla., meeting that concluded two Saturdays ago. No, their protest was that they didn't know what the hell ad servers were and why they had to hear about them. Hence the disconnect: Even as agencies large and small have begun to pay obeisance to -- and, in some instances, substantial sums for -- interactive expertise, online marketing and conventional advertising still seem like ships passing in the night.
I was a guest of the Four A's at "Facing the Future," as this year's conference was called, the leader of a panel discussion, so I don't want or intend to bite the hand that beckoned me to this marvelous place. But on the issue of interactivity, the language of disunion was louder than a whisper.
Interpublic Group of Cos. Chairman-CEO Phil Geier -- in an address borrowed largely from consultant Michael J. Wolf's "The Entertainment Economy" (a book lauded in this space a few months back) -- acknowledged the power of broadband multimedia but talked scornfully of digital "prophets" who predict "advertising will be swept away in the Holocaust of new technology."
Referring to Moore's Law, the principle that forecasts the doubling of computing power every 18 months, he invoked "Geier's Law," which he defined this way: "People don't change anything as quickly as the pace of technology."
Geier did give a loving and bracing defense of the primacy of "the idea" in advertising. And in affirming that "the most entertaining content will prevail," he signaled that the great gulf that once divided his agencies from the Doyle Danes and Chiats has been filled with rich loam. Technology, he claimed, will never change that. "Even the computer," Geier said, "is a new way to do old stuff."
This view that our skills are true and lasting and will see us through this transformation is widely shared in Medialand. A senior adviser to large publishing companies, responding to my criticism last week that major magazine publishers aren't taking full enough advantage of their interactive offerings, e-mailed me: "When you are trying to deliver your content to the most number of people, the last place you want to be is on the cutting edge of technology."
On its face, his argument seemed sound -- "the end users," this executive said, "usually don't have the hardware to handle the long downloads that things like streaming video or rich media require" -- but that argument, like Phil Geier's speech, still missed an essential point: Today's cutting edge becomes tomorrow's mainstream.
In the magazine world, as today's readers "mature" -- the median age of the Vanity Fair reader is 39, according to The New York Times -- their successors are making their way to the Web, to places like the Ultimate Band List, MP3.com and thousands of other multimedia sites that bear no resemblance to (and derive neither advantage nor liability from) print brands.
In the advertising business, pure technology companies are already competing with agencies to create and service commercial communications on behalf of marketers. Entire new forms of entertainment are already out there, starting with chat rooms and ending (so far) with multimedia-enabled interactive game sites, luring thousands, perhaps millions, of young consumers.
Truth be told, mainstream ad executives are not solely to blame. Their interactive compatriots, so consumed by daily changing technology, do often talk a foreign language. But sometimes from their mouths comes wisdom, as it did in Amelia Island when panelist Norman Lehoullier, managing director of Grey Interactive, responding to a question about how mainstream agencies might change the character of their interactive counterparts, answered: "It won't be the main agency telling the interactive firm, 'Take my brand character and make it work on the Web. We will be generating data that reshapes what they do."
It's true. Accountability changes everything -- notably how "the idea" and the "entertainment" Phil Geier rightly lauds are produced, judged and compensated. That doesn't mean he or I or anyone else at the Ritz-Carlton needed to understand the inner workings of ad servers. But it does mean that agencies and the media that depend on them ought to dock their ships in an interactive port for more than an overnight stay.