AOL CEO: It's Our Fault You're So Confused About Digital

Technology Companies Need to Work Side by Side With Marketers

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Randy Falco
Randy Falco
Building a brand today means finding, reaching, engaging and influencing people through highly fragmented channels in a volatile media marketplace bent -- as we well know at AOL -- on consolidation. Dwindling CMO tenures and budgets are dialing up the pressure to do all of this more measurably but no less creatively than ever before. And while digital media offer great promise based on their reach, targeting and cost, they also leave brand marketers confused by the sheer number of choices and frustrated that they're so hard to manage. As one marketing exec recently told me, "No one's sure how to use the space to really tell our story. For the past 100 years, we've really relied on TV -- sight, sound, motion -- to tell the brand story. Now there's a lot of confusion about what to use and how it works."

We've spoken to many of you as we've set about rebuilding AOL into an ad-supported business. And while some of you feel at home in the online space, many of you are anxious that you're not getting what you need or are just getting by.

I think I know why.

You've been largely abandoned by the digital companies who've rushed into this space. Or more specifically, your needs as marketers -- as complex and idiosyncratic as they are -- have been ignored by technologists who believe they've never met a marketing problem that an algorithm can't solve on its own. So instead of partners who spend time understanding and solving your specific problems with ingenuity and integration, you get wave after wave of vendors pushing single-minded technologies that create even more fragmentation. Cue the headache.

Big deal
Now, you may be thinking, "Just what we need, another old-media guy blaming everything on technology and waxing nostalgic for simpler times."

And you'd be wrong. In creating Platform-A to anchor our ad-supported strategy, we invested heavily in assembling the finest online-advertising technologies available. Along with these technologies came some of the most accomplished developers and programmers in the world. Their integration into Platform-A means we can compete technologically with anybody in this space.

Randy Falco is chairman-CEO of AOL, home to the online advertising network Platform-A, as well as a suite of popular web brands and products and one of the country's largest internet access businesses.
You know what I'd expect you or any good marketer to say to that? "Big deal," followed by, "How's all of this going to help me do my job?"

Here, you'd be right. Too often digital marketing is defined by technological capabilities rather than unique brand goals. When we lead with technology, especially technology that can be used by anyone willing to purchase or to bid, we ignore the fact that your jobs are to solve business problems that are becoming more multidimensional by the month. When we lead with people who can understand these various dimensions and help you choose the right combinations of tools, platforms and technologies, creating truly integrated branding experiences, we put the focus squarely where it should be: on you, the customer, and your specific needs.

That, I'm afraid, is what is sorely missing in our industry. If marketers are confused about the online-marketing space, that's our fault, not yours. Too few of us are sitting down with creative executives to see how they're being asked to push emotion through smaller windows with just as much engagement. Too few of us are willing to work side by side with media executives to understand the consumer mind-set before recommending a new targeting profile. And too few of us are putting our arm around a CMO and actually leaning into -- not running away from -- transparency and measurability.

No substitute for listening
This isn't about invading your companies with teams of sales trainees doling out lattes and messaging you about how important you now are to them. The thing is, smiles and prizes are no substitute for listening -- and then committing to actually do something with what we hear. We need to ditch the entourages, power down the projector and grab a chair across from our customers. Listen to your individual stories and understand your pain points. Take that knowledge back to the shop and fashion something that fits you just right. Then, and only then, will we have a chance to turn marketer confusion into a sense of confidence that comes with harnessing the full potential of digital marketing to solve a business problem.

At AOL, we've put our money where our mouth is on all of this. Recognizing that success starts with our ability to work directly and daily with chief marketers and their agencies was a core part of our rebuild strategy and the key reason we've been moving our audience business to New York. We knew we needed something more permanent than a traveling roadshow to connect with our customers if we were serious about aligning the company against their needs.

Does listening guarantee success? Of course not. Our solutions, customized as they may be, will still be only as good as their weakest link -- which requires a high level of creativity and technical sophistication. But in an economic environment that mandates that companies tighten the screws, especially on marketing, I can't imagine how we can succeed without drilling deep to link our solutions directly to core business problems -- and then have the guts to measure them within an inch of their lives.

As you can imagine, I get asked often about the economy's effect on the media business. To me, the answer is simple: Marketers will continue to spend on media that can prove return on investment and drop the ones that can't. You'll continue to spend on technologies that promote creativity, not stifle it. You'll continue to spend with companies that care to listen, not just pitch. And you'll continue to spend with people who understand your frustrations and can help you, if not return to simpler times, gain confidence that you're finally harnessing the power of digital media -- and not subject to it.
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