How to Free Online Display Ads From Clutches of Commoditization

More Data and Algorithms Will Not Fix What's Broken

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Kendall Allen
Kendall Allen

This week's opening remarks at the IAB's Innovation Days -- "The Future of Display" -- were music to my ears. Amid the market drone on bidded media, audience buying and algorithmic marketing, Randall Rothenberg's take on the commoditization of our industry played the room like a blast of fresh air. As the IAB devotes airtime this week to the future of display media, there was talk of changing the dialogue, or, as I see it, reverting back to the dialogue we were having before we got all loopy and lopsided on math.

Rothenberg pronounced that brand marketers are facing a "consumer pursuit crisis." That, yes, display collectively (all types) may be seeing 40% of our digital spend. But consumers are moving into places that brand marketers are uncomfortable following them. How are we as an industry helping them hasten and close the loop on their pursuit? How are we helping them follow the consumer into the places they are increasingly going: social, brand integrated environments, applications, experiential and so on? That's a key question.

Things like the IAB Rising Stars ad units are a boon to display participating in that consumer pursuit. One has only to spend an hour looking at the Billboards, Filmstrips, Portraits, Pushdowns, Sidekicks and Sliders to see the spark of engagement and creative opportunity. The list of "big brands" on board with the Rising Stars is long. And big brands play a big part in turning the tide on commoditization.

Echoing the perils of what I have recently dubbed "The Math State," the description of the commoditized state in which we are doing business on behalf of our clients was spot on. So the whole question of how we as an industry are helping the consumer pursuit almost becomes "who's to blame?" Just thinking about the dynamics of commoditization in our marketplace today makes anyone with imagination wince.

One, as Rothenberg noted, the entire procurement process focuses predominantly on commodity formats. And agencies are certainly directly contributing to this commoditization. The systems we use can really only measure -- or even deal deeply with -- commoditized formats. The booming DSP exchange spaces thrives entirely on commoditization and the new dynamics of media buying. Agency compensation structures incentivize what Rothenberg called "routinized buying." That is the dulling of our strategic and creative chops that I recently have only half jokingly mourned. But this dulled, routinized state is the likely truth and consequence of the trading desk, at least when the desk is allowed to be almighty.

I will say, as Rothenberg spoke of "changing the dialogue" and a "creative revolution," I felt exhilarated and perplexed. Philosophically, as so many of you do, I would agree with him. Big brands must lead the shift. As agencies, we must re-bundle internally -- creating richer, more productive collaboration between strategy and creative -- to produce big ideas that convert and yield business results. All true. But, looking around, who is really game to stand up, dust off the imagination, and DO these things? We are in an algorithmic haze, stirred by our self-imposed commoditization. How do we rally?

Rallying requires many things:

  • Organizational change at the agency, a commitment to collaborative workflow and authentic support for innovation, not just lip service. With so many agency models and types, such uniform change may not be possible in our lifetime.
  • Revolutionizing our systems to deal with our full scope of metrics and formats. We must be able to support marketers on resolving the consumer pursuit crisis and build upon our recovery. With systems plagued by blind spots and inadequacies, we cannot do so.
  • Outward looking investment. Getting outside of our legacy agency introversion and really engaging with the ecosystem for the clients we serve.
  • Premium media companies must be willing to take a chance -- and work with brands to create strategic, powerful executions.

The platitude is that we are all in this together. Big brands conspiring with big media companies, supported by engaged, invested, collaborative agencies -- whew, that 's a boatload of commitment. But we also need the muscle of thought leaders at every station of the industry -- and tools that help us unleash the working relationship between strategy, creative and execution formats. I've always said that gone are the days when creative leads. Gone are the days when media leads. They must work equally as hard. Re-invigorating display ad units and giving us bold new options plays into that work.

Long-term, we can change our organizations, workflow, systems and collaborative mentality. But to truly de-commoditize, we have to dump the platitudes about working together. We have to hold each other to higher standards, one by one, literally, in every single business dealing. And, to get the juices flowing, and take some baby steps, why not use the cool new toys afforded us to release a little creative plus media joy?

Kendall Allen is a VP for Laredo Group, a leading training and consulting firm dedicated to helping clients increase sales and decrease costs through knowledge and efficiencies related to online advertising buying and selling, digital marketing and media. She is based in New York.
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