IAB Annual Meeting

IAB Says Free Speech Depends on a Healthy Ad Ecosystem

Advertisers Create the Means for Free Expression

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Skip "The Lego Movie" last weekend? No worries. If you were one of the 500 that attended the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Annual Leadership Meeting this week, you now have a new hero to root for: Randall Rothenberg, champion of digital advertising and free speech.

That's right: free speech. The CEO of the IAB is now defining its mission in some very lofty terms: arguing that a healthy digital ad ecosystem isn't just important for business, but that free speech, and by extension, democracy, is depending on it.

But is the organization truly ready to tackle a larger societal mission beyond its core? Not without a bigger plan to convince the public those ads they might hate are really powering democracy.

In a focused and characteristically upbeat opening keynote here this week, Rothenberg outlined five strategic pillars the trade association plans to tackle between now and 2020. For the most part there were few surprises. However, the IAB's priority list is notable for its ambition. It's as long as President Obama's.

The association's agenda includes fighting fraud in the supply chain, making measurement work, helping publishers transform their business, figuring out digital brand-building and moving mobile marketing mainstream. All of these are noble causes and where the IAB should lead.

What seemed different this year, however, was the organization's overall posture and much-wider aperture. With the work to mainstream digital advertising now largely compete, Rothenberg said the IAB seese a bigger mountain in its 18th year: to create the means for freedom of expression and a diversity of ideas to flourish.

In Rothenberg's utopian view the proliferation of free speech on the Internet is directly tied to the success of digital advertising and the IAB agenda. Figure out these five priorities and ad-supported platforms for free speech will thrive.

"Without (the IAB's five pillars), we face a future of fragmentation and confusion – a future in which lots of money is spent, but commensurate value is not fully realized. That's a future in which the diversity of voices grows thinner and dimmer, because marketing and advertising just become too difficult to do," he said.

Further, in Rothenberg's view, marketers are already responsible for creating the means for free expression.

"The world's information is more accessible than ever before. Obscure writers and artists and filmmakers are achieving recognition and even renown through the democratization of distribution. Democratic revolutions have been ignited. Millions of men, women and even children are building independent lives and businesses for themselves as media, marketing, advertising, and retailing entrepreneurs – all because digital advertising has given them a chance," he said.

While one could quibble with this statement (lots of platforms, such as Twitter, encouraged expression long before they realized a dollar of ad revenue), Rothenberg's heart, vision and goals are pointed in the right direction: up. This was largely echoed by ANA CEO Bob Liodice in his speech, who urged marketers to adopt "purposeful positioning."

As a sprite teenager, the IAB seems poised to enter adulthood. If the organization is truly ready to attack all five of these priorities with equal aplomb, it will indeed unlock new opportunities for marketers, media companies and the public.

That said, just like a teenager heading off to college, the IAB doesn't quite seem ready to matriculate just yet. Even the new mission statement that Rothenberg proudly unveiled - "to empower media and marketing industries to thrive in the digital economy" - masks this broader ambition. It notably omits any reference to the public. And this was reflected in the majority of the CEO's speech, which focused on more banal, yet important initiatives like training and development.

If the IAB hopes to make a strong connection between digital advertising and public free expression, it needs to go through the door fully. This requires getting the populace deeply involved in all five strategic pillars so they have an equal voice in the future of the medium. Further, it could also make them more receptive towards marketing messages, which they still largely see as a nuisance.

The IAB's HearWatchSay initiative, which surveys public attitudes on these themes, is a start. An open approach could be the true legacy of Rothenberg's tenure if the IAB is ready to truly embrace this vision at all costs.

Steve Rubel is chief content strategist at Edelman.
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