Last week's column by Digiday's Brian Morrissey - "Science vs. Art in Digital Advertising" -- got me thinking. Brian doesn't necessarily come right out and say that he emperor is naked, but does point out that much of the received wisdom about the online ad marketplace might be flawed. Among the brilliantly obvious questions is this: Why is it that if everyone hates the display banner so much, most of our ad technology predictions (and tech company growth modeling) rests so firmly on its continued proliferation.
Then I saw yesterday's Forrester report which reforecasts the online ad spend growth curve downward. Growth is going to slow, Forrester tells us, but because of new viewable impression standards CPMs are going to significantly increase. At the end of the day, both Digiday and Forrester are offering us nothing more than informed opinions about the future. But I think when you cobble them together and take a dispassionate look at the world around us, it all leads you to the most important question we should all be asking ourselves: How will we prepare ourselves for a digital ad world that's smaller and slower?
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"Heresy" you say! "There's nothing but growth ahead, and lots of it!" Yes, perhaps. But there are lots of ways for a marketplace to grow. There's the wild, speculative growth that depends on an endless supply of cheap impressions and the suspension of disbelief in their ultimate loss of value. And then there's the slower growth in quality, value and price that comes from a sustainable ecosystem fueled by publisher investment.
Would this mean the end of ad technology? Does it lead to some "Planet of the Apes" scenario where we turn the clock back to 1996 and all rely on sponsorships and fuzzy numbers? Hardly. But it will challenge all of us to think about the future in fundamentally different ways. First, our ideas about "yield management" will be radically transformed. Instead of thinking of unsold impressions like empty airplane seats, publishers will start optimizing against the dollars they need to make. Ad technology providers may finally start orienting themselves around the needs of those with quality supply, rather than those with cheap demand; working to get the publisher a higher price for the valuable inventory instead of more and more microtargeting and click attribution. I'm just sayin'.
Many readers may dismiss this post and turn right back to the same expectations, metrics and projections. But before you do, ask yourself just a couple more questions. In the end, who is really served by an industry built on infinite cheap impressions and endless levels of commodity management, optimization and targeting? It's not the marketers, agencies or publishers. It's really just the speculators. And when the air finally comes out of the ad-tech bubble, how many of those speculators will still be engaged in the hard work of building an industry with us?