I just read about Walmart launching its own digital marketing platform, effectively becoming sort of a media buyer (and sort of an agency), leveraging a treasure trove of sales and behavioral data on behalf of its suppliers. According to AdExchanger, through the new Walmart Exchange (WMX) the company is "harnessing purchase, loyalty and other unspecified third party data assets to help suppliers spend their media dollars."

Maybe it's because I've been around media and advertising for so many years - or perhaps because I binged on MadMen recently - but it feels like the marketing world is getting curiouser and curiouser, and that the basic notions of identity and structure in the advertising world are falling away.

This week's Drift is proudly underwritten by Bionic Advertising Systems, an advertising technology company focused on delivering innovative software that streamlines and automates media workflow for marketers, their advertising agencies, and publishers.

Let's take a look at how things are shaping up.

  • Traditional "publishers" like Conde Nast, Hearst and others are increasingly offering creative services to marketers, edging themselves into traditional turf of creative agencies.
  • Agency holding companies are using their trading desks to pre-buy inventory and audiences and then holding that inventory - often briefly - for the future distribution of client ads. In one sense of the term, they are becoming ad networks.
  • Marketers are getting into bed directly with publishers through native advertising executions. When they're not, they're pursuing more of a direct content creation role through branded entertainment efforts. Either way, they're in the media business.
  • Xaxis, WPPs erstwhile trading desk, has morphed into more of an ad technology powerhouse, folding in the former publisher-side technologies (ad serving, etc.) of 24/7 Real Media. So now they serve both the buyer and seller side of the markets. Along the same lines, Rubicon Project once existed primarily as a sell-side platform (SSP) but now also offers some buyer-side tools and capabilities.
  • Walmart and Amazon are both retailers who opened their considerable online presences to advertising distribution. Amazon the retailer is also Amazon the device company; Apple the device company became (through iTunes and terrestrial stores) Apple the retailer.
  • Any online publisher can now work with third parties to tag and find its site visitors when they are on other sites around the web, and/or find look alike customers. By doing so, they can extend and fulfill ad buys beyond their own site borders. So they are now media aggregators, something that agencies (and more recently, ad networks) used to do.

I could go on, but you probably get the picture by this point. So who loses in this asymmetrical hall of mirrors? Command and control based companies and channels. In the past, they've clung to defined roles and control of access - to inventory, to audiences, to distribution of goods and content, to talent. I think many of them will start to look very old and tired very quickly.

Who wins? The nimble, the creative, the right-brain thinkers who solve problems and make order out of chaos. Someday the generation that remembers a gentler, more stable time in the ad business - a time when agencies were agencies and media was media - will move on and institutional memory of role definition will fade. There will be no us and them. Only opportunity.

Maybe that day is already here?