Thar Be Pirates!

Fresh off the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Miami this week, I think the casual observer could draw only one conclusion about the world of online advertising: Man, there's some scary shit going on in there! That we've built a $30 billion business despite all these sordid goings-on is nothing short of amazing. (To those inclined at this point to flame me in defense of the medium: chill out a little, will ya? It's satire in pursuit of a larger point. Irony was big when I was a young man, and I'm hoping it makes a comeback.)

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• What Privacy? In defiance of all reason, we cling to terms like "targeting" and "tracking," making our consumers sound like so many caribou. This has spurred politicians to introduce "do not track" legislation and consumer advocates to introduce the "right to be forgotten."

• Funny Business: ComScore's Magid Abraham told us yesterday that 31% of online display ads are unviewable: many are buried at the bottom of pages that are never scrolled, while still others are artificially dropped onto pages as pixel-sized MiniMe ads, invisible to the human eye. In a hallway conversation, someone brought up "bit-shaving," which I don't really understand but think involves tiny digital basketball teams intentionally missing shots and turning the ball over.

• Hal has Become Self-Aware: We are told that the pace at which everything becomes automated will only increase. After all, how can automation be anything but a force for liberation, creativity and a better world? (Ignore that whole Wall Street margin call scenario we just lived through.)

• Just When You Think It's Safe to Go Back in the Water: Pirates! No shit, Pirates! Brian O'Kelley from AppNexus got up on stage and declared that his company would no longer serve ads to sites that pirate content. ( and AaargNet will apparently be filing for restraining orders.)

Don't get me wrong: I was really happy to take part in the IAB Leadership Meeting, mostly because it was, in fact, a leadership meeting. In my opinion, our business still operates on some naïvely dangerous assumptions: that advertisers will default to what's in the best interest of the consumer...that the true value of content is respected...that more automation is always better...that the triumph of audience buying over contextual value is a foregone conclusion.

In bringing up the whole Pirate concept, O'Kelley conjured up another pretty powerful metaphor: Vampires. The idea is that if we flood the world with sunlight, all the bad guys - the Vampires - will die. Sure, this is a bit dramatic, but I like it. Just maybe we're starting to acknowledge that there's both a light and dark side to our business...that there are Bernie's Madoffs walking among us, and that they are the enemy.

For many years we turned a blind eye to the charlatans and rogues because exposing them might bring down the whole house of cards. But we needn't live with that fear anymore. Online marketing is a dominant economic and social force today. It's time to make active choices about sustainability, business ethics, respect for the consumer, and the value of content. And I'm glad the IAB is there to expose those who make the wrong ones.