The Flea in the Jar

The common flea is apparently quite a jumper. The little guys travel by leaping from one surface or host to another, often reaching pretty significant heights. That is, until they are confined to a shallow jar for just a few hours. After a few attempted leaps and some flea-sized cranial bruises they get the message of how high the new "up" is. When subsequently released from confinement, the flea will never again leap higher than the lid of that jar for the rest of its life.

Last week I moderated a 'brawl' at the iMedia Agency Summit in Scottsdale in which five industry voices addressed the question of what all the newfound scale and efficiency of exchanges and demand platforms would mean to the future of our business. With massive but defined audiences now available for delivery, would we see more "demand creation" (brand communication) dollars being spent in the medium (at the expense of TV, cable and print)? Or will all this science simply make us an ever more efficient (and cheaper) version of the "demand fulfillment" (DR) channel we've been for the last 15 years? As I questioned the various panelists (representing a site owner, an industry trade organization, a creative shop, a digital ad buying shop and a major platform) about the implications and possibilities, a realization came to me:

It's quite possible that online may never become a demand creation channel. At least not until almost the entire leadership of our industry turns over.

Like the fleas released from the jar, we are still enslaved by that invisible lid. Two generations of digital buyers, clients, sellers and technologists have never lived in a world that wasn't almost completely devoted to hard core direct response metrics. During the panel the audience was assured that the buying shops and the platforms were agnostic on the matter, and both open and prepared for an influx of "demand creation" dollars. "The metrics for valuing demand creation will emerge and we'll adapt to them," we were further assured. But then I asked a question that's been on my mind:

What's the motivation for any buyer or client to ever let go of the very metrics that have helped them successfully drive down digital media prices for over a decade?

I know this may sound cynical to many, but how else to explain the persistent dominance of click and post-click metrics in the evaluation of display and even video ads? Brand effectiveness research, cross-media optimization studies and market mix modeling have all been there for our embrace for much of the past decade; but most online clients and buyers have only performed a weird karoke version of brand measurement. And even those who see a bigger more expansive role for online in the communications mix can't see the path to get there. DR is all we've been trained for, and to one with only a hammer the world is filled with only nails.

Don't get me wrong: Not for a moment am I denying the power of technology to scale audiences or the need for -- and value of -- accountability in digital marketing. I'm only questioning whether those who are most "experienced" in our space might also be the most "conditioned" to the limitations of demand fulfillment thinking. Are we like the liberated fleas never again jumping higher than the lid of that jar? What's at stake is who will usher in the full development of online marketing. Will it be us? Or perhaps it will fall to those who've never been confined to the jar in the first place.