Fear and Loathing on Madison Avenue

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Madison Avenue is running scared. Its recent “upfront” – a glitzy annual ritual in which broadcasters give sneak peaks of their upcoming seasons to advertisers and book billions of dollars in advance bookings for these shows – was a dud whose $8.95 billion take represented the third successive year of decline.

Money, lots of it, is leaching out of broadcasting, and there’s very little doubt where it’s going: it’s going online. The latest forecasts for online advertising pegged its growth at an astounding 25 percent, with a projected 2006 ad spend of between $16 and $20 billion.

Broadcasting networks and other untargeted media channels aren’t going away tomorrow, but they’re being squeezed by a number of irresistible factors, including:

1. Increasing demand from major advertising for accountable ad spending.

2. Increasing demand for targeting by these same advertisers.

3. A fragmenting media landscape in which broadcast television, radio and print are all losing market share.

4. A generation of consumers which are increasingly demanding advertising to be relevant and engaging, instead of intrusive and annoying.

The Google Effect

All these factors (which happen to be the same ones driving advertising online) can be summed up in one word: “Google.” Uttering the word “Google” in the presence of ad men today has exactly the same effect that mentioning the word “Cancer” has in a doctor’s waiting room. “I have never seen such fear and loathing strike the ad business” confessed one ad exec in Advertising Age. This fear and loathing boils down to this: Google (and the factors it represents) is about to do to the broadcasting industry and old line ad agencies what the Web has already done to other established industries where middlemen and antiquated fiefdoms once ruled supreme: it’s going to force them to change, or die, in a cruel but unstoppable evolution.

Shmoozing, Boozing, and Losing

The fear and loathing on Madison Avenue isn’t helped much by its traditional approach to media buying, which is notoriously inefficient, involving insertion orders being placed via phone or fax. The people who buy traditional advertising typically use very simplistic criteria (Reach, measured by GRP, and Frequency, i.e. the number of times that a given ad runs) to establish what a given ad is worth. The upfront process, which involves much more schmoozing and boozing than substantive discussions about the actual effectiveness of the ads, is certainly fun for advertising industry insiders, but not so much fun for advertisers footing the bill for all the glitz. These advertisers, struggling to stay competitive in a lighting-fast, globalized economy, stay ahead by watching every penny and scrutinizing every expense. Why, these advertisers ask, in an era where media use is increasingly measurable, shouldn’t they be just as careful with their advertising dollars as they are when they open a new factory or buy twenty tons of steel?

The Cult of Creativity

Naturally, the people who work in ad agencies hate the idea that what they do has a value which could ever be quantified. Twenty tons of steel is a commodity, but how could one ever quantify the value of creativity? How can you possibly put a value on making somebody feel all warm and fuzzy when she thinks of your airline?

Unfortunately, the battle that’s currently being waged between “Creatives” and “Beancounters” is a red herring. Advertisers don’t want ad agencies to stop being creative; they just want them, in an age in which advertising’s effectiveness can, for the first time, actually be measured, to be more responsive. Which campaign, A or B, in fact makes people feel more warm and fuzzy? Which results in more sales, leads, or other desirable behavior? On which platforms? Unfortunately, most “creative” advertising firms don’t have the technological prowess to address these questions, and sadly, the time to start developing systems capable of addressing them was five years ago, not now.

Reforming the Upfronts

The broadcasting industry’s upfront process has always been more of a Martini-fueled faith-based initiative than a meaningful encounter in which the actual value of advertising is disclosed. Pressure to reform this process – a vestige of the era when broadcast networks had a stranglehold on America’s media consumption, has been building for years but has always been resisted by the broadcasters themselves. But now, reform is in the wings, led by a consortium of advertisers developing an experimental auction-based ad exchange which some have dubbed “the ADSDAQ.” Members of this group, which functions under the umbrella of the Association of National Advertisers, include Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard Co., Microsoft, Philips, Lexus, and other large spenders.

Development of the “ADSDAQ” (or whatever such an ad exchange is finally known as) will likely be resisted by broadcasters unwilling to change the way they’ve done business for almost 50 years. Some will likely refuse to participate, or only allow undesirable “remnant” inventory to be sold through it. Cable networks such as Time-Warner and Comcast, whose set-top boxes already are theoretically able to serve out ads to specific audience segments, will be more likely to embrace the auction-driven ad exchange, realizing that there is significant upside to offering advertisers an opportunity to pay more to reach specific audience segments with targeted messages.

By transforming the way that advertising – targeted and untargeted – is bought and sold, this new system will for the first time let the marketplace, not broadcasters, set the value of advertising in a way that is transparent and inherently more flexible than provided by the old broadcast upfront model.

Envisioning the 21st Century Ad Agency

The dawn of any new era is frightening, especially to those refusing to give up old ways of doing business and power accumulated by the inertia of the status quo. Mass forms of communication, including broadcast television, radio, newspapers, magazines, will not disappear, but their role in the media landscape will be transformed, and so will the ad agencies which have been the traditionally mediated between them and the advertisers booking space or time within them. Those agencies able to master the new world of accountable, auction-based media and the interaction effects between hitherto disparate media forms will become the industry’s new leaders. Success will require technological prowess, analytical ability, and yes – that same creative spark which has always inspired successful, memorable advertising campaigns. Those which cannot adjust will have their works live on in the Museum of Broadcasting, but otherwise disappear from the media landscape.

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Mr. Frog is a leading Search industry visionary. Mr. Frog is a member of the Did-it Search Marketing team which accompanies him to most major
marketing conferences.

Fear and Loathing on Madison Avenue
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