It’s Time to Get Back to Basics

It’s another perfect day in Lala land. The sky is a money shade of blue and the wind is gently blowing up and to the right. Users rule in Lala. Everything is free and plentiful.

In Lala, ads flow like spring water. They form a rich contextual tapestry with online experiences. Money flows from them with such abundance that publishers never fret and the rich and progressive knights that rule Lala slurp free all-you-can-eat crab legs and the freshest toro in the land.

But, what is that unfamiliar sound I hear in the distance?

“I like guys that have a little bit fat, a little bit hairy back. … I know they sometimes go to the striptease. But it’s OK. I’m not jealous. He can do whatever he wants. The girlfriend. Jim Beam. The Bourbon.”

These are not the southing sounds of Lala. It’s my 9-year-old son and he’s staring at me, reciting a Jim Beam commercial he’s seen a several times watching the NBA on TV.

Yes, the boy is 10 years from a bottle of bourbon and almost as far from a girlfriend, but this is a powerful case study in the power of interruptive brand advertising. The Jim Beam ad will no doubt ring in his head when he orders his first cocktail. And that’s the point.
We are witnessing the collision of an unrealistic and utopian future of advertising with an interruptive one that has made the business of the media work for more than 50 years. An immature medium wrestling with its future against a dark economic backdrop is creating the urgency to reconcile.
On one side, media companies are struggling to adjust to a world where every digital touch point has become advertising inventory, creating an ocean of page views that the market can’t meaningfully monetize. Google isn’t solving it. Networks aren’t either. On the other, advertisers are not quite convinced that they can persuade users with silent 300 by 250 pixel packages. Clearly they are looking for something bigger than the banner. Something with cultural gravitas. Something my son will remember.
A couple of weeks ago, I put some of my thoughts about the online brand market into a blog post ( My point was straightforward: there are a couple of significant issues holding back growth of brand advertising online. Ad units are not delivering attention, whether through interruption or other means. Moreover, the prevailing currency (CPM) is not capturing the attention value of online media.
These ideas are not new. What is interesting, however, was the assertion that, after years of denial and tons of failed innovation, the Internet needed to start acting more like its traditional media ancestors. This is bigger issue than pre-roll or no pre-roll. Publishers might have to get more aggressive across the board. Consumers might have to reacquaint themselves with the value trade-offs that are core to all free, ad-supported media experiences. You give and you get.

The feedback from Lala was a tired and predictable refrain (see the comments on Silicon Alley Insider: “Advertisers need to add value rather than interrupt,” “Ads need to be treated as content that is interesting and relevant … I’ll click on those” and “People online interact with ads differently from TV, so what works on TV may not work over the Internet. If they ‘interrupt’ my online experience, I will hit ctrl-T and browse elsewhere.” In other words, online is different. The opportunity of the medium will not be realized until we uncover better ways of crafting commercial messages and more relevant ways of targeting them.

But, the inflection point will not come because agencies wake up and realize that they need to add value rather than interrupt. Online creative has evolved for 10 years. It will continue to evolve, but advertising will never compete with the millions of distractions the Internet offers, against unconstrained content creators with no legal departments, briefs or bosses. Brands buy access to audience. They purchase the right to interrupt. When they do it well, advertising works better, especially on the Internet where, network activity (virality) is a vital accelerator. Not even the best pieces of creative stand a chance without paid support. Yes, the great Jim Beam ad above has almost 200,000 views on YouTube (that’s not even $10K in media value). But that is piggybacking a significant TV buy.

We need to be careful about what cases we use as our shining examples. Apple’s advertisements on The New York Times site are pushing the industry in the right direction. But the real challenge is the countless brands that have to fight to get you to care, like Speed Stick, Doritos, Pizza Hut and Ex-Lax. Remember where the opportunity lies. Procter & Gamble spent less than 3 percent of its marketing budget online last year.
Nor is this just about context and improved relevance. Context is meaningless against many categories and marketing challenges. If you are looking to communicate at the top of a funnel, to bring a new concept to market, to broaden your appeal, or to persuade in low-interest categories, you need to fight to find reach against your audience. This is precisely what TV offers. All of the brands mentioned above would struggle to reach their marketing objectives against a purely contextual program. Context does not equal attention.
Countless entrepreneurs, technologists and idealists rightly admire Google and the franchise it has created around contextual advertising. Google reinvented the Yellow Pages and direct mail, and we are all better off for it. But making the Web more interesting for brand marketers means finding ways to deliver quantifiable attention. If context and creative alone cannot promise attention, we may need to make ads more interruptive, even if it causes a bit of a stir in Lala land.

Troy Young is CMO of VideoEgg.