Mixed Picture at IAB

At the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual meeting last week in La Quinta, Calif., the mood was ebullient as 750-plus attendees basked in the industry’s double-digital growth rates and flood of tech venture capital—and welcomed back IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg.

Yet despite the cheerful vibe, the event carried a dark undercurrent. During multiple panel and keynote sessions, it was clear that Web publishers don’t know what to make of low-cost content producers like Demand Media, still dislike the trend towards data-driven buying, are spooked by the threat of government regulation and believe that brands continue to underspend online.

Adweek spoke with some of the top players about the meet’s most pressing issues.

Demand Breaks Out
Nobody had more to say last week than Demand Media’s Richard Rosenblatt. The now-loquacious CEO, who had been forced to clam up since last summer—during the company’s prolonged pre-IPO dark period—while the media world took shots at his company, brushed off concerns that Google’s recent algorithm tweaks were aimed at Demand, and defended its reputation against claims that it churns out cheap content.

“Google’s move is targeted at sites that scrape other sites, or have no original content,” he said. “We’re all about original.”

As for Demand’s articles being low quality and/or shallow, he countered that this was “sniping [by other journalists]. If we write an article based on a question people are asking online—‘Can I wear white pants in March?’—do you want 60 pages on that subject?  . . . People want to consume this content quickly. A short article is only shallow if it’s about cancer.”

The schlocky articles dug up by critics, he added, are pieces Demand itself catches and deals with. “[It’s] a pretty low number,” he added. “Have you ever seen how many corrections The New York Times runs in a given day?”

Regardless, Demand clearly wants to get stickier and more brand-friendly. Last week, the company announced a deal with Rachael Ray to produce content for the company’s eHow.com.

Can Tablets Save Web Creative—and Bring More Dollars to the Medium?
An issue that kept coming up was the gap between the amount of time users spend with digital media versus the amount of dollars spent on it. While outgoing Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Hulu CEO Jason Kilar spoke optimistically about closing it, others wrestled with the idea that factors such as an ongoing inventory glut and operational efficiencies were holding back the medium.

“It takes 2.7 times the labor to spend a dollar in digital than in TV,” said Quentin George, chief digital officer, Mediabrands. “Agencies don’t get paid on efficiencies. They get paid on results.”

Yahoo argued that tablets will spark the creative revolution that finally brings more brands online. Blake Irving, Yahoo’s chief product officer, touting Yahoo’s tablet-designed reading platform, Livestand, argued that tablets, unlike PCs, are consumption devices where brand ads are more welcome. But, he cautioned, “Web ads in their current state are obnoxious. We locked and loaded too fast last time.”

Meanwhile, AOL is trying to rally the industry around its more standardized Project Devil ad placements, which promise uncluttered experiences. “These get rid of the operational headaches of brand advertising,” said Greg Rogers, CEO of AOL’s creative subsidiary Pictela.

The Feds Are Coming
Rik van der Kooi, Microsoft’s corporate vp, advertiser and publisher solutions group, had a provocative suggestion: Put consumers on IAB’s privacy-focused committees. “We need to talk to real people instead of hoping these problems will go away,” said van der Kooi.
“People care more about transparency than actual privacy.”

He also suggested that a third party might emerge as a broker between publishers and users when it comes to sharing data for ad targeting.  “This could be Facebook, this could be a new entrant,” he said. “It could even be someone like American Express.”

Publishers Under Siege
For at least the third straight annual meeting, publishers agonized over demand-side platforms, third-party ad selling, and exposing their site’s data—anything that further diminishes their traditional sales power. Publishers are saying “this is a life-or-death battle,” per John Battelle, executive chairman of Federated Media.

Or as Michael Zimbalist, vp, research and development operations for The New York Times Company put it, “We are warily circling DSPs. We occasionally look at them and ask, ‘How do all these bits and pieces of plumbing fit together?’”

Yet it was an ad agency executive who summed up the disadvantaged position most publishers are in. Said Mediabrands George: “If anyone was sold out 100 percent, this would not be a conversation on any panel anywhere.”