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Art & Commerce: Swimming With Sharks

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Whoever controls the ad servers, controls the future
Imagine a shark on speed. Now imagine the shark is starving.
Now imagine it's chasing you.
That's what it must be like to be a small fish in the online advertising technology ocean. Giant eating machines like DoubleClick and 24/7 Media prowl the water, relentlessly hunting and devouring their smaller ad-server rivals on Internet time, which is pretty damn fast.
Meanwhile, agencies are struggling to keep up, reviewing and evaluating the various ad servers, experimenting with their own in-house serving technology, scrambling to decipher the new-media technology pouring out of the online ad-tech companies.
They're pretty confident about it.
Maybe too confident.
When talking to media executives about this topic, one is struck by their quiet determination to master it. They have a seriousness of purpose. They realistically inquire into the future of online advertising and how to succeed at it. And as a corollary, media men and women display an affable indifference to the media-technology firms' battle for hegemony.
"If [DoubleClick and the other giant ad servers] can find specific target audiences and can do serving and reporting, God bless 'em," says one Internet agency executive. "They're going to be ubiquitous anyway. Once sites grow up, they can always sell on their own."
This is a familiar point of view. We heard it from broadcast TV network executives dismissing the challenge posed by cable. In fact, we still do, usually around this time of year because of the Super Bowl.
Sometimes, as Bruce Willis and that flat-faced little kid showed last summer, you can walk around dead and not even know it.
You'd think an industry daily driven to distraction by monopolistic broadcast and radio research and ratings vendors would have learned its lesson by now. If you let others control your ability to deliver or measure your communications, you're asking for trouble.
We fret and chafe and grimace and shake our heads whenever one media company eats another.
We sigh and throw up our hands whenever an advertising holding company gobbles up another tasty morsel. And we complain endlessly about how distorted TV ratings are--and how difficult it is to secure measurement methodology everybody accepts.
Yet no one seems to mind when Internet ad technology companies act like a modern-day business version of the army of Genghis Khan, thundering across the steppes and knocking off every indigenous population in their path.
But this isn't the 11th century and modern-day warriors don't ride horses.
These are new-media companies that move like lightning and have the resources to keep moving forever. The Internet may be the most measurable medium, but that only makes those that do the measuring awfully powerful. And these guys could run it all before they're done.
Some ad agencies are experimenting with their own in-house ad serving technology; the early word is that the huge investment in capital necessary to build serving capability only makes you, as one agency executive put it, able to "serve ads just as well or worse than DoubleClick." That means continued reliance on ad servers to get the word out in cyberspace.
Nobody believes there is a vast conspiracy to deprive agencies and advertisers of the promise of e-marketing. It's just business--21st-century style.
Still, there's not enough scrutiny being given to the implications of what is happening in the ad-serving universe. Remember: Whoever controls the servers, controls the future. Agencies should be paying more attention to what's going on below the surface. Otherwise, it might come back to bite them.