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Publishers, Agencies Must Shift Their Focus From Big Data to Big Content

Superior storytelling will win as 'tech mania' subsides

Technology enables ads to be efficiently shown and distributed. | Illustration: Edmon De Haro

Programmatic direct, data aggregators, cross-device tracking, viewability metrics. Take a look at the themes that dominated the advertising media over the past year and you come away with the impression that our industry is all about technology.

Yet not too long down the road, this tech mania will quiet down, leaving our industry to focus on what will be the ultimate competitive differentiator—superior content.

It's this conviction that drives the focus of this week's IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, which will look at how content and content companies are adapting to the ever-evolving cornucopia of technological opportunity and vice versa. It's easy to forget that without captivating content to wrap itself around, advertising is like opening a present … only to find an empty box. Ads best find their home near content that serves the needs, passions and curiosities of consumers, which in turn should inspire advertisers to find ways to elevate their own conversations with consumers.

There's no question technology continues to be a vital underpinning for the digital marketing industry, enabling ads to be efficiently shown, distributed and analyzed. And it will be these solutions that help us overcome critical impediments, such as advertising fraud, malware and the need for tools that allow publishers and agencies to show that 100 percent of traded digital media has met viewability standards. 

Randall Rothenberg

Yet as we have seen time and again, going back to the earliest days of the printing press and then broadcasting, it is the commoditization and ubiquity of emerging technologies rather than their closely held, proprietary ownership that feeds creativity, audience growth and commercial opportunity. It is only when freely available standards are established that new forms of media—the TV sitcom, the glossy magazine or digital music distribution—can thrive.

We believe this state of efficient ubiquity is coming sooner than most people think, which is why industry executives need to focus more intently on content. At our doorstep are liquid marketplaces for automated advertising trading; electronic programming guides that will help consumers easily sort through hundreds of thousands of digital video offerings; and the push-button opportunity to start consuming a show or an offering on one device, but complete it on another.

In this world of omnipresent omnimedia, the most successful companies will be those whose superior content draws consumers routinely and repeatedly. Put another way, whom would you rather be as the digital future unfolds: The guy or gal who makes the transistors inside your video access device … or Judd Apatow?

We have seen some terrific examples recently of how intriguing content can come from places far outside the traditional network TV structure that for so long held sway in the world of entertainment. With shows from companies like Amazon and Netflix winning industry awards—most recently with Golden Globes going to Kevin Spacey for his role in Netflix's House of Cards as well as to Jill Soloway's taboo-busting new Amazon show Transparent—the doors have been thrown wide open for those who have something interesting and provocative to say.

It has also become clear that companies need to let go of their decade-long obsession with SEO and gaming the rankings, which has content implications. Google, for one, has made it clear that its new algorithms will reward those who produce authentic, engaging content that is also valued by others. Other related issues our industry faces relate to the net neutrality debate, which could limit access to content.

IAB has long shown its commitment to innovative content, with our organization each spring of the Digital Content NewFronts, which highlight the best in new digital video programming, as well as the IAB MIXX Awards to honor outstanding work in interactive advertising and marketing.

At our Annual Leadership Meeting, which opened today (Feb. 8) in Phoenix, we'll hear speakers such as Linda Boff, executive director of global brand marketing at GE, talk about new ways of sourcing creativity, and Kraft's Bob Rupczynski and Starcom's Lisa Donahue weigh in on the latest in addressable storytelling. Publishers such as The New York Times' Mark Thompson, Maker Studios' Erin McPherson, Thrillist Media Group's Ben Lerer, YouTube's Robert Kyncl and Hulu's Mike Hopkins will talk about what is working and what isn't and what's next.

We'll also debate who will be the gatekeepers, taste arbiters and best content producers in the business. Will agencies rule, or will publishers, with their better understanding of audiences, win supremacy?

Whether agency or publisher, all must start to take great content seriously if they want to secure a competitive advantage in the changing media arena.

Randall Rothenberg (@r2rothenberg) is president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). 

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