Voice: West Coast, Meet East Coast

Randall Rothenberg on the divide that still exists between Silicon Valley and Madison Ave.

Headshot of Randall Rothenberg

This summer, I hosted a trip for Madison Avenue’s digital elite—and Brooklyn’s too—to meet the leaders of Silicon Valley on the tech industry’s Northern California turf. The idea was to foster a closer relationship between influential ad buyers, strategists, creators, innovators and sellers separated by 3,000 miles and distinct cultural histories, yet united by a dedication to engage and improve the lives of consumers.

The excursion was delightful. Tom Bedecarré, CEO of AKQA; Nick Law, evp and CCO at R/GA; and Michael Lebowitz, founder and CEO of Big Spaceship; as well as 15 others members of the IAB Agency Advisory Board, enjoyed candid conversations with top executives from some of the biggest social media companies, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a handful of KPCB’s most prominent startups. Forward-thinking professors from Stanford University also took time to answer our questions. The participation demonstrated the desire for this meeting of the minds.

Yet it wasn’t all smiles, good wine and big deals. Over the course of the two-day trip, we on the IAB bus developed a nagging concern that the split between the West Coast tech culture and the East Coast digital advertising and media culture was deeper than expected. We’ve all, on both coasts, inadvertently invented a canard with the perception that there’s a clear bifurcation between our common interests—and it’s doing ill to our businesses and the greater good.

The extent of this divide, which will be a central theme to the 2012 IAB MIXX Conference & Expo, which starts today (Oct. 1), came into focus through implicit “me first, you second” thinking made conspicuous by the attempt of young tech-driven media companies to retrofit ad offerings to their already constructed environments. I understand the classic Silicon Valley notion of “if we build it, they will come…and then we’ll figure out a revenue stream.” But you can have millions of users and hours of consumer time without parity of revenue.

Similarly, the advertising industry, its vaunted creative rebelliousness notwithstanding, has shown a historical tendency to get mired in its own conservatism—hence the continued reliance on 30-second television commercials and static display ads, even as consumer flight to interactive media renders classic “spots and dots” a relic of a two-dimensional past.

This us-before-them approach is detrimental in the media sales business, particularly at a time when advertisers are working in parallel with sellers to devise breakthrough consumer/company interactions. Innovation is happening on both sides, but not together.

The marketing community and consumers must be considered concurrently at the outset of development of a new product or business model. It’s not one, and then the other; it’s both at the same time. When media and brand interests and discoveries are aligned, when they inform each other, the result is not only improved business performance for all, but it’s also the continued advancement of the quality of life.

When we share a foundation of knowledge that gives us insights into how the consumer is acting with new media, it enables the creation of new products, services and cultural opportunities. If you look at the history of media and marketing, the two grew into powerhouses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when there was a harmonious relationship between academy and industry. Some of the most formative research was published in peer-reviewed journals. But if this knowledge is privatized and locked away in vaults, a common understanding of how things work and why people react the way they do doesn’t coalesce. The marketplace is restricted, unable to adopt solutions that satisfy consumer needs and build businesses at the same time.

When I talk of creativity and technology colliding to create a big bang, I am talking about just this kind of alliance. In my role as the head of the IAB, I hope to facilitate exactly this kind of sharing.

It’s the same spark of cultural insight and consumer need that inspires an agency creative to design a cutting-edge form of consumer-brand interaction that inspires an engineer to build a new zeitgeist of an app. Working together, who knows what could happen? I sincerely hope to find out.

@r2rothenberg Randall Rothenberg is CEO of Interactive Advertising Bureau.