Column: A Tumblr Ad Network? Why Not?

The industry is looking for a better ad mousetrap; Tumblr could be a savior

As one bounces from panel to panel during Advertising Week collecting lanyards, it’s hard not to notice that the digital advertising world is a bit defensive. While the medium’s share of the ad revenue pie continues to grow, the Web continues to pull in more than its fair share of direct response advertising, and less than its fair share of brand dollars (at least in the minds of Web publishers). As a result, the efficacy of the entire industry’s ad model is under attack. That’s taken the form of either banner bashing, constructive efforts to come up with a model that’s better than banners, or lots of better research.

For example, Microsoft is rolling out pretty app-esque ads within its much-anticipated Windows 8 software rollout. As Qi Lu, president, of Microsoft's online services division, put it, "the online medium has not lived up to its promise as a brand medium. The browser has been far too limiting."

For its part, the IAB is touting the power of its oversized Rising Stars ad units, touting stats like higher-than-average interaction rates and brand lift. And Facebook, of course, is on a "our ads work offensive." Brad Smallwood, Facebook's head of measurement and Insights, spent a good part of his Mixx keynote on Tuesday urging the industry to ditch the click and think like TV.

YouTube also gave a compelling presentation on Tuesday, beckoning the industry to flip the traditional marketing funnel and go digital first. Tara Levy, Google’s global marketing director, came armed with some compelling stats; 31 percent of adults 18-49 are light TV viewers. "We’re not as good at targeting as we think," she said. But let’s put video aside for the moment: few doubt that brands are enamored with, and will soon spend lots more on Web video—whether its on pre-rolls or something better. It’s display that’s challenged.

BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg assumed his company’s typical role of banner-bomb-thrower, saying on Wednesday simply, “banners don’t work.” BuzzFeed is leading the charge toward native ads—the company pushes brands to create content that looks and feels like BuzzFeed’s memes and articles.

And while you have to love Steinberg’s iconoclastic tendencies, we need to be realistic. Brands don’t need every single publisher to have some super-special time-consuming ad treatment. A custom placement for Twitter? Sure. or Not so much. Try spending $100 million in Q4 on just native ads. You’ll be begging for some banners to make your life easier.

Wouldn’t it make sense for one of the major social media platforms to roll out a "native ad treatment" that works on content sites of all stripes? Well, that brings us back to Facebook, which everybody in the digital ad space is convinced is going to roll out an ad network, using all that personalized data.

But is Facebook the right company to lead the branding charge? “Facebook is extremely unfriendly to advertisers,” said Ben Palmer of the Barbarian Group during one of 1,300 panel sessions in New York on Wednesday. “They used to be openly hostile. Now it’s just hard.”

That was before the IPO. Now, Facebook has to embrace advertising in a big way. But it’s still very reluctant to offer any big, bold, interruptive ads. Meanwhile, the recently rolled out Facebook Exchange is getting raves among the DSP community. But could that actually stifle brand efforts? From what I’ve seen, once a publisher starts heading down the remnant inventory, DR-heavy road, it’s hard to go back. It’s sort of like trying to be an occasional crack user.

So where should the industry get all those brand dollars? There may well be an answer in another social platform. I saw something surprising, striking even, during another Advertising Week panel (it can happen!) deep in the bowels of Times Squares’ Dave and Busters. Digital ads that people seemed to love. Indeed, Tumblr, which has been in the ad business for about six months with just two products, may have done the impossible.

“Tumblr is about visual storytelling,” said Aisling McCarthy, Account Lead for Adidas at We Are Social. McCarthy explained how We Are Social shot original footage of European soccer stars, turned the footage into stills and gifs, and baked them into Tumblr ads which got shared by fans all over the world. In this case, Adidas was about soccer, not selling sneakers or gifting your friends with t-shirts. In other words, its brand advertising!

Or take Coke’s Tumblr presence. Its page is about images of sharing happiness. Again, Coke's not selling anything—other than a feeling. A recent three-second gif ad featuring an empty coke bottle in front of a pool generated 80,000 notes from users, according to Maggie Walsh, senior social strategist, 360i. 

Of course, it’s mega early to be talking about Tumblr’s ad success. But the presentation I saw made me feel like this could be the start of something. “This is a very visual medium,” said Danielle Strle, Tumblr's director of product & partnerships.  If I’m a brand like Coke or Absolut or something, I’m way more excited about Tumblr than Facebook. So why doesn’t Tumblr roll out an ad network?

Maybe this is crazy, but what if every prominent Web publisher gave up half of its home page to a beautiful Tumblr ad, and included all the cool community functionality (reblogging, commenting, sharing, etc). I’ve had some dumb ideas before, so this could be just the latest in a long line. And I realize that Tumblr doesn’t have even close to the data pool that Facebook has – but so what? There’s a lot of money in broad-based-awareness advertising (see broadcast TV). What's more powerful—data or love?

I brought this theory up to Lee Brown, Tumblr’s newly installed head of sales. Mr. Brown, extremely politely, quickly changed the subject.