Millard Opens IAB With a Bang

Last year it was pork bellies. This year, schmattas.

Wenda Harris Millard, president of media and co-CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, on Feb. 22 delivered the opening keynote address at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla. Today, she once again urged the industry to guard against commoditizing its ad inventory.

During last year’s keynote, Millard famously likened the trend of selling online ads through price-driven ad networks and exchanges to selling “pork bellies.” During this year’s forceful address — called “Am I in the Wrong Class? Why Advertising Isn’t and Shouldn’t Be (Just) Math and Science” — she similarly cautioned against selling banners based solely on the lowest price available. She compared the practice to selling “schmattas” (i.e., cheap rags).

Instead, creativity must drive the industry forward. “This is the advertising business, not the technology or finance business,” said Millard. “Where is the creative innovation in advertising? Where is the innovation with brands?”

During her 30-minute-plus speech, Millard called for publishers and advertisers to work together to eliminate conventional thinking about online advertising.

She said its primary strength — and therefore only point of differentiation vs. other media — is its interactivity and ability to be tracked. For some, she maintained, that sort of thinking has relegated online advertising for use in direct response rather than branding — a situation she would like to see changed. “Why do we have to choose?” she asked. More than once, Millard used the phrase, “We should be an ‘and’ industry” — meaning an industry that supports both art and science, as well as direct response and brand advertising.

To drive her point home, Millard slammed ad networks that deliberately undermine the importance of branded content, and questioned the thinking of those in the online ad world who dismiss the role of art and “trusting one’s gut” in the ad business. “I fear those who have never been to a museum,” she said.

Millard began her keynote by painting a dire portrait of the state of the ad industry, citing a spate of recent layoffs and magazine closures, as well as several industry forecasts predicting three consecutive years of contraction in spending concluding with 2010.

“Advertising is going through hell,” she said. By her count, the business will lose $25 billion in revenue during that three-year period, and there will simply not be enough ad dollars to support all media outlets. She called the situation “mind-boggling” and “horrifying.”

To stave off disaster, the industry must move swiftly, Millard said, using the difficult environment as an opportunity to reinvent itself, particularly on the creative front.

That’s clearly a focus of the IAB this year, as the organization used the occasion to announce the formation of a slew of new subcommittees, including a 12-member board comprised of executives from media, creative and digital agencies that will focus on improving online ad creative.

“We need a creative renaissance in interactive advertising,” said IAB president and CEO Randall Rothenberg. The business has “lived under the tyranny of the click for too long,” he said.

Besides creative, the IAB is taking on the issues of data ownership and online ad contracts with two other new committees.

In addition, the organization has partnered with the American Association of Advertising Agencies to form a task force that will tackle improving operations for online advertising. As part of that announcement, the two trade associations unveiled a slew of tools designed to streamline processes such as requests for proposals, invoices and campaign data reports.

The overarching goal is to make buying online advertising “as easy as television,” Rothenberg said.