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Crisis? What Crisis? Optimism On Display at ad:tech New York

There was a moment just before a panel discussion on the state of publishing was about to begin,

By Richard Romano
Published: November 5, 2008

There was a moment just before a panel discussion on the state of publishing was about to begin, when I glanced up at the list of panelists, and saw that Robin Steinberg’s title was “Senior VP, Director of Print Investment and Activations.” I thought, “Wow, there hasn’t been a print representative on an ad:tech panel in years; this is encouraging.” But as soon as the echo of that observation died down inside my head, the moderator clicked on her microphone: “We were joking about Robin’s title; it says ‘print’ but she is very much in the digital space.” And I always thought “print” meant never having to say you’re sorry.

Welcome to Day One—November 4, 2008—at ad:tech New York.

To be fair, ad:tech has for years been about “interactive advertising,” and digital media have always been the focus. Still, TV and other “offline media” tend to be fairly represented and, after all, the recurring theme every year is how the “media mix” is ever more crucial. And yet, print inevitably gets short shrift. But I suppose it’s pointless to comment on what was not said.

Day One was a somewhat abbreviated day—there were scant events planned for the afternoon, likely so folks who traveled into New York City first thing in the morning (like me) could make it home before the polls closed. Naturally, the election played into most of the discussions.

Ad:tech continues through Thursday.

The State of Advertising and Marketing

If there is one theme that appears to be in the process of summing up this year’s conference, it was voiced by Rob Master, North American Media Director for Unilever, in a panel discussion called “The State of the Industry”: “Media are no longer fragmenting; they have fragmented. The paradigm shift has happened.” What does that mean for advertisers and marketers? “We go where the consumer goes....If consumers want to get off the Internet and watch more TV, then we’ll go do more TV.”

At the beginning of “The State of the Industry,” the Presidential campaigns were held up as examples of vital marketing lessons learned—after all, what are political campaigns but marketing campaigns? Said Tina Sharkey, Chairman and Global President of BabyCenter LLC, “Barack Obama [and to a lesser extent John McCain] did an excellent job of activating the online media space, using all forms of media.” This included not only the Web and e-mail, but also text messaging, Facebook, and other old and new media.” Seconded Rob Norman, CEO of Group M Interactive: From a media mix point of view, you try to understand three things: geography (where the people you are trying to reach are), technology (how people use and interact with it), and value/integrity. “The Obama campaign fused them all,” said Norman.

Although the election was prominently discussed during “The State of the Industry,” the 400-pound elephant in the room—the slowing (dare I say “recessionary”?) economy—was given little more than a lightning round at the very end of the session. Moderator Randall Rothenberg, President and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, asked, “What did the panel feel would be the impact of the recession on the fortunes of the interactive advertising industry?”

The general consensus was that it would not be so bad. Said Rob Masters, “It’s all about the consumer, and how the user will choose to engage with content.” He reiterated his point that if the recession causes people to abandon the Internet in favor of other media, then advertisers and marketers will follow them wherever they go. Consumers will still need and want to buy things and will need information about those things.

Both Rob Norman and Tina Sharkey anticipated lower-double-digit growth in online ad spending over the next 12 months. The fourth panelist, David Morris, Chief Client Officer for CBS Interactive, admitted that he has lived (and worked) through recessions going back through the early 1980s and he feels that the present slowdown is the worst he’s seen. He anticipates a “share war” not only between interactive media and traditional media, but also an internecine share war within the interactive media space itself. “There will be a shakeout of sites and ad networks.” But, he stressed that “strong brands do survive recessions”—even severe ones.

Elsewhere in the panel discussion, one place to watch for exciting activity is online video, which is turning up more and more places, some of it user-generated, some of it professionally produced, some of it “editorial,” some of it “advertising” or “advertorial.” Said Tina Sharkey—representing the voice of the publisher on the panel—“as long as it is labeled as advertising,” there is not a problem or conflict of interest. Ultimately, “advertisers can be publishers, too.”

Another interesting video development in the works at CBS, said David Morris, is what is called a “social viewing room.” Based on Microsoft’s Live Meeting technology, friends from around the country can watch the same video broadcast in a “video chat room,” with additional “engagement tools” like the ability to post live comments on the broadcast thrown in for added value. (Rothenberg described it as ”Mystery Science Theater 3000 takes over the world.”) Kind of like Web conferencing, only fun.

On a more sober note, the panelists generally agreed that one of the big issues the industry will have to wrestle with in the next year (and beyond) is that of potential government regulation of behaviorally targeted advertising. That is, will it be illegal to acquire information on anonymous Web users and use that data to serve them up targeted ad content? Rothenberg cited legislation pending in New York and Connecticut that could have far-ranging—some might say dire—consequences for interactive advertising. The panelists agreed that the industry will have to prove that it can regulate itself effectively. The panelists—not surprisingly—all felt that the industry thus far has a pretty good track record with self-regulation, “unlike some others more downtown,” quipped Rob Norman.

The State of Publishing

A second panel discussion gathered together representatives from NYTimes.com, BusinessWeek.com, The Huffington Post, and the aforementioned “Senior VP, Director of Print Investment and Activations” for MediaVest USA, a media buying agency. The first three discussed the ways in which publishing has evolved since the advent of the Internet era. All the panelists felt—and had a variety of studies to back them up—that online news and information consumers are eager to have what Google CEO Eric Schmidt described as the “cesspool” of the Internet (that is, tons and tons of unruly content) vetted by some kind of editorial authority. But at the same time, the role of editors is to “curate” Internet content. This is simply another way of saying that it is not enough for online publications to provide their own editorial content; it is also increasingly to their advantage to aggregate—or “curate”—related content from around the Internet. The New York Times is doing this with a feature that is currently in beta whereby the Times’ own stories contain active links to the same stories—or related stories and/or blog posts—elsewhere online, even on its competitors’ sites. BusinessWeek.com is combining curated content with social networking in a feature that it calls Business Exchange. And The Huffington Post combines hundreds of blog posts with curated content to provide far more information about Sarah Palin than any human would ever need (or want).

So what was the Senior VP, Director of Print Investment and Activations’ take on all of this? While she admitted that “I’m new to this Web thing,” as a media buyer, she approaches online publications with the same eye for trusted and verified content from reliable information sources that comes from her print media-buying. But there is also the other eye which is on more experimental online platforms—basically, it depends on the client and what they are comfortable with, and desire to do.

Ultimately, though, “brands matter,” in online as well as print publishing.

All the News That Fits

The day opened with a keynote address by CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein in which he pointed out the multiplicity of platforms that CNN uses. Indeed, he stressed that CNN’s reporters are encouraged to “think multiplatform in everything they do.” The CNN site has multiple video feeds, some news anchors are not loath to read Tweets on the air, and CNN also has its iReport user-generated news feature. the key, however, is that all this user-generated news content is edited and filtered—that is, verified.

Ultimately, the theme of Day One of ad:tech is that there is no real media war between online and offline. Ultimately, marketers, advertisers, publishers, and news organizations are simply changing their foci in order to deliver content in whatever way the user wants to engage with it. That is, as we all know, a movable feast, and some panelists admitted that in a year’s time, media budgets may shift toward platforms that have yet to appear. And it was ever thus.

Demand for media is driven by those who consume and engage with it, and media choices are made in accordance with that demand. This isn’t anything new by any means, but it’s a discussion that a lot of people are finally having—and will in large part affect the severity of the economic slowdown on the graphic communications industry.

Stay tuned for Day Two...

Please offer your feedback to Richard. He can be reached at richard@whattheythink.com.



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