The web is the most dynamic and inventive medium to ever exist. So when it comes to digital advertising, creativity should be unbounded. A publisher should, in theory, be able to radically differentiate its media kit from other publishers in order to win direct sales and deliver unparalleled impact and performance to its partners. But they don’t — because they’ve been focused on what ad tech says publishers should do, and not the things they can actually do.
Consider something as simple as the classic glossy magazine advertisement. How do you take the power of a full-page, glossy magazine ad and bring that same experience to display advertising? There probably aren’t many ways to do that within the confines of IAB standard ad units, for example.
Ad tech has revolutionized ad buying and selling over the past decade. Programmatic platforms have made digital marketing at scale easier than ever. That’s got its upsides, primarily for agencies and ad tech’s bottom line. But in the process, it has cut out much of the creativity and impact that advertising campaigns have historically been known for. You can only fit so much branding power into a medium rectangle or a leaderboard.
In order to deliver digital campaigns at scale, ad tech relies on two critical ingredients: standardization and commoditization. Both are stifling the effectiveness and creativity of digital advertising. By enforcing strict standards on creative sizes and other key elements, ad tech facilitates digital campaigns on the open web. This necessarily introduces the commoditization of display inventory. From a brand’s view, all inventory is more or less alike, increasing supply and driving publisher revenues down.
The low barrier to entering the digital publishing space has led to an explosion of digital inventory, making it even harder for brands to differentiate between publishers. Local news sites, B2B sites, niche sites, and even blogs are competing against larger media companies for advertising dollars. Ad spend is spread so thin, especially after middlemen take their bite, it’s making it difficult for niche and small publishers to survive — even when they might be a better, more targeted fit for a given brand.
While marching in lock-step with ad tech, publishers have given up a major advantage they had in the fight for ad revenue: Complete autonomy over their websites and media kits. Most publishers cannot honestly say that there is anything about their business, apart from the size of their audience and content focus, that differentiates it.
Differentiation is critical to any business’ competitive success; without it, the chances of survival are bleak. This leaves three important items for both publishers and advertisers to consider.
- There Will Always Be a Serious Need for Direct Sales – If brands want to deliver high impact campaigns online, they’ll need to work directly with the publisher. The individual publisher has the power to facilitate campaigns that simply can’t be trafficked throughout the open web. Site skins, pushdowns, and branded content are some of the more rudimentary ways that this is currently taking place, but the availability of options will certainly expand in the coming years.
- Savvy Publishers Will Find Ways to Expand Creative Offerings – Smart publishers won’t wait for brands to pitch ideas for high-impact campaigns. They’ll actively brainstorm new ideas, and they’ll find ways to work them into their media kits and pitches. The cost of these campaign executions will undoubtedly come at a premium, but in addition to higher ROIs, the cost of such campaigns will eventually be driven down. Wherever there is an opportunity to reduce costs in a market, a disruptive service provider will eventually intervene.
- Publishers and Marketers Will Find Ways to Deliver High Impact Campaigns At Lower Prices – Not every publisher or brand has the budget to create custom campaigns. When they do, there can be unexpectedly high design and development costs. In time, third party creative companies will find ways to alleviate those problems by developing off-the-shelf creative options that publishers and advertisers can purchase and utilize to deliver the kind of impact and performance that they’ll have a hard time achieving otherwise.
Sacrificing Autonomy To Bow To Adtech Is A Losing Proposition
High click rates, ROI, and brand impact have all been negatively affected by the standardization and commoditization required to make advertising work at scale. That leaves open new opportunities for publishers and marketers to reclaim the creativity and success that was once theirs.
Proponents of ad tech will undoubtedly argue that programmatic advertising is both an inevitability and a wonderful thing for publishers and advertisers alike because it lowers the cost of the sale and gives more publishers a piece of the pie. Standards are simply technical requirements to make that work.
It’s doubtful that publishers (the ones that are still standing anyway), would heartily agree. Adtech’s success has largely been publishing’s misfortune. But it’s up to those same publishers to find ways to fight back by rethinking their approach to ad sales.