June 27, 2017

David Bell, Are You Grateful for Digital?


David Bell was elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2007. With leadership and advisory roles at companies like Google, AOL and Bozell (to name a few) peppering his resume, he knows a thing or two about advertising — and more specifically, about digital. We’re fortunate to have a legitimate luminary like David on the Board of Directors at PebblePost, especially one who’s been involved in digital since day one.

David’s seen the best and the worst of the digital age, from the first banners, to the bust in 2001, through today’s rapid growth. What’s great about speaking to him is that, for starters, the rose-colored glasses are off at this point. David has no illusions about what digital is and isn’t. He’s also deep enough in the industry to see every aspect of it, while having that visionary ability to see the future of digital without getting mired in the weeds. So with that, here are some of David’s pearls of wisdom.

So, David Bell, are you grateful for digital?

“For the most part, yes. Digital has transformed the landscape of all advertising for the better, but not without a few stumbling blocks along the way. We’re at one of those stumbling blocks today, but more on that shortly.

In the early days, many of the traditional agency powerhouses dismissed digital as something that could never be as powerful as television platforms, and as something that would certainly never make money. In short order, specialist agencies began to spring up, mostly focused on building websites. A handful got smart about marketing. (Modem Media, which went public in 1998, is one example.)

Those who weren’t skeptics believed that digital would replace everything in the world! At a Wall Street Journal conference I attended in 2000, the pundits predicted the death of all other media; everything non-digital was sure to perish.

Then, 2001, the dot-com bubble burst, and the skeptics took great pleasure in telling everyone they’d been right all along. They’d always believed that digital had been over-hyped, under-delivered and would never be profitable.

Of course, we’ve proved them wrong since then. Digital has grown up and diversified itself. There are all kinds of digital agencies now, and even the traditional agencies have practices in search, social, programmatic and other areas. It’s an imperative now: an agency absolutely must have digital expertise to survive. It’s part of everything we do.”

So what are those stumbling blocks you’re seeing, and how do they affect your level of gratitude?

“The biggest stumbling block today is transparency. We’re in the midst of what I refer to as ‘The Great Trust Crisis.’ This is caused, in large part, by agency complicity in bot fraud. We should be doing everything in our power to combat NHT, but in many cases, it made campaign performance look better, so we didn’t.

The Great Trust Crisis is exacerbated by trading desks transparency in the programmatic age. We’ve been talking about this issue, the so-called black box for years, and we still haven’t done enough. Procurement departments on the client side don’t have a solid understanding of the value equation, and that doesn’t help. And then you have media companies, who roll over when they’re confronted with the possibility of being excluded from a buy unless they discount by some predetermined percentage.

The whole landscape is impacted by this Trust Crisis. The industry’s self-measurement problems, exemplified by Google and Facebook’s video advertising lately, make the whole situation even worse. How can you trust any industry that insists on grading its own homework?

This crisis, however, is just a symptom of growing pains within our rapidly expanding industry. It doesn’t change my gratitude for digital at all. We’re just going to have to work through it.”

Are there are other crises on the horizon? Are you as optimistic about those?

“We have a crisis of experience, as well, which you touched on in your first editorial. In digital, we have a bad habit of seeing ‘opportunity’ and transforming it into ‘interruption’. It’s become an Experience Crisis. We’ve put advertising in places where people don’t necessarily want it or expect it. Think about Facebook, for example. Our visits there are purpose-driven. We want to connect with people, to communicate or tell stories. We’re not there for advertising. This is in contrast to search: on search we’re looking for something specific, and advertising isn’t only expected, it’s often helpful.

Our misunderstanding and misuse of these platforms has contributed to a decline in the impact of display advertising. That decline is compounded by the predominance of mobile and the weakness of the ad experience for that channel. There are a few ways to legitimately surprise consumers — at least, not without creating a brutal user experience. Programmatic is not an end. The kind of experience with impact that spurs action is.  We will rebalance the idea/engagement context equation with data-driven technology. 

This crisis of experience is something we’ll solve, as we better learn how to use data to inform creative, and gain a deeper understanding of how all channels interact with each other and affect the user. It will take time, but we’ll get there.”


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