Having recently joined my third programmatic digital marketing company, I could have experienced a “what have I got myself back into?” moment as 2017 wound down. First, the ANA Masters of Marketing (MoM) conference “Visionary Marketer of the Year” award went to Procter & Gamble (P&G) Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard who won the honor in part by withholding $140 million worth of digital ad spend. Furthermore, Pritchard used the MoM forum as a bully pulpit, labeling digital a “crap trap” and declaring, “We will vote with our dollars and will not waste our money on a crappy media supply chain.”
Tell us what you really think, Marc.Several weeks later, at NBCUniversal’s State of the Industry Forum, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt piled on, asserting that “consumers are running away from advertising in droves.”
That drumbeat of criticism directed at digital advertising could have been severely demoralizing to a marketing industry veteran. Instead, it reinforced why I made this career move.
What He Said
For one thing, those high-profile critics simply echoed what the head of my new company, PebblePost, has been saying for a while. Compare the three quotes below:
“Insist on programmatic ads that guarantee viewability with no fraud. Demand transparency in knowing where your ad is going in terms of relevance so that the message and the medium are aligned. Work with publishers who provide a good experience for their viewers so that your ad is presented in a positive user environment.”
— PebblePost Founder, Chairman and CEO Lewis Gersh, June 2016
“[We are] demanding transparent agency contracts so we know what our agencies do with our money; eliminating fraud so we know humans see our ads, not robots; ensuring brand safety so we know our ads show up in the right place, not in a terrorist video.”
— P&G Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard, October 2017
“We need to get to a point where people watch ads for a reason and there is much less interruption.”
— NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt, November 2017
In the column quoted above, Lewis predicted that brands would start doing exactly what P&G did a few months after the column appeared: “Will digital marketing die? No. Will brands invest less? Yes … but a correction will be a healthy step. It will lead to a smaller pool of more powerful vendors, stronger results and a more sustainable industry through a better user experience for the consumer.”
Hearing my new boss’s words in my head as I strolled around the Masters of Marketing conference was reassuring. But MoM provided positive reinforcement in many other ways as well.
Using (and Abusing) Consumer Utilities
Among the MoM events I attended were a lunch sponsored by Google, a lunch sponsored by Facebook and a breakfast sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service. It dawned on me that none of these three institutions was founded with the primary goal of driving ad dollars. Instead, the idea in each case was simply to connect vast numbers of people in a positive way. (You can add the institution behind NBCUniversal’s State of the Industry Forum — television — to the list.)
The U.S. Postal Service was the original social network. (Founded in 1775, it’s older than the United States itself.) It enabled people to stay in touch with far-flung friends, family and colleagues for the price of a stamp. Facebook provided essentially the same kind of connection, updated for the digital age — and you didn’t even need to pay for a stamp.
If Facebook was the new post office, Google was the new public library, making vast amounts of information digitally searchable — again, for free.
With these remarkable consumer utilities available as advertising venues, marketers acted with an unfortunate, if predictable, lack of restraint.
Connecting the Dots
The abuses in digital mirror the earlier abuses in direct mail, as Lewis Gersh has also pointed out: “When some CMOs see diminishing returns from the new technology, they double down on efficiency at the expense of efficacy. They overuse the technology to the point of abusing the consumer, who then rebels. We saw it with the devolution of direct mail to junk mail and of email to spam and display ads into stalking. A consumer shouldn’t need a restraining order for six weeks to look at a pair of socks.”
And again, Pritchard echoed that several months later: “Excess frequency is a massive source of waste, and it really annoys consumers. No wonder ad blockers are growing 20 percent a year. I mean, how many times does a person need to see a toilet paper ad to get the point?”
The problem with junk mail was that it was basically a giant confetti cannon, raining collateral down on entire neighborhoods rather than targeting only those consumers who had expressed an interest in the product or service being offered.
Digital solved the relevance problem to a degree, delivering one-to-one marketing messages, but it failed on both the frequency and contextual fronts. Unlike the U.S. mail, which arrived once a day and allowed the recipient to sort through messages on their own time and in their own way, digital bombarded consumers at all hours of the day and night, often interrupting their on-screen experience.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could combine the best features of those mass consumer utilities and eliminate the abuses?
That brings me back to why the 2017 ANA Masters of Marketing conference made me feel so fortunate to be at PebblePost. We enable our customers to use the best of digital to communicate with consumers who have raised their hands to express some level of interest and then reach out to them in a very respectful, informative, infrequent way. To put it another way: We connect buyer and seller when they’re ready to have a conversation.
And to put it yet another way: This cool new company called PebblePost has been incredibly innovative in responding to the needs of the Marc Pritchards and Bob Greenblatts of the world.