The Ad Contrarian’s Reality Check

Those in digital media like to lampoon the out-of-control egos of traditional media titans. Well, you know what they say about those in glass houses. Hoffman/Lewis CEO Bob Hoffman has taken it upon himself to keep the digital media snake-oil salesmen in check with his AdContrarian alter ego. He spoke with Digiday about the smoke and mirrors the “idiots” and “headline-grabbing nitwits” in the digital game are using to obscure basics weaknesses in the sector.

What are the biggest myths in digital marketing?
The biggest myth is that the digital ad industry knows what the hell it’s talking about. Almost every “expert” and “industry leader” who has made predictions about digital advertising over the past 10 years has turned out to be wrong. They told us interactivity would make advertising more effective and engaging. It hasn’t. Consumers have shown no inclination to interact with online advertising. They told us traditional advertising was on the way out. Anyone who believes this must have slept through the Olympics. They told us that the DVR was going to devastate the effectiveness of TV advertising. Studies have shown it has had little to no effect on consumer purchasing behavior. They told us the PC and the television were going to converge. They haven’t. They have have had a parade of social media miracle cures that were going to “change everything” — blogs, podcasts, widgets, YouTube, Facebook, games, Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare, Pinterest, QR codes and, of course, now content. Mostly they have turned out to be over-hyped, marginally-to-moderately effective marketing tools that have not been game-changers, as advertised. The digital ad industry is unreliable at best, and irresponsible at worst.

In what way is the digital ad industry irresponsible?
You mean you haven’t read my books? OK, here are a couple. First is qualitatively. They initially sold us on “banner” advertising by telling us that display ads would be so much more effective than static print ads because people would interact with them. Then when they found no one was interacting (clicking) they changed their story. Now, according to many in the industry, clicking (interaction) means nothing, and display ads are effective because of their “branding” value. So the thing they were selling against is now what they’re selling. Second is quantitatively. We still have no idea how many clicks are fraudulent or how many are mistakes. But we’re paying for all of them. This has been a problem for years and no one seems to be in a hurry to fix it.

What about social media? Is it “the future of marketing?”
I never predict the future. I’d rather make fun of the idiots who are always wrong than be one of them. All I can tell you is thus far social media marketing has not proven to me that is anywhere near the magic it was supposed to be. Social media itself has been a huge worldwide phenomenon. But social media marketing, compared to what was promised, has been a flat tire. Ask the investors in Facebook.

So social media has no role to play in marketing?
Of course social media has a role to play. I actually like social media. I enjoy writing my blog. I enjoy exchanging idiotic crap with my Facebook friends. And I use Twitter to promote my blog. I think social media can provide value. The problem is there’s a lunatic fringe in the social media community that wants us to believe that social media is the answer to all problems, that it has “changed everything”, that advertising, marketing, television, and everything else is “dead”, that social media can give us a 4-hour erection and cure athlete’s foot. In the eyes of intelligent and thoughtful marketers these maniacs are viewed as snake oil salesmen. Worst of all, these are the people who the press loves to quote. It’s doing a lot of damage to the credibility of the industry.

Television is dead?
Haven’t you heard? TV advertising has been dead now for about 7 years. It doesn’t matter that TV viewing is at its highest point ever. The digerati declared it dead in 2005 and it has remained dead. Don’t be fooled by all those spots you’re seeing. Apparently Coke and McDonald’s and Toyota and Apple never got the memo.

Aren’t those budgets moving online as people consume more video content there?
No. The last reliable numbers I saw — I think it was a Nielsen Cross Platform Report from last year — showed that 98 percent of total video viewing was done on a television. Less than 2 percent was done online. Of course, this will change over time, but the idea that the web will steal all TV viewership is wrong. Remember, TiVo was supposed to ruin TV. Go back ten years and read the literature. Live TV was supposed to be dead and buried by now. The most reliable numbers I’ve seen — one study by the Duke grad school of business and one by Ball State University — indicated that about 5 percent of total TV viewing is time-shifted. People like TV, get used to it.

When can we expect “The Year of Mobile?”
1974 was the year of mobile. It’s when I bought my first car.

So what problems should the digital ad industry address?
From someone inside the advertising beltway, the most important thing for the digital advertising industry to do is to get the loud-mouth, headline-grabbing nitwits to shut up. There is place for digital advertising and there is a place for social media. We know search works. We know there are strategies for display and social media that are effective. I want them to succeed. I want to have as many ways as possible to help my clients sell their stuff. Five years ago digital advertising and social media were novelties with unlimited promise. Today, everyone has tried them. Everyone has an online ad program. Everyone has a social media program. We know what they can do and what they can’t do. The industry can’t continue to allow its lunatic fringe to tell us that it’s magic and everything else is dead. We know better.

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