5Qs: OPA’s Pam Horan on the Threat of Losing Advertising’s Art

As president of the Online Publishers Association, Pam Horan leads a trade group of some of the largest brand publishers. The industry veteran talks about the continued shortcomings the Internet has in its perception as inhospitable for branding, the threat of losing the art from digital advertising, and the future of the much-maligned banner ad. Follow her on Twitter @OPA_PamHoran.
What’s the biggest issue facing publishers right now?
It’s continuing to find ways to demonstrate to marketers how to leverage the platform to invest more significantly with their brand dollars. The opportunity for us to continue to increase the digital budget will be tied to helping marketers see ways to deliver their messages. To date much of online advertising has been tied to more direct campaigns. We’re starting to make inroads. We need to find compelling ways to deliver creative with their brand message. The introduction of the OPA ad units were specifically designed to provide marketers with a larger palette to deliver those brand messages. They realize they can deliver a different experience through these larger units. A consistent concern is the lack of creative that’s compelling and innovative. We’re starting to see better creative. We’ve seen the results in consumer attention. Creative has to be one of the key drivers. The industry also needs a set of metrics that brand marketers can easily understand and they can apply across platforms. The click isn’t good to measure brand impact. It needs to be addressed. But it won’t be fixed overnight.
Is audience-based buying a threat to publishers?
We see these pendulums swing in terms of the trend of the day. This is one there’s been a lot of attention paid to. There’s value in looking at audience, but I think there’s a lot to be said about the value of a contextual environment. There’s enough research that where your message appears is as important as the message itself. There’s a place for audience buying. It’s not something a marketer is going to do 100 percent. There are certain economies of scale by employing this technique. At the end of the day our business is based on a combination of art and science. If everything becomes science the results will be negative. We’ll lose some of the magic from the art. We can’t lose sight of that as important aspect.
Facebook’s now 31 percent of ad impression. Is Facebook the next big threat for online publishers?
It’s been an amazing partner for many publishers. At the end of the day a social environment drives a specific engagement. We’ve got wonderful examples of marketers working with [brand]  publishers to leverage the social web and take advantage of the community that the publisher already has. American Express did a program with iVillage where they leveraged the community iVillage already established. They identified a topic of how to manage your personal finance. There’s an opportunity for how publishers can leverage it as far as their own brand. I don’t think of it as friend or foe. Facebook’s not going to be appropriate for everything the marketer is going to accomplish. People typically go to Facebook to find what their friends are doing. It’s a great source of information. We looked at the connections people have with content across content sites, networks and portals. We saw the connection with the content on OPA sites is more significant than on Facebook. It drives better results in terms of the consumer mindset.
How can publishers get out of the commoditization trap with so much ad inventory out there?
Each is looking at their own business strategy and deciding what makes the best sense. We have many members who have decided to no longer work with ad networks. They wanted to sell through more. They found they were facing challenges with the ad networks where they weren’t fulfilling on the contract that it would be a blind network buy. Many of our members found that even though they weren’t selling as much, they’d increase their CPMs. Over time the amount of sell through has varied. There’s quite a bit of inventory. It’s led to a lot of commoditization. Not all inventory is created equal. If you look at the average CPM Facebook is getting, it is about 85 cents and the industry average is $2.50 — and our publishers get a premium. The plethora of inventory has create a commoditization.
What’s the future of the banner ad?
We took an approach to introduce these new units two years ago. We wanted to get marketers to think about the platform differently. They weren’t designed to replace the IAB units. They’re premium units. We were trying to create scarcity. We didn’t want to create something that would result in banner blindness. The IAB in February came out with six new ad units.  We have to create some standardization to have scalability. The lack of great creativity is much more of an issue than what the size is. It’s less the banner has lived its life, it’s what are we going to do with the thing.
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