‘Cookie chasers’: Confessions of a digital media veteran

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Today, we spent some time talking to a digital media veteran for their take on the state of the industry.

For this executive, with over two decades of experience in digital media, the industry is still in its “awkward years,” with many challenges looming and publishers scrambling to find new ways to make money in an environment where programmatic ad buying has commoditized traditional display ads. At the same time, agencies are often acting in their own interests rather than those of their clients, leaving publishers to try to act themselves like agencies. Good luck with that.

Our executive’s answers have been edited for clarity.

What’s your take on the current state of digital media?
We are in our awkward teenage years. We’re not sure if we’ve created something good or something bad. The future is fraught with challenges.

What’s the biggest one?
Basically, the digital world hasn’t progressed beyond cookie chasers, as much as people would like to think otherwise. We’re still in “see a cookie, hit a cookie” for marketers.

That’s why publishers want to act like ad agencies and create content for marketers.
Every publisher is trying to be an ad agency and every ad agency is trying to be a data company. Where is that circuitous logic going to take us? There’s not much differentiation for publishers. When has the agency business been a wonderful business? You have five agency companies that are basically banks. They don’t make much money other than the float of the money clients give them that they hold until they give it to publishers. The other part of [the agency business] is arbitrage from trading desks, which has its own problems. Why do you think as a publisher you’d be successful in joining that industry?

You’re not high on agencies, I see.
Agencies only do things now that make their agencies money. Client needs are a distant second to things that will profit their own agencies. They love the complex nature of the business because it keeps their clients needing them. But if the agency business was so great, why would clients keep changing agencies every two years?

What’s an inconvenient truth about how media works that people need to accept?
There’s a wide group of middle-management dissenters who don’t feel like doing things a different way, on all sides. TV sales people want to sell TV, not addressable. They don’t want to bundle in digital. The people who buy TV just want to buy TV and not have to worry about performance data or ingesting a data feed. They just want to buy GRPs.

There’s a drumbeat of talk that the ad model is broken. Evan Williams said as much in blaming “ad-driven media” for Medium’s problems.
Nothing has changed since when he started that business. Technology guys always think there’s a way around these things. Brilliant technologists always say they’ll do things without advertising and then they do advertising. The business hasn’t changed. I’m not sure what he was expecting.

Are you fearful of the Google-Facebook duopoly?
It’s not different now. Ten years ago, there were four; now there are two. It’s not a big difference. It’s more convenient to blame [the duopoly], but this problem — the many ad dollars in the hands of the few — has been around since Google became a real business.

Video is looked to as saving a lot of digital media companies. Will it?
If it was that easy, everyone would do it. Picking great shows will always be hard. It’s foolish because you think there’s a higher CPM for video that’s the answer to your problem. They’re only doing video because the CPMs are different. It won’t be the answer. It just shifts the ad format from a terrible banner to something less terrible.

What’s been the impact of programmatic on publishers?
Fairly terrible. You’re completely removing the value of your content and shifting it to the consumer’s cookie and retargeting. Programmatic has not been any net benefit, in any scalable way, to any individual publisher. If it was otherwise, people wouldn’t hire sales teams. But programmatic is still the stepping stone to hiring a direct sales force to talk to clients about the value of your audience and the value of your property.

Are you skeptical of distributed media on platforms?
You’re never going to have a long-term beach head. You’ll be renters forever. You can make some money there, but you’re constantly renting and not owning. You’re renting the platform, the tech and the relationship with the audience. You can’t complain when one day it goes away.


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