In his classic literary work, “Walden,” Henry David Thoreau sums up his suggested strategy for living a life of truth and value: “Simplify! Simplify!” I have been a fan of both the author and his philosophy since my college days, but as I have aged I have come to learn that there are times when simplifying a complex issue leads to a static view of an inherently fluid situation. In these cases, rather than creating clarity, simplification can lead to a good deal of confusion.
As the head of marketing for a company at the very heart of online display advertising, I enjoy the challenge of developing more and more concise ways of explaining a landscape that becomes more and more complicated with every passing year. This being the case, I seek out tools that help present the interrelation of the landscape’s many players and categories (ad networks, demand-side platforms, data providers, ad servers, exchanges, etc.) so that people can understand where my company fits into the puzzle.
One such tool, Terence Kawaja’s Display LUMAscape slide, has no doubt been referenced hundreds of thousands of times by now. In an effort to bring clarity to a confusing and chaotic display advertising landscape, Kawaja amassed nearly every player in the field and placed their logos into high-level classification buckets. Kawaja then attached these buckets with a series of arrows that showed the apparent “flow” from advertiser to publisher.
I remember first seeing the Kawaja slide and being thrilled to have a tool that helps explain to my father – a smart man for whom his son’s industry was a mystery – how what I did related to the more common names he knew like Google and Yahoo. For many, I assume, the slide served as a road map for a town that they may have visited now and then but never knew exactly how to navigate. This kind of instant understanding was, indeed, powerful.
And yet, the Luma slide concerned me. You see, while my company made the slide – and I do not disagree that the bucket we were placed into represented a good starting place for describing what we do – the truth is that there were other buckets I knew we could have also been placed into. I knew there were assets we bring to the table that are dismissed by this static view of the industry. And, as the landscape has only grown more littered, I realize that my concerns were well founded.
As often happens with tools that serve to make the complicated easy, the Kawaja slide is now a crutch our industry relies on. For some, referencing the slide falsely means they don’t have to ask the deeper questions to find out what a company actually does. After all, it’s right there in front of them. But the truth is that most of the companies on the slide do not simply handle one part of the puzzle. What about the exchange that built an industry-leading ad server? Or what about the ad network that offers vast horizontal reach but also offers its inventory in customized verticals while providing its own first-party data as well as seamless integration of all major third-party data providers? What buckets do they go? Assuming that the static snapshot contains all the information needed about a company easily leads to more confusion about the ecosystem’s true dynamics.
Like anything that simplifies a process, Kawaja’s slide is a great tool, but smart advertisers and brands shouldn’t let their understanding of it keep them from asking partners, “What else can you bring to the table?” Perhaps Thoreau himself would best be rewritten as “Simplify! Simplify! … But don’t forget to ask the right questions.”
David Shay is evp of marketing at CPX Interactive.
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