You can say this about Jim Spanfeller, the outgoing CEO of Forbes.com: he's straightforward. There's very little ambiguity in his piece in Paid Content yesterday, titled "Publishers Are Killing Web Advertising's Potential With Misguided Pricing," which concludes by saying "When it's all said and done, there really is no remnant inventory on the web, just as there is little to no real remnant inventory elsewhere." Jim is exhorting web publishers not to give away value by entrusting it to the "invisible" hand of third parties.
Jim is Chair Emeritus of IAB and Treasurer of OPA, and -- knowing that -- we're conscious that his exhortations are largely directed at the branded media types with whom he spends most of his time. But his message applies to all serious web publishers, not just OPA publishers, which is why the OPA could help itself and many others by acknowledging the content value that extends deep into the long tail of the Internet. It failed to do this with its recent study, "Improving ad performance online" (about which there has been plenty to say in this space) and Jim slipped past the chance again in his paidContent.org commentary yesterday when he said the OPA study "shows the far greater value in buying ad programs directly from publishers" -- a problematic, and somewhat suspicious, claim to the vast majority of publishers online without salespeople of their own.
Buying directly from publishers is not a media value proposition. Buying the value of content, and the audience it attracts, is a media proposition.
Jim Spanfeller is deeply committed to media value and were he invited to speak right at this point he (and possibly also the agents at OPA responsible for their recent study) might hasten to add to his comments that yes, yes, of course, it's about content and the audience it attracts. But, he'd argue, ad networks and other third parties aren't capable of that for publishers. Indeed, in most cases, they are prevented from doing so because they are restricted from guaranteeing web sites and positions. Many of them are blind. So, selling the value of the website is actually antithetical to their offering and they, along with participating publishers are "killing web advertising's potential."
Indeed, it's a shame, but as it turns out the online system has evolved with a built-in value cap: a governor that keeps the Internet motor from racing. And, it's hard to rail against those market forces as Jim Spanfeller is conscientiously doing in order to remove the governor and change behaviors.
To succeed, you need leverage which has been the point in taking aim at the OPA study released two weeks ago that failed to differentiate among ad networks, or other third parties that sell value, or offer a nod to thousands of independent web publishers who don't have their own salespeople, but surely have their own audiences! These publishers can provide leverage to the media value argument online with their passion -- as partners, members of a branded content network, or simply (affordable) dues payers.
It's been said here to anybody who will listen: imagine an OPA (or IAB, or party-to-be-named-later) Annual Meeting 10 years from now with 10,000 people attending, mostly publishers. Think MacWorld. Maybe the Javits Center in New York will hold them. All of them excited to be there to talk about publishing issues. All of them with stories to tell about how their website is different and makes a difference. All of them intimidated by the very big Time Warner booth with an invitation over top that reads "Be Part Of The Biggest Content Network in the World!"; all of them whispering as Tim Armstrong walks by; all of them standing in line at the Google booth ("Why Paid Search Still Works For You!"); all of them sitting with their arms folded across their chest listening critically to the panel of senior ad agency executives talking about partnership and performance. Maybe twenty-five hundred of them in the audience blogging and Tweeting and whatever-elsing as the Global Agency Director General of All Things Bright and Beautiful rumbles on about the importance of partnership and performance "with all of you of who are so closely connected to the audiences online that are our most important customers."
Even if OPA publishers won't listen to Jim Spanfeller there are many, many others that will. And they can help, if invited.