The high-level disconnect in our conversation about online media and advertising - now in its 14th or 15th year - remains the notion that positioning matters to consumer brands but not consumer media.
Eric Picard's thoughtful piece in iMedia today puts this on display again in his recounting of a panel discussion titled, "The Rise of the Audience Marketplace," at ad:tech in New York a week ago. During the panel, participant Quentin George, Chief Digital Officer at Mediabrands, reportedly observed:
"In a world with such massive overcapacity, the only way for companies to differentiate and capture a disproportionate share of dollars is through building a brand."
This was a very sensible assertion. Hold that thought.
The panel discussion then veered into talk about media planning and buying online with a great deal said about the rise of new buying solutions such as IPG's Cadreon and Publicis Groupe's VivaKi. These fall under the heading of demand-side buying systems, discussed in a recent post to this space.
Demand-side buying systems are energizing media buying companies with a renewed sense of empowerment. There is no harm in this. It represents a transfer of power from certain horizontal networks that have been conducting business this way online for a few years, and keeping the money. Now, the media agencies get to keep the money. The industry needs media agencies (all ad agencies) to feel energized and empowered, so to the extent that certain amounts of planning and buying can be conducted through demand-side agencies, there is no harm in this. Perhaps it will serve as a catalyst to help fix agency comp so that life can continue on a transparent basis ultimately favorable and necessary to marketers.
In the midst of the panel's enthusiasm it sounds like Bill Demas of Turn got up the nerve to suggest that most of the inventory wafting through the demand-side buying systems is non-premium inventory (much as it has always been through the horizontal networks) and that premium inventory is still making it to market thanks to human sales forces and their interactions with human media planners and buyers.
From Eric Picard's recounting it then sounds like Bill Demas's observations disappeared quickly under a pile of demand-side enthusiasts. Fellow panelists pointed-out that the idea of premium inventory is a relative concept. Brands care about quality content, but the quality of the audience is not measured by this alone. Basically, quality does not depend upon context.
This is the important question of our day: is the quality of an audience shaped by the context of its media environment.
Back to Quentin George who was on the panel. As he did, marketers will insist - with every justification - that brands matter, and the more complex the environment, the more imperative the need for brand. Brands differentiate.
What does that mean? It means context. Context is the differentiating agent. Context determines meaning. It is everything to brands. It says so clearly in the dictionary (from Answers.com):
[Middle English, composition, from Latin contextus, from past participle of contexere, to join together : com-, com- + texere, to weave.]
1.The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.
2.The circumstances in which an event occurs; a setting.
Brands are about meaning and circumstance. If they are not, then soap is soap. A car need only be black, as Mr. Ford would have had it, and get a traveler from point A to point B. One smoke would be as good as another. Brands need positioning.
Yes, brands can certainly exist out of context for periods of time, like I can swim under water or a fish can flap on the ground. I use brands all the time unconsciously. But there are no unconscious brand champions and brand loyalists and there are no automated brands. In my house you will get one kind of vodka, which is an otherwise orderless, tasteless, neutral spirit with one purpose that can be met by any run-of-network vodka that will be (fall-down-drunk, for fall-down-drunk) cheaper. Yet, I am loyal to one brand. Go figure.
Let's be frank: really, the question is about money. The world is trying to impose cheap on marketing and context is not cheap. Neither are brands. Our world is hung-up on this problem and we know it. It is a dis-connect if ever there were one.
Truthfully, if there were enough great advertising creative in the world brands might be able to survive out of context. If every ad were brilliant, touching, funny, compelling - even simply polite - advertising could, perhaps, live and breath outside of a naturally supportive, media environment. We are not so fortunate. Advertising is hard. Great advertising is really hard.
As we continue to bang around the miriad opportunities with which the Internet presents us in order to target our best customers let's remember the obvious one, present from the beginning, the one that aligns us most with consumers, the one that made Google particularly rich: context. I don't notice anyone else getting as rich as Google (or Google as rich from anything else).