Killed by the Online Cure - Jeff Einstein

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Part 1 of 3: Brand Safety

Much has been written lately about the extraordinary high-tech measures taken by major online publishers, ad networks, exchanges and agencies to protect advertisers against the very real possibility of adverse brand exposure. Of course, network transparency is little more than a prophylactic concession to the sheer toxicity of the digital channels and their patent inability to engender meaningful reach for big brands without submitting them to intolerable levels of risk.

Structurally, network transparency is really a euphemism to describe an entirely new subset of high-tech intermediaries who contribute nothing whatsoever to the efficacy of online branding and who exist exclusively to warrant the brand safety of volume buys. Purely defensive. Purely CYA. Essentially, network transparency exists only to facilitate the sale of work product (online advertising) that can no longer be sold in any kind of scale without extraordinary guarantees, a work product that no one outside the industry even wants (statistically, at least).

Online advertising nowadays is a textbook example of polypharmacy at work -- what happens when drugs prescribed to treat one symptom create new symptoms that require additional drugs that create more new symptoms that all require more drugs. Eventually, the unmanageable presence of so many drugs in the bloodstream at one time all but guarantees vastly elevated levels of systemic toxicity and risk, compels increasingly costly and radical treatment, and destroys any meaningful measure of accountability. Eventually, the cure -- layer upon layer of invasive technologies and drugs -- kills the patient. All in the name of defensive medicine.

Likewise, each additional layer of high-tech online intermediaries gets stacked atop and interacts with previous layers of high-tech intermediaries, each designed to compensate in some way, shape or form for a specific weakness presented by a model that delivers a work product no one asks for, no one wants and everyone is equipped to avoid. The vicious cycle continues as complexity begets more complexity. Eventually, increased complexity begets systemic instability wherein the system literally turns against itself, the way an auto-immune disease attacks the body (most typically in some unanticipated and unintended fashion per Marshall McLuhan's simple but prescient observation that media systems pushed to extreme will begin to operate in reverse). The same observation applied to the aversion of brand risk online strongly suggests that the risks we seek to avoid in the first place will eventually be dwarfed by the unintended consequences -- including the collapse of an ecosystem that can no longer support the presence of so many high-tech intermediaries -- wrought by the extraordinary measures we take to avoid them, not the least of which is the stealth collection, manipulation and transfer of extremely sensitive behavioral data.

In the above regard, the promise of unintended consequences is one that attends the wholesale introduction of any intermediary technology into a media ecosystem already far too overpopulated and overtaxed by far too many intermediary technologies. True to Mr. McLuhan's sage observation, each layer of intermediary ad technology added to the mix over the years -- without exception -- has driven performance down instead of up and driven costs up instead of down, contrary to all expectations and all industry representations. For instance, our misguided obsessions with online targeting have all but destroyed our ability to sell scalable reach -- the only non-discretionary line item in any big branding spend, and the reason why digital media budgets remain so miserly compared to their TV counterparts, despite the rapid erosion of TV reach in recent years and despite the equally rapid growth of digital inventory. More on that next time in Killed by the Online Cure, Part 2 of 3: Scalable Reach.

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