The Cheng and Ch'i of Online Advertising - Jaffer Ali - MediaBizBlogger

By Jaffer Ali Archives

British General: Then I think I can speak for Field Marshal Montgomery. He'd say you're asking the impossible of your men.

George S. Patton: Of course he would. Cause he's never realized that's what we're in business for.

I've been spending a lot of time lately writing about the soul of online advertising. Much of what I've written has been either misinterpreted or misunderstood, for which I accept most of the blame. My only defense is my contention that dialectical concepts don't necessarily lend themselves to simple narrative and/or articulation.

My intended audience is the growing culture of online advertising professionals; my perspective one of an insider who makes his living from the fruits of our labor. My point of departure is my abiding belief in the profound potential of what we're in business for. This matters a great deal to me because I am distressed by how we have reduced history's grandest communication tool to specious analytics that belie our purpose.

Conventional media wisdom has always been to invest our trust in the numbers, because the numbers don't lie. Let me suggest that there is no wisdom or truth to this misguided notion, and that we'd perhaps be better served by taking a long look back to see how best to move forward. With this in mind, please allow me to introduce you to the ancient concepts of cheng and ch'i.

No, cheng and ch'i isn't some B-team comedy duo armed with a Zig-Zag endorsement. Cheng and ch'i were first promulgated 2,500 years ago by the Chinese general, Sun Tzu, in his brilliant treatise, Art of War. I am in debt to military strategist John Boyd and even more so to Chet Richards for introducing these twin concepts to the business lexicon.

Cheng and ch'i defy strict translations, but for our purposes, here are the definitions:

Cheng: Conventional tactics or strategy. That which is expected.

Ch'i: Unconventional tactics or strategy. Going beyond that which is expected.

Patton, a student of cheng/ch'i knew that doing "the impossible" obviously went beyond the expected. This was ch'i which was the driving principle that inspired him.

Cheng and ch'i are like yin and yang in that the two are complimentary and inextricably entwined. They can also be transformed into each other. Think about this for a minute. What is at first unexpected becomes expectation over time. For example, witnessing your child's first steps is delightful ch'i. After a few months, it becomes cheng or "old hat".

It can also be the case that one person's cheng is another's ch'i.

Let's apply these precepts to our common cause. For the quants among us, online analytics based on sophisticated metrics is mother's milk. It's both necessary and expected; pure cheng if you will. Accordingly, only the newest, fastest, most complex behavioral algorithms can achieve ch'i status in their eyes. But neither today's quantifiable cheng, nor tomorrow's equally vapid ch'i move us any closer to understanding what we're in business for. That's because cheng and ch'i comprise a belief system that transcends measurement. With this in mind, allow me to share with you the inspiration behind our own online business model, Vidsense.

Vidsense is a pay-per-click video network; cheng pure and simple. Vidsense uses a conventional metric—cost-per-click—as its coin of the realm. Approximately 50% of all online advertising is sold on a per-click basis, with Google the largest practitioner.

Not so long ago, pay-per-click was new and innovative. It was delightful ch'i compared to its CPM-based predecessor. But paying for clicks is no longer revolutionary, innovative, or particularly clever. Paying for clicks is now decidedly cheng.

With Vidsense, we place our weight of effort behind a new paradigm that achieves the ch'i necessary to keep us focused on what we're in business for. We deliver clicks like any other pay-per-click network, but we do it in a manner that forges a genuine bond between brand and consumer. Essentially, we transform advertisers from their traditional role as hunters into a more actionable portrayal as the hunted. Let me explain:

Vidsense engages consumers on their own terms predicated on our belief that the best way to target your audience in an on-demand medium is to let them target you instead.

For example, we recently conducted a successful campaign for Just for Men's Touch of Gray. The objective was clear: Get boomer-aged men to visit Touch of Gray's website where they could take advantage of a line-extension launch promotion.

To do this, we placed demographically targeted thumbnail links to popular TV and movie clips across compatible publishers within our vast network of more than 20,000 safe-for-work websites. Consumers who clicked on a thumbnail were transported directly to Touch of Gray's website where the chosen clip was then viewed within the exclusive confines of Touch of Gray's carefully branded environment.

The results speak for themselves: Of the 165,000 Vidsense-generated click-throughs, fully 85% fell within Touch of Gray's prime target demo of men 45+. 90% were unique visitors, and more than a thousand took advantage of a free coupon offer. These 165,000 visitors collectively spent nearly 6,600 hours on Just for Men's website, literally surrounded by the Touch of Gray brand.

Technically, we were selling the click (cheng). But we delivered something totally unexpected (ch'i). By honoring viewer choice and fulfilling expectations, we delivered a happy camper directly to the advertiser's online showroom. The hunter became the hunted, and everybody was satisfied. The content served as a common meeting ground reminiscent of advertising times gone by. Cheng and ch'i were employed together, inextricably entwined in pursuit of what we're in business for.

In another recent article of mine, Has the Online Industry Lost Its Schwerpunkt?, I invoke another military stratagem to analogize how and where to best place our weight of effort. I suggest by proxy that there is an appalling lack of ch'i in today's online media ecology. From my insider's perspective, measurement is necessary, but not a means to its own end! Numerical analysis ad nauseum is the easy part—that's what computers do best. But this is not ch'i. This is not where we should focus our intent; not where we should place our weight of effort.

I believe we can do better as an industry than to settle for the same old cheng. Or worse, try to convince ourselves that our cheng is ch'i. We need more creativity. We need innovation that reaches beyond algorithmic reduction. We need to embrace quality at every turn. We need to position relationships at the fulcrum of everything we do. We need cheng AND ch'i. Our schwerpunkt demands it, and to paraphrase George Patton, it's what we're in business for.

About Jaffer Ali Jaffer Ali is CEO of Vidsense, the Web's largest video advertising network. With more than 80,000 advertiser-friendly video clips licensed from major film and TV studios, the Vidsense network of more than 20,000 safe-for-work partner websites delivers millions of qualified visitors directly to advertiser websites on a pure Pay-Per-Click (PPC) basis. Vidsense is to Adsense what video is to print -- a far more engaging and compelling environment for consumers and advertisers alike.

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