It seems like just yesterday we were wondering if old technology systems were going to come to a screeching halt as the clocks and calendars went from 23:59:59, 12/31/99 to 00:00:00, 01/01/00, leaving global populations without electricity, airplanes or working alarm clocks.
It's hard to believe that we're now halfway through the year 2008.
With the world moving faster and faster and change coming upon us more suddenly and completely than it used to, the typical industry year-in-review no longer seems adequate. With so much happening, and so many news sources reporting on these events on an ongoing basis, it's now necessary to take a look back at the year when it is only six months old. We've got to remind ourselves about what's been happening in the last few months, or risk forgetting about what was the most important thing just a few weeks ago.
A number of developments in the digital advertising space seem worth revisiting, now that the incessant wash of the new has so quickly eroded the impact of the old -- even if old is only old by a few months.
Funny thing is, if you take a look back at what really were the biggest news stories in our industry in the past six months, there's only one character that is constant: Yahoo. Of the six stories and trends I felt deserved a second look, three and a half of them relate to Yahoo. While I suppose some of those could be collapsed into a single subject, they each represent something different -- something about what's been going on in our business and what we might have to look forward to
So, what has been going on in our business? Let's get started.
1. Microsoft's unsolicited takeover bid for Yahoo.
This was probably the biggest story in the online advertising space over the last six months. Although talk has faded to the background thanks to Yahoo's new relationship with its biggest rival, Google (number 3 on the list), the failed Microsoft/Yahoo merger was 2008's first and biggest merger and acquisition story, breaking Feb. 1.
Microsoft's $44.6 billion cash and stock offer was 62 percent higher than Yahoo's stock price at the end of the last day of January. The announcement, naturally, brought Yahoo's stock price up.
Yahoo spurned the offer, and management -- or at least the management that matters --said the $31 price-per-share offered was too low: a slap in the face, an ellipses rather than an exclamation point. Prodigal CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang and his president, Susan Decker, felt the company was undervalued and claimed that a share price in the neighborhood of $37 was more reflective of the company's real worth.
After AOL and Yahoo reportedly talked about a marriage of equals in April (number 2 on our list), Microsoft came back with a $33 price-per-share offer for Yahoo. But the yodeling icon's management again rebuffed the offer, insisting that the company was worth at least $35 per share.
Evidently, the market didn't agree and neither did Microsoft, which then publicly abandoned that bid for the company. As of this writing, Yahoo's shares are trading at a penny under $22 per share. That's a market capitalization difference of $15.85 billion under Microsoft's last bid.
There are some obvious reasons for Microsoft to want the company: most notably, the oodles of engineering talent that still reside at Yahoo (for how much longer has become a serious question). Yahoo's targeting capabilities, married to Atlas' serving technology and plugged into Drive PM's vast network could make for a display advertising network that delivers more appropriate advertising to larger audiences on a scale that currently only Google has.
As online advertising continues to be a contest between methods based on engagement and analytics-driven targeting, Microsoft combined with Yahoo could compete in a way neither company seems capable of doing alone. Ostensibly selling access to online users instead of basic ad inventory placement will require the kind of powerful analytics Yahoo and Microsoft combined would be capable of. Deploying such analytics meaningfully requires populations of hundreds of millions of online users: A combined company could have provided that.
In May, Carl Icahn, the billionaire corporate raider, purchased 59 million shares and options of Yahoo and launched a proxy fight to turn over the existing board of directors. A senior executive exodus has also begun and a shareholder lawsuit can't be far behind.
Why is this a big story? It portends things to come. It suggests the larger, more mature companies are coming into middle age, where consolidation holds the greatest promise of growth. It means that online is starting to show the strains, not just the signs, of maturity.
2. Yahoo and AOL discuss a merger.
The press began talking about this as early as February, just a week after the Microsoft bid. Techdirt, Techcrunch, and other online industry keyboard waggers were blogging about it up until April, when The Wall Street Journal confirmed it. There's nothing new about this kind of discussion between these two stalwarts of the online advertising universe because there's been this kind of talk before. Dollars weren't discussed, and the conversation looked to be more about a possible merger of equals than anything else.
An AOL and Yahoo merger would bring together two internet media pioneers that have lost their way in a changing media landscape. It is strange to say that about two companies that were once darlings of the "new economy," but both saw the underpinnings of their original business propositions disappear. Neither has really found a way to merchandise the company it became -- and the audiences it accumulated -- into something new. Yahoo went from being an online directory, came to true prominence as a portal and has spent the last few years going in several directions at once, to little success. AOL was built on being an entry point for online content, even if that content was within the confines of AOL's own walled garden. The price one paid for getting online was AOL's bread and butter; online advertising was just something extra to put between the slices. Giving up the subscription revenue stream has since left AOL uncertain as to what kind of company it wants to be and how to generate revenue in that new form.
Understand that while both of these companies look like they are suffering when compared to the kind of dollars Google is generating, they are both still behemoths of the online advertising industry. Yahoo reported earnings of $1.53 billion in its most recent quarter, while AOL reported $1.13 billion. Not as good as last year, but still a heck of a lot better than headline stealers like Facebook, SecondLife or other "next new" things.
Why does this story matter? Because it shows that, when faced with encroachment by outsiders, competitors can become allies, or maybe "frenemies." It demonstrates that in spite of its maturity, the online media business is still corporately cliquish, and one would rather merge with the competition from within the space than without. It reveals a mindset that the online industry exhibits throughout its various incarnations.
3. Yahoo in talks with Google.
To be clear, these are not talking about a merger. Last month, the two companies announced a deal where Yahoo would run ads supplied by Google alongside its own search results and on some of its websites in the U.S. and Canada. No one knows for sure, but some reports say the deal could be worth as much as $450 million to Yahoo in its first year. Why this is meaningful has little to do with possible anti-trust issues, which have been raised in some quarters. It is meaningful because, in spite of what Yahoo President Susan Decker said in an interview with Reuters, Yahoo is surrendering search to Google.
Some of you readers may not remember a time when there was no Googling. Yahoo was the place to go to find things on the web. Of course, it wasn't technically a search engine. Yahoo was a web directory, with keyword results actually married to search terms manually by a team of employees that surfed the web all day finding the right site for the right set of words. Some of you may not remember a time when search marketing was not paid listings, but rather having your 468x60 banner served every time a keyword was entered. And you paid a CPM. Some of you may not remember that paid search listing placement, started by Ted Meisel, founder of Goto.com, didn't start becoming popular as an ad placement tactic until GoTo.com became Overture… and Yahoo bought Overture as a search solution to compliment its directory listings.
Yahoo could have been Google. But Google became Google, and it did so by using something that someone else invented and Yahoo had the first shot at monetizing in a significant, scalable way. This deal with Google is a death rattle for Yahoo search.
4. Apple's 3G iPhone and Steve Jobs' health.
On its surface, this seems like a minor story, but one part was prompted by the announcement of the other. Earlier this month, Steve Jobs, the venerable and quite possibly irreplaceable chief executive of Apple, announced the second generation iPhone would be released in mid-July to millions of adoring fans.
At the time, a number of people noticed that he didn't look very healthy. He appeared wan and much thinner than usual. Certainly the slimming black he always wears didn't help, but concerns that he may not be well were aired around the web on blogs and in news reports.
First, the significance of this new device coming on the market: What the next generation of iPhone promises is the American market's first real, practical glimpse at what mobile computing and communicating devices might actually be able to offer. We will get to see what the rest of the world is already experiencing with mobile and why they seem to be so excited about it… and why mobile marketing service providers are always so hyperbolic in their expressions about mobile advertising at all the conferences and meetings. With the new iPhone, the online advertising, digital marketing and emerging media markets might finally see reason to believe that mobile will go from being the equivalent of soccer in the U.S. to, at the very least, college basketball.
As for Jobs' health, this is an important story because he may well be the world's most irreplaceable CEO and the executive whose own brand is inextricably linked with that of his company. No other company confronts that scenario. There are certainly companies that have had highly visible CEOs, but none of them have ever embodied the company they represent more so than Jobs. If he is ill (he battled a rare form of pancreatic cancer four years ago), it could negatively affect the traction Apple has had in the marketplace, where it has revolutionized the consumption of entertainment media (iPod, iTunes) and gotten people like me to convert to a Mac. Gartner reported at the beginning of this year that Apple will double its U.S. and Western Europe unit market share in computers by 2011. Fear that Apple won't be the same without its venerable leader could affect the market more significantly than any other company losing a CEO.
5. Marketing and agency executives going publisher-side.
Funny how a senior-level person leaving a company makes news for one day and then fades away. Sometimes, if the executive is senior enough, it might make for trade fodder for more than a couple of days.
This year, however, there have been several important departures of senior people, particularly from advertising agencies, that likely herald a much more serious trend.
You've had Sean Finnegan, who was chief executive at OMG Digital for six months and held very senior positions with the company for years prior, take the CMO role at Vibrant. Mark Kingdon, who was CEO of Organic since 2001, joined Linden Labs -- the Second Life company -- in April as CEO. Troy Young, former EVP and chief experience architect at Organic left to be CMO at VideoEgg. Dan Goodman, former chief digital officer at Ogilvy, went to helm Media Rights Capitol, an independent studio that produces and distributes content across all media platforms: film, television, internet, mobile and broadband. And let's not forget David Verklin, erstwhile CEO of Carat North America, who left to head up Canoe Ventures, a company looking to develop a single national platform for the cable industry to sell new and enhanced forms of advertising. And these are just the high profile defections.
What all of these have in common is that well-seasoned, highly experienced executives who have spent their careers both strategizing and leading agencies have left for greener, more exciting (and potentially more lucrative) adventures elsewhere. In fact, of the above examples, all of the defections were from an agency to a content play.
One can read a lot into this. For starters, one can only climb so far up the agency food chain until he or she tops out, starts his or her own shop or loses interest. Also, agencies are pretty notorious for not paying their people on par with what they might get elsewhere in the industry. There is no significant equity play at an established company (holding company stock, while nice, is never going to add a zero to your net worth). And bonuses? Well, they don't happen often, and probably won't happen this year at all. John Wren, CEO of Omnicom, noted in March that while the advertising industry is holding up, it isn't holding up well enough to give out bonuses this year. It's a smart move in lieu of layoffs, but it does little for the people's happiness factor.
Finally, agencies just aren't very interesting businesses anymore. The hum and buzz of a shop in full swing is one of the best things young advertising personnel get to experience in their careers, and it is this electric excitement that makes it a career choice for so many. Yet many of the big shops are becoming only transactional, with little opportunity for up-and-coming -- or even experienced -- advertisers and marketers to get involved with creative and strategy.
The future is not advertising or marketing as it is committed now. The thrill is coming from content, and it is where people interested in a) being a part of something that is growing, b) being amidst the excitement of newness and change and c) wanting the chance to make a lot more money are going to go.
6. So over: SecondLife. Just over: MySpace. 5 minutes ago: Facebook. Now: Twitter
By the time this piece runs, Twitter may be on the first minute or two of its "5 minutes ago," but Twitter and things like it are going to cut a dramatic and very shiny new facet on the marketing and corporate communications jewel.
Twitter's attractiveness is two-fold: It is portable, and its communicative scope is limited. It is best and most frequently used via a cell phone or mobile device, and you can only post a 140-character message, including spaces and punctuation.
This is appealing because modern humans are constantly mobile and lack time. Companies like Zappos.com, Comcast and the broadcast and cable networks are using Twitter, to varying degrees of success, to stay in touch with their consumers/users. It is also an easier, albeit sometimes cluttered, way of keeping constant track of just what they are saying -- not what they are saying about your brand, per se, but saying in general. As a business, are you going to learn more about what your customers or prospective customers say explicitly about you, or what they say about things in general?
Twitter has even started running advertising on its Japanese interface. The platform certainly cries out to be monetized, though I'm not so sure Twitter's value to marketers and advertisers is its ability to carry ad messages to either large or discrete groups of people so much as it is a way to keep one's ear to the ground for web chatter, listening to what people say, in small, bite-sized comments.
Why is this so important? Because, regardless of my own love of long-form narrative, we are evolving into a society of not just info-snacking, but micro-conversing (some have called Twitter "microblogging"). Combine what your kids are doing with text messaging and what they are doing on Facebook or MySpace. That is the virtual community that is around the corner.
There are more developments throughout the industry worth noting, and it is likely these will make the list in a round-up covering the second half of the year or the full-year. Topics to include would be things like Google's continuing encroachment into the domain of agencies by automating and enhancing the functions currently performed by agencies, while regularly stating its intentions to be quite the contrary. The improvement of behaviorally informed predictive technology, like that coming from [x + 1], may advance behavioral from post facto guessing to pre facto performance improvement. Nokia, AT&T and other mobile providers getting into the content business will enhance and grow the mobile marketing space in real ways that have only ever been talked about. Google's Android may forever alter the web, eventually ending it as we know it by unfettering it from the desktop and allowing it to move anywhere at all times.
There are many trends, and their currents cross and converge at so many points that it is difficult to know what will emerge as a permanent fixture and what is just transient. To draw on an old cliché, the only constant is change. But you will need to know what these changes are, and expect that your clients will want to know them as well.