Death of a Banner Ad Salesman

Biff: Pop! I’m a dime a dozen, and so are you!
Willie: I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!

Recently I spent some time with a publisher explaining why the glory days of selling banner ads and watching the big RFP’s just roll in has come to an end. It wasn’t a fun message to deliver. For nearly twenty years, ever since AT&T, Volvo and others ran the first banner ads on Hotwired (the online version of wired.com, not the travel site) an unruly band of digital folks like myself have labored to create a powerful and exciting market.

But this first era of digital advertising is clearly over now. Commoditization has arrived and the signs are everywhere. The Demand Side Platforms (DSP’s) and their white labeled cousins, the agency trading desks, have absorbed a portion of the business with their automated buying. On the other side are the Supply Side Platforms (SSP’s) that help automate the selling of publisher display inventory. In the middle are the portals like Yahoo! and AOL and the niche publishers like Forbes, still fighting the good fight, creating content and trying to sell ads against the increasing flood of consumer generated content.

Looming over everything are consumer content creation platforms – you know, little companies like Facebook and Twitter, each taking more and more dollars. Facebook’s self serve, classified-like display ads and brand fan pages are grabbing a growing share of budget. Twitter is attempting to do the same.

But how do publishers who employ actual human beings to create content and sell premium inventory defend themselves and maintain deal size? Part of the answer surely lies in avoiding commoditization in the first place. You definitely don’t want to be part of the 10% of display buys that the agencies can do through their trading desks. You need to find a higher ground, whether it’s with premium format ad units, putting social media at the core of your offering or some other strategy that keeps your ads out of the buy/sell machines. Ironically, in many cases this requires publishers to make significant investments in technology.

Unlike ten years ago its not enough to just publish content and attract a good audience. That audience can be reached any number of ways now. And the days of a C student right out of college making six figures selling banners against that content are probably gone forever, perhaps for the better.

The strategy for publishers and their salespeople then is to prove definitively, by leveraging marketing and technology, that they’re not a dime a dozen.

  • Lauren Rubin

    As a media buyer turned salesperson, I can’t agree more. At Mashable, social sharing is an instinctive part of our content experience; for our partners, the social aspect has to be more than just a box to be checked on an RFP. Understanding how social engagement relates to paid media is a very important skill that I think a lot of people are still missing.