Has Digital Blown Its Second Chance?

“You’re not going to be ready,” half-smiled Bob Garfield over a decade ago. According to his Chaos Theory, the broadcast model was going to collapse before digital had the wherewithal to scale campaigns to any sort of size that mattered.  As far as problems go, this was a good one for digital to have.

It would represent its second chance.  Digital became a dirty word in the wake of the dot com collapse, in which trillions of dollars’ worth of market value simply evaporated in the early 2000s, due to the irrational exuberance of the times and the inability to build sustainable digital businesses by chasing market share at the expense of profitability.

Still, we knew digital was coming back, but we didn’t know how quickly it would need to absorb ad dollars from major advertisers who had historically invested in broadcast media, in orders of magnitude unseen in digital until that point.

And what was our answer to the scale challenge?  Programmatic buying.

Programmatic was supposed to streamline our digital media buying processes, while making scalable buys easier to execute.  Had it followed the path set out for it, that’s precisely what would have happened.

Year after year, Terry Kawaja showed off his LUMAScape slide at conferences – the impossibly-complex single-page representation of the programmatic display ad marketplace.  Kawaja promised consolidation, as that seemed to be the direction that made sense for the industry.  Far too many companies were competing for smaller slices of the programmatic pie, and it wasn’t likely that investment dollars could continue to support so many companies in such embarrassingly small niches.

Moreover, advertisers had little idea what each of these companies did, nor did they have the time or inclination to figure it out.  Naturally, Kawaja argued, companies would begin to join forces to bridge the gap between buyer and seller, and make it as simple as possible, so that ad dollars could flow through the system and satisfy the demand Bob Garfield had started talking about in 2005.

Instead, the LUMAScape grew larger and more cluttered year after year.  It seemed that, instead of rolling up to offer a comprehensive suite of tools to scale digital ad buying, the sector would instead spawn more companies in more specialties, and begin to eat itself.

That is, ad tech companies were able to easily take advantage of confusion in the marketplace and build offerings that were more suited to being features of a DSP or agency trading desk than they were to providing the foundations for entire companies.  Instead of becoming simpler, programmatic buying became more complex.

At the same time, the digital media buying industry began to eat itself.  We dealt with the glut of ad tech companies by turning our focus inward.  Instead of focusing on the scale problem at hand, we turned the focus to how badly we were fulfilling on client needs.  Viewability, fraud and transparency became the issues that dominated business publication headlines, industry white papers and even mainstream media stories.

I won’t stand and judge digital’s self-examination.  It’s healthy to assess whether we’re fulfilling on client needs, and make necessary improvements.  It just couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Advertisers looking for a solution to the collapse of the broadcast model found nothing but FUD looking to take the place of TV – Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.  Not only were media and marketing insiders making their cases against digital by continually nitpicking about the differences between non-viewable and fraudulent digital ads, but the less technically-inclined asked bigger questions about black boxes and undisclosed margins.  A dark cloud settled over digital once again.

And it certainly proved that we learned nothing – precisely nothing – from the first dot com boom and bust.  Whether we’re talking about the early 2000s or today, we were faced with enormous opportunity and chose to focus on ourselves instead of on the problem at hand.  Had we pulled together to solve that scale problem, we might be talking about how digital saved advertising instead of how it choked.

Tom Hespos is the Founder and Chief Media Officer of Underscore Marketing, an integrated media agency focusing on health and healthy brands.