I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the annual Advertising Week conferenceof six "masters of monetization," as Ad Week called them.
The group spanned the digital spectrum, from social and mobile to local: Tom Arrix runs sales at Facebook, Mike Gamson, LinkedIn's VP of Global Sales, Lee Brown, SVP of Sales from Groupon, Maria Mandel, VP Marketing and Media Innovation at AT+T Ad Works, Andy Wiedlin, BuzzFeed's chief Revenue Officer and Taylor Gray, who until a few weeks ago was VP of Marketing and Social Media Strategy at Huffington Post Media Group.
Despite volatile financial markets and the slowdown in overall advertising growth, the mood on the panel could not have been more bullish. The economic downturn actually seems to be helping these companies. AT+T's Mandel said that clients are more desperate than ever for targeted messaging and quantifiable results. BuzzFeed's Wiedlen noted that the recession has forced brands to question the status quo and hunt for real value. He cited the example of mobile carriers like Verizon spending hundreds of millions of dollars on newspaper campaigns until the financial pinch pushed them to get more bang for their buck.
The biggest challenge these companies face, it seems, is educating marketers about how to leverage new technology. Facebook's Arrix spoke extensively about the importance of convincing brands that they're not just selling display ads, they're selling a whole new way of marketing, which is "people-centric". There was no debate about the fact that consumers have more power than ever—for sending branded content viral with the likes of BuzzFeed or simply following a brand on Facebook or a company on LinkedIn. And when consumers become brand evangelists or simply opt to receiving information, the potential is massive.
The impressions that companies like Huffington Post or BuzzFeed deliver doesn't necessarily fit into the "units" that marketers are accustomed to buying, so here comes another challenge, tweaking the new digital model so it fits within the old agency systems. A brand like Budweiser may set out to market to 25 to 36 year old men, but as BuzzFeed's Wiedlen pointed out, what they rally want is to target big beer drinkers, a category they'll find quite easily on Facebook. No doubt, as the ads change so does the lexicon — what it means to "target" is quite different than it was in the pre Facebook era.
Where do ad agencies fit in? They hardly were mentioned in the first half-hour of conversation, but the moment I questioned their relevance (now that brands can work directly with Facebook, LinkedIn, or Groupon) the panelists insisted agencies still play a key role. "We love agencies!" Groupon's Brown rushed to say. Why? In part because agencies act as consultants,helping brands move into these areas, and help them figure out their messaging or content. Facebook's Arrix mentioned repeatedly how he meets directly with major marketers-- but neither he nor any of the other panelists wanted to jeopardize their relationship with the folks that control ad budgets and packed the audience.
So what was the message to agencies and brands? Experiment and try new things. LinkedIn's Gamson talked about the returns that comes from trying new things — test, tweak and iterate. And move fast. Arrix and others talked about the pressure they're under to maintain a certain pace of innovation. And brands that don't try these new models may start to look old hat to consumers.