One is a celebrated bubble-era publisher, an Internet consultant, a book author and — currently — a blog advertising entrepreneur. The other? Well, he could be described exactly the same way. Yet could two men be more different than John Battelle and Philip “Pud” Kaplan?
Pud and Battelle are larger than life figures in the history of the Web, literally and figuratively. Both are tall, charismatic and plain spoken. Battelle, through his iconic Wired and Industry Standard magazine titles, did a great deal to build up Web culture in the late-’90s. Kaplan, whose FuckedCompany.com became required reading during the Internet’s plague years, did the opposite. He gleefully tore down the hype machine with a daily dose of dot-com cynicism and Schadenfreude.
Fast-forward four years. Pud and Battelle are once more treading parallel paths. Each is building a Weblog advertising venture geared toward the needs of publishers.
True to character, they’re coming at it from utterly different angles.
Battelle’s Federated Media Publishing is sophisticated, services-driven and built for the A-list (to use a dirty word). We’re talking BoingBoing and Om Malik. Very CPM.
Kaplan’s AdBrite, meanwhile, is democratic and technology-driven. It’s like a transparent AdSense, where buyers pitch ads to sites and sellers can reject whichever they don’t like. Very direct response.
As pubescent and destructive as he was at the helm of FuckedCompany.com, Pud’s actually a builder by nature. At 29-years-old, he’s founded eight businesses by his own count. When I caught up with him on the phone, he had a mouthful of food. “I’m really sorry to be eating this sandwich,” he said. “I’m starving.”
He first built the technology behind AdBrite to power advertising on FuckedCompany.com. It grew organically to serve several other publishers, and sometime last year Pud began to think it could power a vast CPC exchange. Advertisers like it too, since they can add specific blogs to their media plans on an ad hoc basis.
Today, sites join up at the rate of about 200 a day. Spending is up. A large advertiser recently spent $10,000 on a test with AdBrite, and it followed that up with a $70,000 buy.
“It comes down to more publisher control,” he said. “It’s a publisher’s market. There’s a serious lack of inventory out there… Everybody’s competing for publishers and for clicks. That includes the advertisers and that includes the networks.”
Battelle’s FMP is also about giving control to publishers, but the deals are one-off and the sites are cream of the crop. The list of bloggers he’s working with — whom he calls “authors” — reads like a roll call of the best and brightest in online tech and tech-influenced culture. They include BoingBoing, Waxy.org, Om Malik, and Matt Haughey-run sites Metafilter and PVRblog.
But the venture is in limbo while its captain wraps up two more pressing projects. First, he’s promoting his book, “The Search,” which tells the human stories behind the rise of the dominant engines and other players in search. Second, he’s program chair for this week’s Web 2.0 conference, where no fewer than 14 new companies will launch. In 10 days, that’ll all be over and he’ll be able to concentrate on FMP.
“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I can’t be as focused as I’d like to be on FM. I’ve told my authors that I’m not going to be overly promoting them. We are selling ads now, and things are going reasonably well for authors we’re working with.”
In recent months, Battelle has been in New York and Los Angeles, meeting with several media planning agencies, gauging their interest in placing big CPM buys in Weblog environments.
“So far no one’s slamming the door in our face,” is how he put it. Buying in blogs is very different from the traditional online ad model, and Battelle says that fact is simultaneously frightening and enticing to the marketers he’s spoken with.
“There’s an endorsement going on with authors — I will take your ad or I won’t take your ad,” he said. “It’s very difficult to do this in traditional media. Traditional media have been around so long. The rules are set I think people are realizing that perhaps one of the things you can do is be a little looser and get into a conversation, show your vulnerable side, so to speak, and get to know your audience.”
Of course, that introduces problems of scale. Will agencies really be able to justify to clients the need to create unique executions for each of 40 placements — or 200? If not, how much customization is reasonable? Battelle acknowledges the challenges, but he remains certain of blogs’ value to brand marketers.
“We’re very clearly not driven by a CPC model, or a CPA model. And while we will cut deals on behalf of the authors in our network for CPC, we are not ourselves a CPC network,” he said. “I obviously think that business is important. I wrote a book about it, but I believe there is [another model] — a trusted third party that has sorted through trusted sites and made a match for you. There’s a certain power of the authors coming together, that I think is extremely important. I think it’s a value that is added that will tie, I hope, authors to our service.”
FMP isn’t in direct competition with AdBrite, and Battelle has even brokered inventory on the AdBrite network. But both companies have one formidable competitor: Google. The search giant has recently made forays into greater advertiser choice on its AdSense network, placing an “advertise here” button under sponsored contextual links. It’s similar to AdBrite’s approach. Battelle also notes Google’s been offering CPM pricing this year on site-targeted units.
“You’ve got kind of a mash-up of Pud’s and my idea,” said Battelle, referring to Google’s tests. “I think that’s fine, and I think that keeps us honest, and I look forward to proving that the relationship that we create is more valuable. I don’t take anything they might do lightly, believe me. I’m sure that if their ads perform better for all parties concerned than ours, people will use them. We’ll see.”
Kaplan’s less diplomatic: “I’ve been doing this since way before Google,” he said. “I said that in a purposely douche-baggy way I didn’t sell $6 billion in ads last year, so they have slight bragging rights as well.”
All their other similarities and dissimilarities aside, the greatest kinship between John Battelle and Philip Kaplan lies in their overflowing reserves of restless energy. Neither ever seems to stop moving. And each takes evident pleasure in working hard for a good business idea — in this case, building a market for advertising in so-called consumer-generated media.
“I’ve always lived one day at a time, and I’ve always tried to do the best I could do that day,” said Pud. “Even with AdBrite, people say, ‘What’s the exit strategy? What’s the final plan?’ We just say, ‘We’re trying to sell more ads today than we sold yesterday.'”
Battelle sounds a similar note: “I’ve run through the hype machine several times. I don’t want to build things up. I just want to do things.”
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