“Insource Digital Aptitude”: Reflections on Advertising Week With IAB’s Randall Rothenberg

Advertising Week celebrated its 10th anniversary last week here in New York City, with marketing and communications leaders from around the world gathering to discuss and debate the issues facing the industry. 

As always, IAB’s MIXX conference was a must-attend event, this time featuring interviews with luminaries like Sir Martin Sorrell and Marissa Mayer, to name a few. After the frenzy of Advertising Week died down, I had the chance to speak with Randall Rothenberg, president & chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), about his thoughts on the week, predictions for the future, and what we can learn by listening. Below, edited excerpts from our conversation.

ClickZ (CZ): IAB MIXX is always a highlight of the week. To frame the conference, you asked the question, “What is advertising?” Why do you think it’s important to have that conversation now?

Randall Rothenberg (RR): This year we realized that one of the big issues – and opportunities – is defining “advertising” itself. We never even used to think about that before. When you said the word “advertising,” everyone knew what you meant. “Advertising” was what companies put out there on screens or pages to promote their services or brands.

The evolution in the definition of “advertising” didn’t happen in a single moment; it happened over time. So we wanted to find out: Is there still a center to the idea of advertising?

CZ: I heard a lot of definitions of “advertising” this week. One was that advertising is still, at its heart, about storytelling and another was that it’s about using data to mine consumer insights. Did one definition stand out for you? Or did they all come together?

RR: I counted eight different definitions at MIXX, and they break into two categories. Folks who believe that advertising is storytelling, and folks who believe advertising is relationships – with data as a support structure for building that relationship.

Mike Lazerow of SalesForce said advertising is all your digital interactions. Wieden & Kennedy said advertising is the work. Susan Lyne of AOL said advertising is content. But fundamentally those are ideas about relationships – the actual tangible relationship between a brand marketer and a consumer. Storytelling is one-way communication; relationship presupposes a continual interaction among human beings and institutions. Those are the two conclusions from the conference.

CZ: Well, I won’t ask you whether Marissa Mayer is a storyteller or relationship builder – or both. Now that she’s a year into her role at Yahoo, she said it’s all about the people. The people make the products and the culture.

RR: What the audience saw when Marissa took the stage at MIXX is a wonderful and natural human being who has an engaging and clear way of describing for Yahoo and how they’re moving forward.

With so much noise and data out there, she said listening is very important for leadership. It makes me think of my mentor John Battelle’s column, The Signal and the Noise. That’s a great name for our time. The number one reality for our time in digital media, is that there are virtually no barriers to entry for digital media and content. If you extend that logic out, there are no barriers to entry anywhere in the industry, with scores of new companies being launched. And they’re getting financed, so there is an incredible amount of noise.

If you follow every story in TechCrunch and the Wall Street Journal, you’ll be overwhelmed and consumed and turned into a little ball. So the best advice for any leader is to listen and stay focused on what we need to succeed at to be successful.

At IAB, we’d been focused on a few initiatives: 3MS (Making Measurement Make Sense), and getting viewable impressions vs. served impressions to be the standard digital currency. People come to us every week with ideas – important, valuable ideas – but we have to stay focused. We have to get these things over the goal line first.

CZ: With so many new companies entering the space, which companies are most exciting to you?

RR: Well, I love all my members equally.

CZ: Just like children! Fair enough, what movements excite you?

RR: The rise of digital video as new mainstream medium. This has major implications for marketers. There is a lot of great content online now. We need four major hits online in order to…

CZ: Wait a second. We need four? I thought we were all waiting for the Sopranos of the internet to come and cement the new medium as a mainstay? And arguably, based on this year’s Emmy Awards, you could say that House of Cards was that hit.

RR: No, you need more. Even with the Sopranos, for many years it was just HBO. It was for pay cable, but not for basic cable – you had more and more hits over time, with AMC & Showtime and now FX and others. With online video, we’ve had a handful of defining moments. Now it’s not just Netflix. Now it’s Microsoft, Hulu and others.

CZ: We’ll get there. We’ve been saying it’s the year of video since I was at YouTube back in 2006. We’ve also been saying it’s the year of mobile, but that statement finally seems to ring true.

RR: When you say “mobile” it has a lot of meanings. But the enfranchisement of mobile as a medium is exciting. The ad market is still relatively small, but growth is astronomical. We’re seeing a lot of consolidation going on, and a lot of advances in ad creative development.

CZ: What else?

RR: The rise of programmatic as a way of adding not just efficiency but as a better way of identifying valuable audiences and getting right messages to those audiences. Companies like Conde Nast and the New York Times are bringing in whole teams of programmatic experts, and that’s a big shift.

CZ: You didn’t mention data. When they asked Sir Martin Sorrell what’s next, he said, “The trite answer is mobile and data.” I love that. But it’s really about how WPP is using data to mine insights to help their clients build stronger consumer relationships and better results, no?

RR: Right. Data is basically the fuel for all of this, and has been for a long time. And now we have more access to more data, so what Sir Martin Sorrell said, which was very astute and important, is it’s not the data itself that makes a difference. Anybody out there is going to have access to all the data about all the people in the world at some point. The difference will be how you use that data to glean insights to grow the fortunes of companies. WPP intends to become the most expert at data solutions and insights. We’re interested in how data, responsibility used, can grow businesses better.

CZ: Looking ahead to the future, what one or two pieces of advice would you give to my readers? What should marketers be thinking about in order to be successful in this new world?

RR: First, insource a significant amount of digital aptitude. You have to have senior executives in house who have a baseline understanding and aptitude for the technologies of the internet and the tools they provide to give you enhanced intimacy with your consumers. Notice I didn’t say enhanced engagement or interactions. I said intimacy. For the first time it’s not just possible for you to have a one-to-one relationship with consumers at scale. It’s a requirement.

Number two: For all the focus on technology, technology itself won’t be a differentiator for any one company. The history of media is that technology ultimately becomes commodity. The value isn’t in owning a specific piece of technology. The value comes when technology permeates an industry, and from the creativity you put on top of that technology. Creativity in terms of how you tell stories, and how you build relationships.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.