The Meaning of Industry Organizations

Industry organizations allow for peer interaction that promotes the free exchange of ideas. They get people from one segment of an industry together with folks from other segments to display new products or services. And they provide an environment where birds of a feather can flock together and experience a sense of community.

It’s no different within the digital marketing arena. Early on, operators within the industry started to form groups that would promote the specific agenda of the given organization as well as the interests of the industry as a whole.

The one making the most hay has been the Interactive Advertising Bureau, (IAB), which a few months back, under dark of night and in anticipation of the debut of the Online Publishers Association (OPA), went back to its roots as a publishers-only organization.

But why? With a plethora of organizations representing publishers — and almost none representing agencies and advertisers — why would the IAB do this? It claims that the move was to refocus the group on its roots and get more things done by representing solely the interests of publishers.

It isn’t hard imagining publishers and networks getting themselves organized (I’ve been fantasizing about it for years), but at this stage of the game, while everyone is still trying to make a market, it seems counterproductive to insulate the establishment of standards and guidelines within a self-interested silo. Some claim that such organizations can be for agencies doing interactive media what others are for the traditional shops. But we’re talking about an organization that will still have debates about whether people watch cable.

It’s also been suggested that the IAB never got very far with any initiatives when its board had agency and technology representation.

I would contend that the reason the IAB never got very far with any of its initiatives when agencies and technology vendors were on the roster is because it was never really interested in getting very far with initiatives. Originally, publishers dominated the organization, and publishers were, for a while, pulling in money hand over fist — so there was no impetus for moving standardizing initiatives forward. Before March of this year, the IAB hadn’t issued standards since 1996. The only reason that the IAB rushed out those standards in March was because of the buzz surrounding CNET’s new unit. Many sites, for years, had been running the units for which the IAB issued “new” guidelines.

When publishers started realizing what appeared to be riches beyond their dreams, what reason did the organization have to make any more statements about standards — most notably things that spoke to the fundaments of advertising: What constitutes the base element of an advertising unit and how that is defined, or what kinds of technical standards should be set for third-party ad servers?

Though I can appreciate the desires and efforts of the IAB, I think that as an industry we are hardly in a position to selectively dole out “members only” status to issues that involve us all, particularly when the principles at issue are those that are often outside of the expertise and purview of the organization claiming ownership.

Since agencies are still expected to control 70-80 percent of all ad spending that will take place, have any of these publishers-only organizations considered what it means to leave agencies out of the process?

Publishers can decide that 250 x 250s that show dancing bears programmed in Flash 4.0 are the only creative sizes they will take — but if agencies and advertisers aren’t interested in doing this sort of thing, then what’s the point? Shouldn’t there be more substantive and integrated involvement at these initial stages of the industry since we are just emerging from our research and development phase?

Let’s make a market first and worry about segmenting into balkanized fiefdoms later…

We are still struggling with defining media currency, addressing technology, and reaching out to those who hold the purse strings and convincing them they should let those strings loose for this medium. What good is a guideline governing a banner’s size if no one is convinced she should be buying banners at all? I’ve said it several times thus far, and I’ll say it again: Quibbling over a market is an empty exercise when the market has yet to be made.

At the very least, the IAB should have an agency representative, a technology representative, and a research representative among the board members. With too many people with the same agenda talking to each other, you end up with an “art for art’s sake” movement in which the members understand only each other and their vision grows myopic. This medium cannot enjoy equal footing with other media if only those who have the most to gain from others spending in it are the only ones represented in the group issuing objective evidence of the medium’s effectiveness.

It has been said that one can just look around at other industries to see the same phenomenon. But to say that one should look around at other industries, inclusive and exclusive of advertising, to see examples of other organizations that practice the same kind of limitative membership practices isn’t an argument for such an organization. That’s like saying, “See, that country club excludes ethnic minorities; we can, too.” A wrong-headed policy in wide practice does not make it any less wrong-headed.

Also, industries that are decades old are not appropriate for comparison with the industry we are talking about — digital marketing. The Magazine Publishers of America (MPA), itself a bit old-fashioned, was founded in 1919, many years after magazines had been published and a market had been established. I am against any of this sort of organization. It does little to promote the actual business and really just serves as a forum for backslapping and conducting self-referential seminars.

I will say it one more time: Before we divide up the market — like the Pope divided the world between Portugal and Spain some five centuries ago, without thinking about what the world might actually be like — let’s first create the market.

Related reading