We Need a New Scorecard

In an ideal world, the behavioral targeting news that would have us all talking would include case studies of incredible results, announcements of new and truly beneficial technologies, industry definitions accepted, government bodies and industry representatives in blissful harmony, and educated consumers content to get anonymous, relevant commercial messaging in exchange for the free content they enjoy.

In the real world, the behavioral targeting news we get lately is mostly lawsuits, acquisitions, name changes, and investigations.

The recent lawsuit by ValueClick, which alleges that Tacoda infringed upon the company’s patented behavioral targeting system, is one case in point. I’m not offering opinion on the suit, or even singling it out as unique. Rather, I’m wondering just how disorganized the last year’s upheavals have left this space, what we’ll be left with once the dust settles, and what we’ve lost in the midst of this muddle.

The ValueClick/Tacoda case is only one of the events in a year that has been rife with mergers and acquisitions, consolidation and dissolution, ups and downs, and everything in between. Most of what we knew to be true in the behavioral targeting space only two years ago is now very much in question.

We’ve always had trouble with standardizing definitions and differentiating between similar claims of leadership from all of the behavioral targeting providers. For instance, ValueClick has sued other behavioral targeting providers in the past and patent infringement cases are nothing new in the technology world, but how do we really know who invented what, who owns what, which company leads, and which company has the best technology. When several companies claim that they invented behavioral targeting or even that they invented certain aspects of the technology and squabble over patents, what good can it do the industry? As agencies and advertisers, we need a clear picture of what we can expect from each company.

The change we’re experiencing shows little signs of slowing, but is it real change or just a confusing illusion? Gaining size is one of only two ways for behavioral targeting companies to compete in this dynamic business environment. The quick way to grow is to merge with or purchase a competitor. That always sounds easier and smoother than it is.

The other way is with truly differentiated technology, but that new technology must be understood, credible, and valued to create business advantage. We continue to struggle with making the technology understandable, while credibility and value have taken hits with (mostly unfounded) privacy concerns. In the absence of truly new offerings, some companies repackage or rebrand in the hope that it will signal something significant to their audience. Picture a neon orange “New and Improved!” sticker on the same old soap powder.

PaidContent.org recently reported on the rumor that AOL was shuttering Tacoda and absorbing its behavioral targeting technology into Platform-A. Does that render ValueClick’s allegations moot, or do they transfer to Platform A? Legal issues notwithstanding, does this mean Tacoda can no longer be considered a behavioral targeting company?

As smaller companies (and their proprietary technologies) are swallowed up by larger ones, we agencies and advertisers who use these solutions are left with a lot of questions and few answers. Frankly, it’s a distraction from the hard work we must do to ensure campaign performance and ROI (define) for our clients. Is a stable partner base too much to ask?

How do we manage the pace and character of change in this industry? I’m not sure advertisers and agencies can do much more than speak up with their voices and dollars. They consume the services, but you have to ask how much of the change is truly in service of advertisers and their customers and how much is just a gold rush for the providers. When the heart of the activity is no longer about innovation and improvement, the impact is much diminished and we all lose.

Sometimes change is beneficial and sometimes it’s unrelenting, disorienting change in both the players and the scorecard. At that point, the game isn’t fun to play or watch.

Related reading