Back to the Content Future


How the ad industry forgot one of its core principles, and why it’s time for a content comeback

When did caring about where your ads run become some sort of an antiquated concept?

For easily a century, it was an indisputable principle: context matters in advertising. Fashion brands wanted to be in GQ. Beer and soda brands on NFL games, beauty brands in the pages of Cosmo.

It wasn’t just about being brand safe, or using editorial content as a proxy for audience measure. Ad men and women knew that context had power. Reaching consumers in a particular state of mind that could only be achieved by understanding the content environment they were in was an integral part of an effective media strategy.

Over the past two decades, as digital advertising exploded, somehow we abandoned a key advertising tenet. It became popular, even religious to declare that contextual environment doesn’t matter anymore.

The only way for advertisers to be effective was to aim their ads at the right eyeballs using the right data sets to identify them. That new anti-context conventional wisdom had many proponents, not the least of which were hugely influential tech platforms, which boasted of robust data sets for targeting and—funny enough—were not in the business of making content.

So the industry went all-in on audience over content.

We’re here to tell you that was a mistake. And you don’t have to choose one or the other.

Content has untapped data potential for advertising

Historically, digital advertisers have had to decide whether they should focus on buying ad space in premium content (typically for branding campaigns) or to just focus on targeting the right audiences wherever they are.

If you wanted to be a sophisticated modern marketer, and actually gauge how effectively you were spending your money—you had to choose the audience route. Or so the thinking went.

This was a powerful and smart argument to make if you were a platform that boasts of having robust consumer data, and isn’t in the content business. Why would you, smart modern marketer, rely on gut driven strategy in an increasingly performance driven world?

Your ad buys could be blunt and dumb or be smart and scientific.

Included in that choice was an unholy trade off: you had to give up the idea that where your ad runs actually matters.

The argument has proved lethally effective. Over the past decade, as digital ad spending has continued to explode (recently eclipsing traditional media in its entirety), it was largely driven by audience-based direct marketing. That meant the tech giants with the best data won, and guys producing the best content kept losing and losing.

This choice between audience and context was a flawed one to begin with. And you don’t have to make it anymore. From where we sit, content is making a comeback. And it will be lead by publishers embracing data, technology—and the power of brand.

A few years ago, Chase made headlines when it told the New York Times that it was reducing the number of sites it ran ads on from 400,000 to 5,000 – and its business didn’t suffer.

At the time, it seemed that Chase’s declaration would serve as an indictment of the Wild West, “site environment doesn’t matter at all” world of ad tech (here’s betting that many of these 400,000 sites were not of the ‘premium’ variety). And that Chase might start a revolution.

Instead, little seemed to change. If anything, more brands were pulling money from large digital publishers to funnel more dollars to the duopoly.

In what’s left of the non-duopoly market, eMarketer reports that four out of every dollar spent on display advertising is transacted programmatically. Some of that is going to established media companies, but not nearly enough.

Content is more powerful than ever, and advertisers are ready to come back

It doesn’t have to be that way.

We’re at a point now where programmatic ad technology allows for precision targeting with content environmental control. This is well beyond the classic scanning a few words on a page and showing a relevant ad. We’re talking deep content targeting. Custom segmentation. And best of all, premium pricing.

Why are advertisers going to bother you might ask?

We think the climate has shifted. Look at all the issues inherent with giant platforms that don’t control what finds its way onto their sites and apps and how users behave (or don’t). They are wide open to fake news, fake traffic, foreign influence, hate speech and all sorts of digital predators.

Brands are going to rethink this free-for-all soon. We’re already seeing it with some marketers are actually speaking out and giants like AT&T pulling their ads from YouTube.

At the same time, everyone is rethinking consumer data usage in the post GDPR, post Cambridge era. The titans in the industry have been walking a tightrope for a while. And the sea of faceless ad tech middlemen has been even more reckless.

The mood is such that an executive at the New York Times is calling for advertisers to completely bail on third party data for targeting purposes

Third Party Data Is A Bad Habit We Need To Kick

We see this as a tipping point. One where publishers can both take back the content matters argument, while also offering a more consumer and brand friendly form of targeting…

Call us crazy, but as a paying advertiser you should be able to know where your ads are running, pick where your ads are running, and still get the audiences you want.

That time is now. And content will lead the way.

Hear more from on this topic in the recap from the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting Townhall:

Video Player

This article first appeared in

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