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How I Failed In Digital Advertising: Columnist Peter Minnium isn't afraid to own up to his mistakes in digital advertising. Here's what others can learn from his errors.

January 13, 2018

 

Five years ago this month, I moved from the “traditional” advertising world of television and print into the digital one.

 

In early 2010, I was, by all accounts, a successful global advertising agency executive, continuing to pursue my professional passion of using creative ideas to transfix consumers and transform businesses. I was also actively engaged in a personal passion, that of fathering my then-7-year-old daughter, Judy.

 

One winter afternoon, these two intersected in a manner that led me to pivot my career 180 degrees.

 

 

Judy was playing on some electronic device or another when I suggested that we watch a TV show that was actually on a television set. What ensued was both comical and enlightening to me, as I had to explain to my darling child how TV shows are broadcast and how one has to wait for the appointed time and then watch the show all the way through at once.

 

I had a life-changing epiphany in that moment: If I wanted to continue surprising and delighting consumers with advertising that changed the trajectory of brands, I had better become digital, quickly.

 

 

Farewell Cushy Eames Chairs

 

Two months later, I had left my cushy agency office and Eames chairs and was sitting in a cubicle at the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), having replaced my four walls for the ubiquitous digital advertising worker-bee noise-canceling headphones. To pivot dramatically, one needs an awesome fulcrum, I figured; the IAB is that and more.

 

I remember my first meeting with Randall Rothenberg, IAB president and CEO, like it was yesterday. I had heard of Randall, of course, but had never experienced him in person.

 

I will save the task of capturing the myriad qualities that make up the mosaic of Randall’s character to others; to me, he is simply “the unicorn” everyone refers to when they try to describe the rarest of combinations.

 

Despite not having a specific position open, at this meeting, Randall decided to take a flyer on me, betting that my advertising and brand experience might be useful once I established my digital sea-legs. Granted, my offer to work pro bono for half a year might have helped make the decision easier, but not that much!

 

I have written elsewhere on Marketing Land about what the IAB has done to help brand marketers, from new creative formats to metrics and technology advances. Rather than share another “hit,” which, let’s face it, begins quickly to sound too much like marketing propaganda, I’d like to share my misses — in the hopes that you, dear reader, avoid the mistakes I’ve made.

 

In full disclosure, this, too, is a bit of a trick, as it has been proven that human beings pay more attention to others’ failures than successes. This is innate and makes sense; after all, in the cave-dwelling days, it was more important to pay attention to the fact that caveman X was eaten by a predator when hunting in the lowlands than that caveman Y had much success picking berries up the hill.

 

Herewith then, are my five greatest errors, framed as faulty beliefs:

 

1. It’s An All-New, All-Digital World

 

I’ll admit it, I was like a converted vegan or, worse yet, a newbie CrossFitter when I moved into the digital world. I loudly declared that traditional advertising was dead and sung the praises of the all-new digital forms. It was black and white.

 

Needless to say, I’ve matured and, together with the smartest marketers, recognize that we are doing with digital advertising what we have always done — changing people’s minds about goods and services by engaging them with commercial content.

 

What’s different is that the plumbing and pipes are now digital. We are all advertising women and men first, and digital pros second.

 

2. Individual Genius Is Compulsory

 

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates — the digital landscape is full of singular heroes, and I saw a clear parallel with advertising when I first started.

 

On my agency computer, my screen saver used to be a quote from the famous 20th century writer G.K. Chesterton: “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.” This was a daily reminder to myself to respect the creative geniuses in the agency world (and to tolerate their quirks as a result). Theirs is often a lonely life, facing daily the “tyranny of the blank piece of paper.”

 

 

3. Build A Better Mousetrap And They Will Come

 

While at Williams College during my undergraduate days, I studied economics and heard repeatedly at the start of countless class debates, “Assume rational expectations and perfect information.” Not very good training for a career in advertising, I will admit, but in moving into digital advertising, I thought I would finally find a world of reason and clarity and therefore only rational decisions. After all, this world is populated with engineers, technologists and mathematicians.

 

Boy, was I wrong.

 

The scale of the imperfect information (much of it driven by VC-funded sell-side marketing) and irrational expectations (equally fostered by buy-side over-promising) is staggering.

 

I still have faith that eventually the best, right ideas rise to the top, but it takes incredible perseverance and more than a small bit of luck to see them through.

 

4. Data, Technology and Math Will Solve Everything

 

Across the ecosystem, we collectively consumed the Kool-Aid when it came to the capacity of big data, technology and math to provide the answers to the industry’s toughest questions. The response to each seems to have been the same chorus: “The data will tell us,” “Let the machines decide,” or “The algorithm will optimize for the answer.”

 

Yet more than 20 years into the digital advertising revolution, many difficult questions stubbornly remain. Attribution and cross-platform brand metrics come to mind.

 

Now, there is finally a realization that what matters is the understanding and insight that can be gleaned from these engines of digital marketing. “That’s a research question” is increasingly being added to the chorus as time-tested methods of strategic and systematic investigation are deployed, together with data, tech and math, to more rigorously separate the signal from the noise for brands and publishers.

 

5. The Digital Opportunity Has Passed You By

 

When people asked me five years ago why I was moving into the digital world, I’d reply that “the future is digital.” I still use the same refrain, as we are still in the very early stages of a revolution.

 

While a great deal has transpired over the past 20 years, the scale of the task ahead dwarfs the accomplishments to date. Dynamic creative experiences, cross-platform metrics, always-on real-time media planning — the opportunities are enormous.

 

Yes, the digital media and advertising transformation is a marathon at a sprinter’s pace — but we are barely off the starting line.

 

The Success of Failure

 

The one thing I did right over my first five years in the digital realm: I didn’t fail to make mistakes. In fact, I’ve become even better at making them — yes, more and at a greater pace.

 

The digital ecosystem is an extraordinary laboratory for experimentation, and to not use it as such would be the greatest failure of all. If you take in anything from the above and it helps you to avoid my errors, my fondest desire is that the learning propels you to make your own, even-more-successful mistakes.

 

 

 

 

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