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Publishers Expand High-End Marketing Services Online; Where Do Ad Networks Fit In?

From yesterday’s WSJ in an article about traditional publishers acquiring web services platforms like Conde Nast’s acquisition of FM alum Reddit.

“Usually when publishers acquire technology companies it’s to spruce up their own Web sites. But increasingly publishers such as Conde Nast and Meredith are drawing on the technology to create advertising campaigns for marketers.

“This takes publishers further into the realm of marketing services. Instead of simply selling marketers ad space, they’re rolling up their sleeves and designing the promotions as well. For the next five months, visitors to the Dillard’s Web site will be able to rank products featured in a top-10 list selected by Conde Nast’s Lucky magazine and fashion Web site The fashion lists will rotate seasonally, giving visitors the chance to rank new items every two weeks. The top-rated item on the list then will appear in Dillard’s online ads running on nine Conde Nast Web sites, including Teen Vogue, Glamour, and Vanity Fair.”

Smart. Also not surprising. High-end offline media companies have always had staff and production capabilities to provide marketing services well beyond trafficking and inserting commercials. This is part of what drives premium rates at leading media brands. Advertisers expect their media partners to do more than cash their checks; they demand that their media partners help them succeed among an audience that the media companies know best.

This is why I was confused by news that ESPN has discontinued working with ad networks. I get it that ad networks cause pricing and channel conflict because — despite promising publishers like ESPN to sell their remnant inventory in a blind manner, as part of a “channel” — they sometimes pitch site-specific opportunities. They offer lower rates for the same banners ESPN sells directly. This is a partnership problem, a serious one, but one that should be addressed with tactics short of termination. It’s not religious problem, as ESPN and others have portrayed it. From Mediaweek:

“ESPN’s decision crystallizes a philosophical debate in the online ad sales industry that has intensified since the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual meeting last month when during a keynote address, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia media president Wenda Harris Millard gave her now famous warning against selling Web inventory like ‘pork bellies.’”

My interpretation of Wenda Harris Millard’s pork-bellies battle cry is this. Digital publishers need to remember that they are publishers — companies that engage with high-quality audiences around content in a unique and magical conversation, and service firms that know how to chaperon marketing brands into those conversations. In other words, companies in the mold of Conde Nast, Meredith and ESPN that offer high-touch marketing services.

Whatever ad avails you don’t sell, offer up on the pork-belly exchanges — online we call them ad networks (or Google Adsense), in TV we call them PI or DR rep firms. Hey, people sometimes want pork bellies, and audiences almost certainly don’t want 30-seconds of white static whenever a TV network fails to sell 100% of spots.

But if you don’t or can’t articulate what it is that makes your media brand uniquely valuable to your marketing partners (hint: it’s not your demographics), you’ve ceased to be publisher.

More on the difference between publishers and ad networks from Battelle.