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Online Publishers’ OPA Summit 2012

The Online Publishers’ Association got together in Miami this week for its 10th annual executive summit. Here were some of the highlights for me.

This guy:

Among the many things I love about Rishad Tobaccowala: He can get in front of a roomful of big-media publishers, tell them content isn’t king (“or queen or emperor”), that the proof is in the fact that publicly-traded media companies have lost 70% of their market value in the past decade, and still get louder applause than any speaker all day.

To honor the OPA’s tenth anniversary, he took a look back at how well this group saw into the future of media — back at that first OPA Summit. “We got the ingredients right,” he said, pointing out that John Battelle and Jeff Jarvis presented on the emerging influence of user-generated content, blogging and search in 2002 and 2003. But there was almost no talk back then about the four companies that are most important to today’s publishers: Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

It’s hard, he conceded, to predict where your competition will come from. When Apple entered the smartphone market, it was bad news for Nokia. But who would have guessed the iPhonee would also emerge as stiff competition for Nintendo, Nikon and Navtek?

Matt Freeman, chief innovation officer at McCann Erickson, asked: Why have agencies lost their influence in the business world? Why don’t agency execs sit on their clients’ boards like they did before the Great Depression? Partly, Freeman argues, it’s that their business models have incentivized bad behavior. Charging a commission based on media budgets encouraged wasteful spending, and charging by the hour rewarded agencies for solving problems slowly. The break up of agencies into creative shops, media buying shops and strategy consulting shops is another part of the problem. Strategy and creative have lost touch with media producers — the people who gather consumers into audiences. Publishers need to spend more time with agency creatives, and vice versa.

Fun fact: Dr Suess started his career at McCann drawing art for ads, such as this one for Flit mosquito lotion.

Next up: Linda Descano at Citi called 2011 the “Summer of Like.” Ok, great. Now we have zillions of Likes, what do we do with them? Benjamin Palmer, founder and CEO of the Barbarian Group had a bunch of answers. His shop is helping brands create compelling, frequent content for social media channels. In GE’s case, they’re taking photos of heavy equipment and jet engines, running them through Instagram filters, and pushing them out to a Tumblr blog. Check out all the comments, retweets and Likes before you say corporations can’t bring an authentic, engaging voice to social media.

From my own six minutes on stage (OK, OK, Pam Horan! It was six-and-a-half minutes!), two stats garnered the most interest. At least if the twitterers in the room were representative. 1) Ten percent of the photos taken by humankind were taken in the past 12 months (source), and 2) Google estimates there are somewhere north of 3 trillion images online. Outside discussions of the federal debt, I guess, you just don’t get to use the word trillion that often.

Jason Cavnar, CEO of Singly, introduced a provocative thought: In the future identity will become a paid service. My interpretation: The premium online publishers in the room should put less energy into paywalls and more effort into understanding the real monetary value of audience-data-as-currency. (And the rest of us should spend some time considering how much personal data we currently hand over to websites and ad networks, free of charge.) He also sees a near-future for advertising that’s greatly impacted by HTML5: Forget the crap we mostly put inside 300×250 banners, “turn them into storefronts for brands and newsstands for publishers.”

Moat’s Jonah Goodheart offered a breath of fresh air amid the smog of hyperactive audience targeting by the DSPs: Context matters more than clicks. He cited an example of a wealth management firm canceling an ad campaign with a premium business publication because the click-through rate was low. I’m trying to imagine 1) having enough money that I need a wealth manager, and then 2) clicking on a banner, entering my newfound $8 million dollars into a web form, and hitting Submit. (Here’s who clicks on ad banners.)

My two favorite quotes of the day came from Liberty Media’s Michael Zeisser. First, a summation of his years as a consultant: “I spent 13 years at McKinsey hunting for synergies, and I never found any.” And a word about punditry: “It’s easy to predict the future, unless you have to live the with the consequences.” True enough.