There was an attention drought for the longest time. Marketers paid a fortune for TV ads (and in fact, network ads sold out months in advance) because it was so difficult to find enough attention. Ads worked, so the more ads you bought, the more money you made, thus marketers took all they could get.
This attention shortage drove our economy.
The internet has done something wacky to this situation. It has created a surplus of attention. Ads go unsold. People are spending hours on YouTube or Twitter or Facebook or other sites and not spending their attention on ads, because the ads are either absent or not worth watching.
When people talk about the problem with free online, they're missing the point. Free is creating lots of attention, but marketers haven't gotten smart enough to do something profitable with that attention.
Hint: funny commercials with chimps won't be the answer.
It turns out that the almost infinitely long tail of attention varieties is what will kick open the monetization of online attention. Yes, I will give my attention to an ad, but only if it's anticipated, personal and relevant. We still give permission to marketers that earn it, but so few marketers do.
Simple example: Ten years ago, there was nowhere for a company like Best Made Axe to advertise. Today, with billions of tiny micromarkets, it's not hard to imagine many audiences of one or two or three or ten that would be delighted to know about their products. Right now, there's no easy way for a marketer to conceptualize that effort, never mind execute it, though it's surely coming.
Big companies, non-profits and even candidates will discover hyperlocal, hyperspecialized, hyperrelevant… this is where we are going, and it turns out that this time, the media is way ahead of the marketers.