Advertising’s hidden design and its impact on our culture

Media changes everything. Media drives our expectations, our conversations and our culture.

And what drives the media? Ads.

Two kinds, it turns out: Brand ads and direct ads. Brand ads are the unmeasurable, widely seen ads you generally think of when you think of an ad. A billboard, a TV commercial, an imprinted mug. Direct ads, on the other hand, are action-oriented and measurable. Infomercials, mail order catalogs and many sorts of digital media are considered direct marketing. 

It takes guts to be a brand marketer.

What's the return on a $75,000 investment of a full-page ad in the New Yorker?

What's the yield on a three-million dollar Super Bowl commercial?

We have no idea. Brand marketers don't do math. They pay attention to the culture instead.

On the other hand, it takes math to be a direct marketer.

What's the yield on this classified ad? How many people used that discount code? How many clicks did we get?

The challenge of new media is this: Media companies can't figure out if they're selling brand ads or direct ads. And many who want to buy these ads can't decide either.

At the beginning of most sorts of media, it's the brand marketers who go first. The first to buy banner ads, or podcast ads or Facebook ads were brands with a budget to spend on new media that was esteemed by early adopters. MailChimp gets a huge benefit by sponsoring podcasts, but they can't measure those ads. And that's fine with them.

The next wave that hits new forms of media, almost always, is the seduction of the direct marketer. That's because direct marketers always have plenty of money to invest in ads that pay for themselves. The thing is, though, that direct marketers don't care about the medium, they care about the response. As a result, there's a huge gulf, a tension between what the medium wants (a great podcast, a website with authority, a social network with character) and what the direct marketer wants (measurable clicks).

Consider this: The best direct marketing advertising media is permission based. Ads where the ads are the point. Ads where the ads are not only measurable but the focus of the experience. Classified ads. Craigslist. Catalogs. The coupons in the Sunday paper. The Yellow Pages. Google AdWords. These are all forms of advertising we might miss if they were gone, and they are all forms of measurable direct marketing.

The best brand media, on the other hand, is media that informs and entertains despite the ads, not because of them. These podcasts, newscasts, blogs and magazines often run ads as their business model, but the ads don't drive the product, it's the other way around. 

The actionable steps:

a. If you're a media company that one day wants to be respected enough to attract brand marketers, refuse to maximize the clicks. The direct marketers will push you to develop the equivalent of classified ads, of Google Adwords–ads we want to see merely because they're ads. These are the most effective forms of direct marketing, because the people who look at them want to look at them. It's a form of Permission Marketing, and it works. But a short term focus on yield doesn't lead to a great podcast, and too many clickable popunders has been the demise of many a trusted website.

b. If you're considering buying ads, be super clear about what the ads are for. Just because you can measure clicks doesn't mean you should. It's that middle ground, the netherland between direct and brand, that leads to disappoint, both for you and the media company.

The challenge:

a. If you're a media company (particularly a website or a podcast, but possibly a conference or a magazine) and you're hungry for advertising, you'll soon end up hearing from direct marketers who want you to sacrifice your long-term standing with readers and attendees in order to make their clicks go up, who want more coupons redeemed and more short-term results. Try to remember that these advertisers aren't sponsors who care about your status or long-term prospects, they are direct marketers who will switch to a better yield the moment they can. That's the direct marketer's job.

b. If you're a direct marketer, your peers are going to push you to make ads that are more palatable to a brand marketer's sensibility. The problem with this, of course, is that you'll end up neither here nor there. You won't be culturally embraced the way an actual brand marketer can be, and you won't generate the yield you were looking for.

I've been a direct marketer for a long time, and it's entirely possible that I'll get kicked out of the hall of fame for saying this, but the fact is that the media that shapes our culture was not invented for or by direct marketers. 

Now that digital media is becoming a significant driver of our culture, I'm concerned that more and more media companies are hoping to get paid by direct marketers. That's never been a good match.