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The Death of Interruption

NBCU’s Linda Yaccarino has been speaking out about what she sees as an existential crisis in the ad supported content world. On Tuesday, she convened a power meet-up of the industry’s most influential leaders to discuss changes she feels are necessary to fix the ecosystem, changes that include better metrics and market dynamics.

With full admiration for the goals Ms. Yaccarino set out, there’s an underlying issue that makes measurement, market dynamics, fraud and any of the other discussions that have consumed us for quite some time seem secondary. Not that these aren’t real issues, but the root cause of the hard-to-solve challenges for video advertising may be what I call “The Death of Interruption.”

In the Before Time, the only way you could skip ads was to channel flip (remember the Larry Sanders go-to-commercial line, “no flipping”?), but you didn’t always flip channels because at first you didn’t have a remote, and then when you got one, you worried about not getting back to your show in time. Or you were just too lazy.

Time shifting ended interruption.

At nearly the same time as Tivo was popularizing the DVR, the web was placing ads next to content rather than between segments. Yes, we had pop-ups, pop-unders, and a half-dozen forms of “stitial,” but people hated them and publishers became skittish about the hate. People didn’t like pre-rolls either, so we let them off the hook entirely when we started to make pre-rolls skippable.

As an industry, we seem to have decided to make a guiding principle out of “value exchange,” asking ads to earn the audience’s attention. But ads were never why the audience showed up in the first place.

Give a man an ad, he’ll become a consumer; teach a man to ad-skip, he’ll go his own way.

Terrestrial radio, some streaming services (Hulu, CBS), and some pre-roll ads still interrupt. In-feed ads like Facebook’s still, at least, inescapably flow by. (Auto-play ads aren’t the same as interruption, by the way — interruption was part of the bargain, part of the consumer expectation, in the Before Times, whereas now, if you mess with the new expectation of total control, you create significant publisher and brand risk. After all, we didn’t used to watch TV at work the way we now surf the web at work.) In a recent Digiday profile,Ms. Yaccarino asked “Has a view ever bought your product?”

Well, actually it did, back when old-school TV interruption was capable of delivering nothing else.

Interruption earns its attention by being unavoidable. An old TV ad simply got attention for being there, and only then did it have to be good. No one asked a TV ad to be good enough to make the consumer want to watch it. That is indeed a high bar.

When we lost interruption, didn’t we also lose a big part of the idea of advertising? Aren’t we really in this jam because we’ve allowed audience expectations under which ads inherently struggle to control the medium? Haven’t we, as an industry, come to share many of those expectations? (Ask a room full of media execs if they use a DVR and almost every hand goes up).

And shouldn’t today’s approach be to go beyond looking for new measurements to show ad effectiveness or trying to solve Tower of Babel issues around ad types or forcefully standing up to the duopoly, and instead fully rethink how brands can sell and how content companies can make money?

Or are we too afraid — either of the fact that we’ll come up with nothing or of the turmoil and displacement and winnowing that would likely follow a rethink — to do anything but fiddle with metrics while Rome burns?

This isn’t to say that more polite ads are not effective, that display ads are meaningless, or that measurement and fraud are not important. For the video publisher, though – and I’m sure they are Ms. Yaccarino’s main interest – they simply may be secondary to a more foundational issue. I’m actually quite bullish that the future of great ad-supported video content is particularly bright in OTT, where expectations are not yet so set that we can’t find answers. But those answers will not come from being meek about “earning attention.”

Thanks for reading. Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming

Oh wait, there’s no such thing.

 

Matthew Rosenberg is a principle at First Chair Marketing