Big J Institutions Ignore the Digital Truth

January 2019 was another tough month for media companies struggling with ongoing revenue declines. Layoffs came in bunches as Gannett, Buzzfeed, Verizon, The Huffington Post, and others tried to balance the books against losses on the inbound side of the ledger. The problem, however, isn’t those always‐evil “market forces;” it’s now and always has been an inability to correctly read the declines and respond accordingly. To use a very old illustration, if the railroads had known they were in the transportation business, they would’ve owned the airlines. But, no; they assumed they were in the railroad business, which allowed the disruptors in. Same with media: they’re not in the news business; they’re in the advertising business.

The digital advertising market is far bigger than local media companies understand, and this remains the top obstacle in all efforts to “save” local media (and “media” in general). The most baffling element of this is how these companies refuse to even compete for all the dollars locally, choosing instead to compete only for dollars already spent on their models. As a result, the local digital media market is only 15 percent of what’s available totally. And, the saddest part of all of the indictments of media managers is that the market is growing while the traditional forms of advertising are shrinking, so you’d think these corporate managers would want a different business model. They don’t.

Nobody knows this better than Gordon Borrell, the man who provides the measurements for how well or bad these companies are doing. Borrell provides details sliced many ways, but perhaps the most revealing is his recent data on what he now calls the “addressable” digital market. This is a percentage of the total digital advertising market that believe the local media company sales pitches and spend money with these companies. This figure is the share of the market that media companies serve, and it has been shrinking for as long as I’ve known Gordon. What media companies don’t seem to understand is that their model is inefficient, because it’s based on the archaic marketing rules (reach/frequency) governing mass marketing. Meanwhile, digital pure play companies (those who exist to provide targeted ads to individual browsers based on those browsers’ history) get 85 percent of the total market.

In a webinar last month, Borrell provided data about this “addressable” market, and while it remains a big number, it’s nowhere near the overall marketplace. Here’s a snapshot of that (provided to us by Borrell), and it shows the futility of chasing only those dollars spent with a mass marketing model.

Data provided by Borrell Associates

This graph reveals that all of these media companies today are competing for only 15 percent of the total market. In Texas, they call this “dumber than a bucket of hair,” but Borrell is much more circumspect, calling this obvious failure a product of the environment in which local media companies operate. That’s fine, but shallow industry thinking is never created by “the devil made me do it;” it’s a question of knowledge, tools, and the intelligence on how to proceed.

Many years ago — before I went to work for AR&D in 2006 — I was invited to make a presentation to a media group in Tampa. Sweeping changes were just beginning to impact their business, and they wanted a summary of those changes, so they could figure out what to do. At the end of my session, I was asked a question that completely altered my focus on “the problem” they faced. “This is all great, Terry,” the top dog said, “but where’s the money?” I didn’t have a very good answer for them, so I spent the next 10 years studying the question. The conclusion I reached early on was that if these companies continued to proceed with only mass marketing as their model, they would soon fade from relevance altogether.

So, to me, the issue wasn’t about content, because while media content was certainly being disrupted, the blow to their business model was the only one that really mattered. Nobody listened, in part because these companies are run by mostly older men, who seek first to help themselves and their families in a comfortable retirement. Rocking the boat isn’t conducive to that end, and this is another part of Gordon’s “environment” that contributes to making foolish decisions at the top.

On another occasion, I was making a presentation to the top managers of an east coast media company. Among the strategies I recommended was to get into the local search business. The owner of the privately‐held company was present, and he asked me, “You really want me to compete against Google?” I said, “Of course. Google is competing against you.” The company tried a couple of things I recommended, but their need to move every innovation into their mass media business model proved me right.

I simply couldn’t convince anybody that targeting individual browsers in the community was the Holy Grail of digital advertising and abdicating this to the pure plays was corporate malfeasance. At core, the problem begins with executives believing they’re in the news business. They’re not. They’re in the advertising business, and that’s where their focus should be.

And, here’s the most chilling aspect of this: local media companies are unable to see the impact the disruption to advertising is having on the local communities they serve. Here’s another image from Borrell’s addressable market presentation:

85% of digital advertising money that originates in the community goes to pure play internet companies. That money leaves the market forever. These companies pay no local taxes, employ no local people, contribute to nobody’s community chest, and are a net drain on the economic well‐being of the community. This money drain is staggering compared to what local media companies are getting, and it shows no sign of a reversal any time soon.

Finally, I had a telephone conversation once with a guy from an ad exchange about the possibility of partnering with local media companies. In what was an embarrassing reality, this sales executive told me, “We don’t need to partner with anybody, Terry, because we already have access to 100% of the browsers in any market anyway.” 

You can ask Borrell about all of this for yourselves at his annual Local Online Advertising Conference March 11–12 in New York.

If I owned a local business, I certainly would want my money to go where it’s the most efficient and effective for growth, and all the evidence loudly screams that targeting local browsers is the way to go. The sales pitch of the account exec representing my favorite TV station seems shallow and archaic in comparison. There are no secrets that media salespeople can manipulate to their advantage anymore, and maybe that’s the real problem.

Regardless, managers who wince as if I’m calling their baby “ugly” have only themselves to blame, because the things I preached back then have certainly all come to pass. It ain’t rocket science, folks, and here’s a final prophecy for consideration. Either local media companies band together to attack the problem at the local level, or there will only be room for one “winner” in each market in the not‐so‐distant future.

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