Old Warriors Descend from On High
"You're born, you take shit. You get out in the world, you take more shit. You climb a little higher, you take less shit. Till one day you're up in the rarefied atmosphere and you've forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake, son." - Eddie Temple, Layer Cake
ad:tech's Wednesday evening keynote, entitled Old Warriors Don't Die!, gave war-hardy industry executives a rare opportunity to reflect on the early state of online communication. Moderator Tony Perkins of AlwaysOn Network moved discourse saltily between the following panelists: founder Jonathan Nelson of Organic, founder Kevin O'Connor of O'Connor Ventures, managing general partner Bob Davis of Highland Capital, and co-founder Gene DeRose of House Party, Inc.
One awesome thing about the old warriors is their ain't-no-thang frankness. I remembered how diplomatic the Art of Conversation panel was. The mavericks of the Internet's groundfloor have no apologies, nobody to play diplomat with. One example is Perkins' description of Jason Calacanis' email-only interview policy as "chickenshit."
Oh, how I grinned.
O'Connor noted online mavens in the '90's focused on profitability and earnings, a priority falling at-odds with public perception of the Internet as a democratic medium whose depths should be accessible at no personal expense. Because of this fine line, a pure model for monetization remains nebulous even in the digital age.
I recalled the immense freedom I felt when we first got AOL, way back in the early '90's. I had no idea what the scope was of what I could do, but even then, staring at those generic start-up icons, the world felt wide open. GeoCities and Angelfire, those early purveyors of self-publishing, became treasure troves of fan-fiction and celebrity gossip just waiting to be discovered.
Davis described how he first got into ad-serving, laughing about how it was either that or porn. Alternatively someone on his team proposed putting resumes online, but few understood the point: "'Nobody uses the Internet!'" Davis recalled himself saying.
O'Connor confirms his choice, noting that the Internet is essentially a cashbox for advertisers. Few content purveyors make the kind of money ad servers are able to.
Amid the week's buzz about social media and the plethora of communications capabilities burst open by Web 2.0, Nelson made a little-acknowledged point: that media is a trillion-dollar industry, with spenders directing overwhelming energy to the billions invested on the Internet. This leaves little room to concentrate on the large one-third of capital streaming through traditional forms of marketing.
Bringing the 'net down from its lofty space in media hierarchy, O'Conner called the Internet the greatest direct marketing medium ever, though it's little more than a new iteration of cave walls. "Where there's an audience, there's an advertiser trying to buy it," he chided to his vlog-happy audience.
One evident difference between the Internet's past and present lies in the evolution of discourse. One listener, who called herself an old warrior in her own right, noticed Web 2.0 moves away from terms like "broadcast" and "audience" in favor of "dialogue and community."
"What do you think about that?" she asked the panelists after pointing out, embarrassingly, that they're still using the old vernacular.
Davis responded with characteristic cavalier. The number one problem with marketers, he said, is that they fall in love with their brands. After reflecting a moment on the non-stop discourse about "dialogue" and "building relationships" he concluded, "I don't think consumers really want that. What would we talk to them about?"
A consequent confused quiet followed. It was a fascinating statement. What are we looking for when an ad seizes us? Ourselves, I thought. It's what you feel when you're moved by some Annie Leibovitz spread. You can even find a little bit of you in those Jesus - LOL image spoofs.
That's what going viral's all about - finding something that speaks to you, even if it's just stupid-funny, and sharing with people you know will get it.
The Internet is all about communicating, Davis added. "People don't want to be advertised-to while communicating."
Is that a fact, or is it just that advertising has to work harder to become part of these conversations?
I walked away feeling both confused and enlightened. Is this what a religious experience feels like?