Jonathan Allen is the president of Longneck & Thunderfoot, a digital marketing agency based in New York City. He’s had an illustrious career as the former director of the Ad Age Top 50 and 2012 Gold Azbee National Award-winning SearchEngineWatch.com. Jonathan is a celebrated professional in the industry, regularly speaking at the largest digital marketing conferences in the world, including PubCon, SES London and SES San Francisco. Jonathan is also cited as a digital marketing industry expert for breaking news in the BBC, ClickZ and The Boston Globe.
PA.O: What do you do for a living?
Jonathan Allen: Right now I’m running a brand publishing agency. Essentially, we take company blogs and turn them into proper publications. The goal is to win social and search audiences, then let the blogs build their own fan bases. Now with the Internet, you essentially do not need to be mediated by or rely on the media to convey your message. You can talk directly to your customer.
I used to run a site called SearchEngineWatch.com. I grew that from 600,000 page views a month to 1.4 million. What did it? Basically, I learned how to create a news team and saw that all companies are sort of facing similar kinds of crises. There are lots of tactics you can use to get in touch with search engines to win social media mentions and things like that, but building relationships with organizations and your audience is really tough. It requires a lot of writing and a lot of being responsive to the day-to-day discussions happening online. Rather than being a technology startup, we are talent startup — we invest in editorial talent. We’re just building a big news team that can listen to the market for any kind of company, niche or industry and then build conversations in those areas.
We have been working on this project for just over a year. Our operations are based in the WeWork Soho building where we are part of the Columbia Startup Lab, an incubator program led by Columbia University. We’ve got five editors, two founders and 30 workers.
PA.O: Do you see programmatic as helping or hindering you?
Jonathan Allen: We’ve seen that programmatic has been very successful for our clients. I’d say things like retargeting are definitely useful — it’s really useful for B2B marketing. The B2B industry is interesting because you’ve got these big B2B publications but they are still not running like a proper network yet. There are still the typical large established B2B advertisers, like IBM and Cisco – yet so much of the thought leadership of B2B happens on small company blogs and startup blogs. I haven’t seen a programmatic solution yet for buying audiences on a network of these smaller, more individual blogs.
PA.O: Have there been any campaigns recently that have caught your attention?
Jonathan Allen: I think programmatic videos ads are interesting. I have what they call hipster cable. I don’t run regular cable — just a bunch of apps through my PlayStation. What I find interesting about this is that it gives me a choice of watching a 90-second commercial rather than regular six 15-second ad breaks. I always choose the 90-second commercial and the slightly longer format because it often looks more beautiful to watch and the slower pace provides more time to get a more refined message across. I find that makes for quite a good advertising experience. I think that choices really work as they get our attention. In a funny way, they create this different viewing experience compared to a traditional, interruptive video ad, as one actively commits to the choice of watching it.
PA.O: Say you’re looking at the cover of Advertising Age 50 years from now. What do you think the headline would be? Who might be on the cover?
Jonathan Allen: I imagine if anyone would be on the cover, it would be Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg still has a lot to contribute to the B2B process system. He really has interesting things to say about how Web, digital and all of this stuff is changing.
The cover would say something like, “This cover page is personalized to you.” I think it would probably be programmatic, so it’s going to show a cover that is specifically appealing to you. Electronic media will eventually move outside of computers and mobiles and into the Internet of Things— smart boards and electric paper – things like that.
It might even be paired with virtual reality technology like Oculus Rift. I think it will open a window to the world that you could almost step through. Right now things are all focused on computer graphics, and in 50 years it will actually be about realistically emulating exact environments. It will be something like this is your cover and your cover image might allow you to step through into the “Holiday of Your Dreams!”
PA.O: Disqus has just developed a way for advertisers to put programmatic ads in the comments section of articles. What are your thoughts on this – is this a win for marketers? A loss for consumers?
Jonathan Allen: There is no doubt that content ads are working. Those ads you see have evolved but are still ultimately focused on only one metric – clicks. We see things like, “Three signs you have this disease,” so they’re still a bit click-baity. I think it is interesting how content ads advocate an audience-sharing model. That is a very different mentality from how publishing was only five years ago. Back then, publishers just wanted you to stay on their site and not head off to view content from anyone else.
Now, content ads are basically saying, “Yeah, go and check out all of this other stuff.” However, the problem remains that, at the moment, content ads don’t reflect the detailed experience that their brand publisher or the blogger is trying to create. Programmatic could solve that.
I’d also say that these content ads, at the moment, are not hugely interruptive. I think, in fact, that I prefer these types of ads to like, traditional banners and roadblock ads. Ultimately, Disqus might not insert the ads directly in comments, but find a better user experience. I’m not entirely opposed to the concept of programmatic comment ads if they reflect something interesting. So you could read an article on a genre of computer games, and people could be talking about a bunch of other computer games that you hadn’t yet heard of in the comments, with ads against those mentions. That could actually be useful to the reader. My gut feeling is that this would be a better ad experience than a traditional click ad. If you are reading these comments, you’re part of a type of audience that’s very similar to everyone else, which means that programmatic should be able to reliably target you with things you have a higher chance of being interested in.
PA.O: Does anything jump out to you in the future of advertising in general? Any concerns you might see on the horizon?
Jonathan Allen: Ad fraud is obviously going to continue as one of the biggest threats to the industry. It’s been around forever, and it’s never going to go away.
But, the biggest danger will probably be what Jaron Lanier identified in his book, “Who Owns the Future?” Body data fraud: the selling of the biometric data from the wearables in this general direction of mobile technology.
The general direction that mobile technology is going is all gearing up toward using your body as a data field and creating all kinds of metrics for you. I think that it’s potentially quite dangerous because, as with all software, there would be data leakage, and that kind of data could potentially be used in a harmful or incorrect way. Say you have a rare condition that could affect your job prospects, you could be retargeted – essentially all of that data could be sold and put you in a compromising position.
Intrinsically, people don’t want to sell any of their data. You only tell people you have health issues because you want to tell them, or you keep it private with your doctor. You don’t want a marketplace of people to target you based on your health condition. But, sadly, I think that’s just inevitable. The danger is that it can definitely be used to unfairly marginalize a lot of people – you can create a prequalification system for customers based on all types of intrusive data points.
“Preferred pricing” is another big issue for me (also raised by Jaron Lanier); it is just not good for society. Preferred pricing is essentially the idea that if you can afford that much on a product or service, you can spend that much. It algorithmically changes the price on something based on your ability to spend and market demand. The taxi app Uber has a similar feature called surge pricing. I think constantly responsive market data on all goods and services is bad for society because it means that you are in a constant marketplace for everything. With no fixed prices, the lower and middle classes get entrenched into a situation where their real income becomes effectively equivalent regardless of their actual earnings. Their real income becomes stifled, and they are subject to preferred pricing. That fundamentally impacts spending power which affects jobs and the economy. Potentially huge social problems could arise if we all buy into the short-term solutions and techno babble of disrupting entire industries. In terms of social impact, the track record of disruption is actually not that great and arguably has mainly benefited comparably small numbers of people. All of “the deals” we may be willing to accept now from technology “making the world a better place” could easily come back to haunt us as the cost of these services inevitably increase. Evgeny Morozov argues along a similar line in his book, “To Save Everything Click Here.” Essentially, we’re so bought into the narrative of being “Internet entrepreneurs” that we’ve forgotten some fundamentally entrepreneurial things – such as the fact that a slightly ignorant marketplace is arguably fairer for buyers and sellers. The real value of goods are matched more fairly between the seller’s actual profit margins and what the buyer is willing to pay. By contrast, the company with the most knowledge of the market will nearly always decimate their competitors (and that ultimately leads to bigger social issues like monopolies).
PA.O: Do you have any advice for the next young generation of digital marketers coming through?
Jonathan Allen: I think we have to go beyond sharing to daring. The next generation of companies needs to help people really achieve things. Right now we have a great sharing information system, but it’s still very passive. For the advertising community, sharing is very much just a tactic that ends up falling back on all these old ideas on interruption.
We need someone who can make all of these experiences more participatory but help people literally do more. That’s an old idea for the Internet, using it to literally do more. Advertisers are going to have to differentiate by taking on more responsibility for bigger social causes. I think that these are going to be big issues that can’t essentially be solved. Discussion and cooperation will be the only solutions, and we might have to use brand marketing dollars to fund the exploration of these issues. Brands don’t have to constantly reinvent the stakes in the game; they could just be more invested and effective participants.
Lastly, I would say that the whole pursuit of investment in your company needs to be reassessed. Young people see investing in your company as a huge goal and the golden egg everyone is striving for. I think there is a lot to be said for building a solid business that doesn’t necessarily try to be the biggest business in the world. It’s respectable and admirable.
When you open your business to investors you lose some of that creative leadership and the direction in which you can take that company. I just think it’s worth taking that into account early, otherwise you’ll learn the lesson the hard way. Just because you now have a bigger bank balance you don’t necessarily have more control of your destiny – to some degree you relinquish control. If you have the wisdom and the stamina to grow your business yourself, it’s a beautiful thing. I would personally like to see more coverage of young people just building solid, successful businesses rather than these mega corps. Bootstrapping a solid business is just really cool, and people don’t say it enough.