2008 has been a year of uncertainty - but it will pass

Staggering innovation and breath­taking entrepreneurialism? No, the story of media 2008 was uncertainty.

Richard Eyre, chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau
Richard Eyre, chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau

Above all, the hideous economy cast its shadow. Until April, it was pretty much business as usual, but around Easter the fog suddenly descended, giving no visibility on future revenues and ushering in a second half where we first glimpsed the confidence void ahead.

As always, we media disciples occupy our gloomy place at the front of the procession into recession.

The downturn came at a bad time for some of the most impressive innovators in our sector, just as they were grappling with a second uncertainty - the changing behaviours of audiences.

The social networkers had not convincingly resolved their conundrum of how to raise revenues to match the scale of the habit they founded and all the talk about online video didn't spare YouTube from the same malaise of fabulous audiences but miserable revenues.

This is a change in the rules because the gathering together of an audience used to be a de facto advertising opportunity. But apparently the enlightened digital audience is not so compliant. The personal appeal of such spaces is because they're "ours", not "theirs" - and ads are outsiders. Ironically, therefore, the commercial malfunction of such places is directly attributable to their social success.

Uncertainty of a third kind wrapped its strangulating hand around one of the most important innovations in our sector. Behavioural targeting is a game-changer for advertisers. Finally, we get beyond the desperately poor technique of shovelling widely disparate humanity into huge socio-demographic silos where they can be counted.

Regulators have been worrying about the use of data unobtrusively collected through our internet use to improve the relevance of ads.

This is simpler to attack than defend. But the fact that a machine somewhere is serving me more interesting ads because it has logged my online behaviour is no more an infringement of my human rights or my privacy than a superb concierge knowing enough about me to recommend me a great restaurant. Or Amazon using my previous purchases to suggest books and music I might enjoy.

So we're working hard to find an approach that is not bombed out on principle by privacy zealots - media vegans who want to deny the rest of us steak. This is important because the digital public has largely set its face against paying for internet content, making advertising the energy in the online economy.

Behavioural targeting redeems us from a rubbish, geriatric technique, and potentially makes advertising a more welcome part of the experience.

There is no doubt it will become our normal way of interacting with people, so let's get the rules of engage­ment sorted quickly and with the support of agencies and advertisers.

Next we must consider the mobile, the increasingly smart device we all own. Its future is centre stage in the media world, but the uncertainty is over who goes first. Most publishers are waiting for the public to catch on, but it will be compelling content that will invite the change in behaviour we all know is coming.

Such boldness in the teeth of recession is asking a lot, but in 2001, when public companies went quiet on the internet, the organisations who pressed on, such as The Guardian and the BBC, won themselves a six-year advantage.

Confidence is a fragile treasure - it underwrites all innovation and entrepreneurialism, and we lost it in 2008. It seems there has never been a time when we know less than we know now, but this is a season of uncertainty. It will pass.

Richard Eyre is chairman of the Internet Advertising Bureau
richard.eyre@haymarket.com

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