Pride Goeth Before a Fall: Consumer Magazines Talk About Building an Ad Network

According to Advertising Age, rival consumer magazine publishers are talking about working together to build an ad network in order to offer competitive reach compared to other ad networks. Foremost in the minds of the publishers is the price of their inventory, which has been decimated by third-party ad networks, in their joint estimation. Now, they have determined, it's time to circle the wagons.

Presumably, salespeople at each magazine would be allowed to sell across the ad network. Or, participants could be envisioning a dedicated network team apart from the rest with shared responsibility for sales. Or, they may be thinking of one person per sales force exclusively responsible for network sales. The parties may be looking at the Newspaper National Network (NNN) as a model, which has done reasonably well for its newspaper clients offline - albeit, as a stand-alone business.

Whatever. The reality is this (and it bites): a horizontal consumer magazine ad network is the wrong model. Don't do it.

Aside from the fact that magazine publishers, much as competitors in any other field group, have never shown themselves to be especially good colleagues and collaborators except when attending awards banquets, the horizontal network model will not protect them from brand erosion, the source of all value. If they propose to compete on reach, for performance, by selling across each other's properties price will enter into it - and the price will be lower. If charging less on one's own for one's self can make one feel better, then we must come to terms with the fact that one is not protecting brand; one is protecting pride.

Pride in something has value. Pride for the sake of pride does not. And, today, in truth, there is altogether too much pride being confused for brand among major media companies.

Time to get over it.

A little competition is the thing to make everyone feel better and to support brand value. If magazines want to compete with ad networks they should, indeed, start their own, but they should be proprietary, vertical networks that sink deep roots under their brand promises and take aim at competitive brand properties, as always.

Horizontal generalizes. Vertical specifies. Brands are a set of specific promises, including media brands. If consumer magazines try to compete on reach they will compete on price, thus giving the market permission, effectively, to plan and buy accordingly. Under those circumstances, third-party horizontal ad networks will win.

Don't do it. Compete on brand and drill deeper into the proposition.

How? Build vertical brand networks by inviting independent web publishers to assemble under established media brands and sell down through those networks. Voilà, reach happens. Price will follow reach down, but for independent publishers anything above a $1.00 is a win. Bring them $5.00 cpms and they will slay dragons for the provider. Speak in admiring tones about their work and the admiration will cause them to shine. The shine will cast a glow on the market and, voilà - brand halos.

Right now, it's apparently in the heads of people at consumer magazines that everyone will be judged better if they keep in the exclusive company of each other. For better or worse, snobs don't really behave that way. Mostly, they conspire continuously to undermine their neighbors and gain the advantage, and this is how it will be with a consumer magazine network.

The status quo, relying on third-parties that are unaligned and unvested in the brand, is clearly no way forward. Consumer magazines are right to want to seek new partners. They would be wise to pick ones that desire them to be successful in the future and are willing to provide unconditional support.

Who is that going to be? It will be the have-nots, the wannabe's, the aspiring and the yet-to-be-discovered - the Great Unwashed in the Internet wagon train heading west.

And...if you build it, they will come.