I was reminded recently of the fact that I have used the Internet longer than 95 percent of its current users. That still puts me in the company of thousands, tens of thousands even. But it also means I remember things at the beginning of the explosion that millions don’t. I clearly remember when I could keep up with all the new cool web sites on the web. All of them. I remember when the blink tag rebellion started. I remember Yahoo! from the beginning. Also there’s the memory of the burgeoning New York new media crowd, in its prime in 1994 and 1995. I attended those early meetings. I read their newsletters, scoped their web sites, sent them email. What stands out in my mind was the sinking feeling that overcame me when I read and heard what they had to say: these people were rejects. They were failed advertising account executives, pony-tailed musicians who peaked in high school, middle-level print production grunts, art school grads temping for a living, ex-models of both sexes, a slough of writers who’d yet to find their niche and hoped to create a new market for their detritus, hopeful actors who kept dropping trays. These people believed they would lead the way. They would succeed at last. That they were a whining, noogey splotch of pedants never seemed to bother them. That they were already late-comers didn’t seem to bother them a bit. Their ideas amounted to rebelling against traditional media. Destroy the tyranny. But the ideas were retreads and backed by greed more than business plans. About the time Kyle Shannon gave me his business card for the seventh time, not remembering giving me the first six, I was ready to give it up. That was not the cause of my disgruntlement, only symptomatic. I wanted no part of “new media.” I rejected the glad-handing, dollar-oriented approach, pleated pants and white oxford shirts with sweat-stained collars and cheap running shoes. It was worse than the fakey-fakey world of advertising I loathed, but at least as IT Director of a 60-person ad agency I could avoid the worst of it, and I could stay out of new media. Underlying my rejection was the tendency to avoid something based upon the people who have taken it up, to judge music or a trend or a work of art not by the characteristics of the product, but by the nature of its supporters, by the quality of its fans. I rejected the new media business because I felt fouled by its proponents. After the glut of one-man web site building shops had begun to blur the difference between 12-year-old HTML wizzes in Kansas City and professional graphic designers gone digital, conglomerated agencies of the supposed pros struggled to find a white collar niche that would put them above the blue collar labor of site building. Against all odds (and ultimately doomed to failure), I convinced the old-school ad agency I was working with to seek an alliance with one of these new companies. The Internet, I predicted, would ultimately join print and broadcast as a medium crucial to the advertising business. As much as I loathed new media, I knew it was the way to go. An old-school agency could give a new media group expertise in everything they lacked, and they could provide the digital age component. Originally we submitted requests for proposal to eight agencies; six declined to respond. I knew people at these companies personally and I found out why they declined: they wanted to be seen as something other than web page creators. “We,” I heard in these exact words more than once, “do not build web sites.” What these new media companies laid claim to was the realm of the traditional advertising agency outside of actual advertising itself: branding, media buying, marketing, public relations, anything just short of advertising. They rarely laid claim to advertising because they believed advertising agencies were representatives of Satan. You never heard a mob cheer louder than at a New York New Media Association meeting when somebody ripped into traditional advertising agencies. If they had an effigy, they would have burned it. One reason they didn’t want to be seen as web site builders is because the exorbitant fees could no longer be charged for that service. Anyone could do web pages, and would, for far less than the $80 or more dollars per hour or the $7500 dollars a site some companies were charging. When times were good in the beginning, when talent was rare, these companies squandered that easy cash, over-invested in technology, office space and personnel and failed to foresee the current glut of expertise; even old-school Olgilvy did it. Now that margins were thinner, they saw a need to diversify their areas of expertise into more profitable new media enterprises and so chose to abandon web page creation, at least in name. In truth, they were still building web sites but brushing on a thin patina of branding and marketing lingo. These new media agencies felt they could completely replace “old media.” Completely. There was only one problem. Many of these new media agencies had virtually no experience in the areas they were trying lay claim to: no real branding experience, no media-buying capabilities, no way of launching a campaign in any medium but their own. They had no expertise. I sat in these meetings, both on behalf of my day job and on behalf of a couple of personal IT clients. I recognized what I was seeing, having seen it in the ad world before: they were going to pitch the business as if they could handle it, then hire freelance talent like mad, even job the business out wholesale to other, more capable companies. So they hired more of the failed account executives, the cast-offs. This talent was cheap. Some of the recycled talent thrived. Some brought in competent friends. In time, the new media agencies became traditional advertising clones, the ones we see today. They are indistinguishable from traditional agencies. A dot com in the name means nothing. It amuses me to remember the chorus of complaints against old media in those early meetings, then remember what new media has become. What does this sound like?
Posted May 26, 2000