Bonnie vs. Hammerbacher

The question of how much time and talent should be spent on “making people click ads” was highlighted by Jeffrey Hammerbacher’s infamous statement, after leaving Facebook, that “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

The quote was repeated so often, and for so long, that Hammerbacher felt compelled to say later, in an interview with Charlie Rose, “That’s going to be on my tombstone, I think.”  Hammerbacher has since then softened his rhetoric, but the general viewpoint has long been part of the mental landscape of the digital media business: publishers and marketers conspire to manipulate users into clicking as many ads as possible, for monetary gain, and, well, that sucks.

This view did not originate with Hammerbacher, of course. It’s as old as the publishing business. Granted, in the old days of print media, you didn’t click on an ad, but you could sometimes scratch or tear one, e.g. to release the scent of a perfume being offered, or take out a coupon to bring to your retailer. Getting readers to do something with their fingers that was ultimately advantageous to a marketer has been part of the content business since before Hammerbacher’s parents were born, and so has the lament over it.

The cause of that lament can be brought to the fore by calling out what the real product of the publishing business is. It’s not a magazine, a blog post, or a news article. No, it’s your eyeballs. Audience attention (usually of a specific, segmented audience) is the product that media companies sell to advertisers. According to this view, you’re giving your attention for free to someone who then sells it for a profit (and laughs all the way to the bank).

While there is a kernel of truth in that, I know it’s just not true of all media companies, because I was fortunate enough to work for a few years with one that operated quite differently: CNET circa 2002-2005. There I got to know Shelby Bonnie, who from the top down set a vision for how the company would guide itself.  I’ll never forget the first conversation I ever had with Shelby, wherein he drew this simple Venn diagram on a whiteboard:

Venn diagram

The concept is simple and elegant. “There are things that are good for marketers, and there are things that are good for users, and there is some overlap between them. And that is what we will do at CNET,” Shelby explained.

And he was serious about it: every item on every page was expected to belong in that center region of the diagram. Ads should be relevant and informative with respect to the subject matter that visitors were engaging with, and all the content (even that brought in by marketers) should be uniquely valuable, timely, and accurate. CNET was an early pioneer in both native advertising and content marketing — ways of making the marketer contribute to the content, not distract from it.

We tested every new idea by this paradigm. And I was never asked to work for one minute on anything that didn’t satisfy Shelby’s criteria.

So, I submit that there are two strata of the Web — the one Hammerbacher sees and the one Shelby sees. Both are real. They are both interwoven and imperfectly so. But focus your eyes properly, and you can see the one you want to see.

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