LANDOVER, MD – SEPTEMBER 24: Washington Redskins players link arms during the national anthem before their game against the Oakland Raiders at FedExField on September 24, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
A recent top news story has been NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. The controversy was amplified when President Trump weighed in with objections to this behavior, and his recommendation that the NFL pass a rule disallowing it. This kind of controversy doesn’t make life easier for NFL leaders, but it really isn’t their biggest problem. Ratings didn’t start dropping recently, viewership has been declining since 2015.
NFL ratings stalled in 2015
NFL viewership had a pretty steady climb through 2014. But in 2015 ratings leveled. Then in 2016 viewership fell a whopping 9%. During the first 6 weeks of the 2016 regular season (into early October)viewership was down 11%. Through the first 9 weeks of 2016 ratings were down 14% before things finally leveled off. Although nobody had a clear explanation why viewership declined so markedly, there was widespread agreement that 2016 was a ratings crash for the league. Fox had its worst NFL viewership since 2008, and ESPN had its worst since 2005.
Interestingly, later analysis showed that overall people were watching 5% more games. But they were watching less of each game. In other words, fans had become more casual about their viewership. People were watching less TV, watching less cable, and that included live sports. And those who stream games almost never streamed the entire game.
And this behavior change wasn’t limited to the NFL. As reported at Politifact.com, Paulsen, editor in chief of Sports Media Watch said, “it’s really important to note the NFL is not declining while other leagues are increasing. NASCAR ratings are in the cellar right now. The NBA had some of its lowest rated games ever on network television last year… It’s an industry-wide phenomenon and the NFL isn’t immune to it anymore.” So the declining viewership problem is widespread, and much older than the recent national anthem controversy.
Live sports is not attracting new, younger viewers
Magna Global recently released its 2017 U.S. Sports Report. According to Radio + Television Business Report (RBR.com) the age of live sports viewers is scewing older. Much older. Today the average NFL viewer is at least 50. Similar to tennis, and college basketball and football. That’s second only to baseball at 57 – which was 50 as recently as 2000. But no sport is immune. NHL viewers are now typically 49. They were 33 in 2000. As simple arithmetic shows, the same folks are watching hockey but few new viewers are being attracted. Based on recent trends, Magna projects viewership for the Sochi Olympics and 2018 World Cup will both decline.
I’ve written before about the importance of studying demographic trends when planning. These trends are highly reliable, even if boring. And they provide a lot of insight. In the case of live sports watching, younger people simply don’t sit down and watch a complete game. Younger people have different behaviors. They watch an entire season of shows in one day. They multi-task, doing many things at once. And they prefer information in short bursts – like weekly blogs rather than a book. And they are more interested in outcomes, the final result, than watching how it happened. Where older people watch a game play-by-play, younger people simply want to know the major events and the final score.
To understand what’s happening with NFL ratings we really don’t have to look much further than simple demographics — the aging of the U.S. population — and the change in viewing behavior from older groups to younger groups.
Unfortunately, according to a recent CNN poll, while 56% of people under age 45 think the recent demonstrations are the right thing to do, 59% of those over 45 say the demonstrations are wrong. In its “core” NFL viewership folks don’t like the kneeling, so it would appear the NFL should heed the President’s advice. But, looking down the road, the NFL won’t succeed unless it finds a way to attract a younger audience. With younger people approving the demonstrations NFL leadership risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater if they knee-jerk control player behavior.
Understanding customer demographic trends, and adapting, is crucial to success
The demonstrations are interesting as an expression of American ideals. And they are gathering a lot of discussion. But they are not what’s plaguing NFL viewership. Today the NFL has a much bigger task of making changes to attract young people as viewers. Should leaders shorten the game’s length? Should they change rules to increase scoring and create more excitement during the game? Should they invest in more apps to engage viewers in play-by-play activity? Should they seek out ways to allow more gambling during the game? Whatever leadership does, the traditions of the NFL need to be tested and altered in order to attract new people to watching the game if they want to preserve the advertising dollars that make it a success.
When your business falters, do you look at long-term trends, or react to a short-term event? It’s easy for politicians and newscasters to focus on the short-term, creating headlines and controversy. But business leaders have an obligation to look much deeper, and longer term. It is critical we move beyond “that’s the way the game is played” to looking at how the game may need to change in order to remain relevant and engage new customers.
Note how boxing recently brought in a mixed martial arts fighter to take on the world champion. The outcome was nearly a foregone conclusion, but nobody cared because it brought in people to a boxing match that otherwise would not have been there. If you don’t recognize demographic shifts, and take actions to meet emerging trends you risk becoming as left behind as cricket, badminton, horseshoes, bocce ball and darts.
Photo: NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 19: Writers and crew of ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ attend 69th Writers Guild Awards New York Ceremony at Edison Ballroom on February 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
The Late Show hosted by Stephen Colbert is now the #1 program in late night television. This come-from-far-behind change in market leadership, overtaking The Tonight Show hosted by Jimmy Fallon, is not about politics. It is about understanding trends and using them to create value.
Back in February, 2014 there was real concern about the future of late night television. Audiences had peaked decades before, when Nightline was huge and competed with The Tonight Show hosted by legend Johnny Carson. By 2014 many wondered if American programming after the late news was all shifting to cable TV as audiences continued shrinking. Producers replaced Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon in order to revitalize viewers. Jimmy Kimmel was moved up in time as ABC killed Nightline, hoping he could carve out a growing niche. And David Letterman, late night’s senior statesman, was about to be replaced by cable satirist Stephen Colbert. But these changes gathered little industry interest, because the time slots simply were not doing well for broadcasters – or advertisers.
Fallon maintained a dominant lead in the time slot as Colbert’s first year was a yawner.
As TheWrap.com reported in September, 2016
, despite the fanfare of Colbert taking over hosting, he “posed no threat whatsoever to Jimmy Fallon.” Fallon’s show maintained a huge lead. With 3.65 million viewers it bested The Late Show
by over 800,000. Colbert, with 2.82 million viewers seemed mostly trying to keep a lead over Kimmel’s 2.3 million viewers.
ANDREW LIPOVSKY/NBC/NBCU PHOTO BANK VIA GETTY IMAGES
Meanwhile the producers at The Late Show kept their eyes on the mood of the electorate.
They had largely let Colbert promote Democrat Clinton, and even though she lost the election noted she had won the popular vote. As Colbert continued to criticize the President, his audience grew. Soon, Colbert was beating Fallon in total audience – something nobody predicted just a few months earlier. It was quite a surprise when the 2016-2017 September to May season drew to a close and it was discovered that Colbert actually won the time slot, producing a larger total audience than Fallon. It was only about 20,000 – but it was a win few saw coming.
The Late Show writers and producers noted the historic and growing unpopularity of President Trump, and the public interest in ongoing investigations, and built the headlines into the show. Variety headlined on 7/25/17 “Stephen Colbert’s Russia Week Lofts Late Show to Biggest Weekly Win Ever.” Using audience trends The Late Showdevoted a week to a comical look at Russia, which saw it generate a 2.87million total audience in comparison to The Tonight Show‘s 2.42million – a beat of a whopping 450,000 viewers.
All of this is very good news for CBS.
NBC (NBC/Universal is a division of Comcast) is not losing money on The Tonight Show. And in the desirable segment of those age 18-49 Fallon still has the largest audience. But, it is a good thing for CBS to have so many new viewers. It brings in more advertisers, and higher revenues for each ad. This leads to more profits.
One might say that this is all about the hosts, and their political leanings. Maybe the content is driven by host opinions. But CBS is winning viewers because it is following trends, and matching its programming to trends. This is growing its late night audience, while NBC’s is shrinking.
Steve Burke, chief executive of NBC Universal was quoted in the New York Times saying “I think the answer is for Jimmy to be Jimmy.” Sounds like what a father might say about his son when the boy finds himself in a rough patch. But I’m not so sure its the position a company CEO should take regarding a very expensive employee in the lead of a major project.
Maybe NBC’s producers should spend more time looking at trends, and figuring out how to program content that will improve The Tonight Show‘s competitiveness. The show was upended in just one year. What will total audience look like next May when the 2017-2018 season ends? Will revenues and profits be unaffected if NBC’s audience keeps falling while CBS’s keeps growing?
For the rest of us, the lesson should be clear. Nobody is relegated to always being #2. Regardless the leader’s size, if you study trends and figure out how to leverage them you can grow, and you can become #1.
Understanding trends and applying them to your business is the best way to invigorate growth and improve your competitiveness.
Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy this week. And the obvious response was “another retailer slaughtered by Amazon and on-line retailing.” But this conclusion comes short of describing why Toys R Us leadership did not do the obvious things to keep Toys R Us relevant.
Amazon and WalMart both eclipsed Toys R Us in toy retail sales.
Chart courtesy of Felix Richter, Statista
Everyone, and I mean everyone, knew over the last decade that customers were buying more stuff on-line, including toys. And everyone also knew that WalMart was pushing extremely hard to keep customers going to their stores by offering products like toys at low prices. And, it was clear that customers were shifting to buying more toys from both these retailers. If this was so obvious to everyone, why didn’t Toys R Us leadership do something? After all, Toys R Us is a multi-billion dollar revenue company.
It was over 30 years ago when financiers discovered they could buy a company, sell off some assets and otherwise increase the company’s cash, then convince banks and bondholders to load the company with debt. These financiers would then pull out the cash for themselves, and leave the company with a ton of debt. The LBO (leveraged buy out) was born, invented by investment bankers like KKR (named for founders Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts.) They would use a small bit of private equity, and then use the company’s own assets to raise debt money (leverage) to buy the company. By “restructuring” the company to a lower cost of operations, usually with draconian reductions, they would increase cash flow to make higher debt repayments. Then they would either take the money out directly, or take the company public where they could sell their shares, and make themselves rich. This form of deal making birthed what we now call the Private Equity business.
In 2005, KKR and Bain Capital (which included former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney) bought Toys R Us for about $6.6billion, plus assuming just under $1B of debt, for a total valuation of $7.5billion. But the private equity guys didn’t buy the company with equity. They only put in $1.3billion, and used the company’s assets to raise $5.3billion in additional debt, making total debt a whopping $6.2B. Total debt was now a remarkable 82.7% of total capital! At the time of the deal interest rates on that debt were around 7.25%, creating a cash outflow of $450million/year just to pay interest on the loans. At the time Toys R Us was barely making a profit of 2% – so the debt was double company net profits.
Debt led to bad management decisions and ultimately bankruptcy of the U.S. company
The biggest assumption behind a debt-financed takeover is that the company can cut costs to improve cash flow and thus pay the interest. But behind that assumption is an even bigger assumption. That the marketplace won’t change dramatically. The KKR and Bain Capital leaders assumed they could shrink Toys R Us in a way that would lower operating costs. They also assumed they could sell some under-utilized assets to raise cash. They did not assume they would need contingency money if competition, and the marketplace, changed in some unplanned way.
eCommerce was pretty new in 2005. Amazon was an $8.5 billion company, but it didn’t make any profits and very few predicted then it would become today’s $100 billion behemoth. Because the financiers didn’t anticipate a big market shift to ecommerce, they focused on the war with Walmart and Target. Their plans were to lower operating costs, close some stores that were underperforming, license some offshore stores, and sell some assets (like real estate owned or leases) to raise cash and repay the debt.
But they weren’t prepared to take on another, entirely different competitor on-line. As Amazon’s growth affected all retailers, Toys R Us simply did not have the resources to fight the traditional discount and dollar brick-and-mortar retailers, and build a major on-line presence, and keep paying that debt. While it is easy to sit on the sidelines and say that Toys R Us should have spent more money building its on-line presence in order to remain relevant, the fact is that the deal in 2005 left the company with insufficient cash flow to do so. Regardless of what leadership might have wanted to do, simply keeping the lights on was a tough challenge when having to pay out so much cash to bondholders.
And the investors simply did not expect that the growth of on-line retailing would stall traditional retail stores, thus creating a major loss of value for retail real estate. U.S. retail real estate value had increased in value for decades. The assumption was that the real estate, whether owned or leased, would continue to go up in value. Real estate was a “hard” asset that KKR and Bain Capital could bank on for raising cash to repay the debt. But as on-line retail grew, and traditional retail declined, America became “over stored” with far too much retail space. Prices were shattered in many markets, and it was not possible for Toys R Us to sell those assets for a gain that would meet the debt obligations.
With $400 million of debt coming due next year, Toys R Us simply doesn’t have the cash flow, or assets, to repay those bondholders
Old assumptions about finance are a big problem for companies today. Assumptions about “leveraging” hard assets, and intangibles like brand value, are no longer true. Competitors emerge, markets change, and old assets can lose value very fast. Assumptions about business model stability are no longer true, as new competitors using newer technology create new ways to sell, and often at lower cost than was ever expected. Assumptions about customer loyalty, and market share stability, are no longer true as new competitors appeal to customers differently and cause big shifts in buying behavior very fast. The speed with which technology, competitors, markets and customers shift now requires companies have the funds available to invest in change.
This story isn’t just about debt. The very popular activity of “returning money to shareholders by repurchasing stock” is a terrible idea. Stock repurchases do not make a company more valuable, nor a stronger competitor. Instead they burn through cash to reduce the company’s capitalization, and manipulate ratios like EPS (earnings per share) and P/E (price/earnings) multiple. Stock repurchases hurt companies, and make them less competitive. Good companies return money to shareholders by investing in growth, which raises sales, profits and increases the stock price making the company truly more valuable.
Toys R Us isn’t a story about Amazon, or eCommerce, taking out another retailer
Toys R Us isn’t a story about Amazon, or eCommerce, taking out another retailer
The important part of the Toys R Us story is realizing that the wrong financial decisions can doom your organization. You can have a great vision, and even great ideas about new ways to compete. But if you don’t have the money to invest in growth, it won’t happen. If leaders don’t have the money to spend on new projects and new markets, because they’re sending it all to bondholders or using it to repurchase shares in hopes of propping up a stock price, eventually there will be a market shift that will doom the old business model and leave it unable to compete.
To succeed today leaders need the money to invest in change, and they have to constantly invest it in change, or their companies will lose relevancy and end up like Toys R Us, Radio Shack, Circuit City, Aeropostale, The Limited, Payless Shoes, Gander Mountain, Golfsmith, Sports Authority, Borders Books and the great, original American retailer A&P.
Leaders like to be deciders. Most leaders think of themselves as decision makers. In 2006 President George Bush, defending Donald Rumsfeld as his Defense Secretary said “I am the Decider. I decide what’s best.” It earned him the nickname “Decider-in-Chief.” Most CEOs echo this sentiment. Most leaders like to define themselves by their decisions.
But whether a decision is good or not is open to interpretation. Often immediately after a decision things may look great. It might appear as if that decision was obvious. And often decisions quickly make a lot of people happy.
As we enter the most intense part of the U.S. presidential election, both candidates are eager to tell potential voters what decisions they have made – and what decisions they will make if elected. And most people will look no further than the immediate expected impact of those decisions.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File
It takes time to determine the quality of any decision.
However, the quality of most decisions is not based on the immediate, or obvious, first implications. Rather, the quality of a decision is discovered over time, as the consequences are revealed – intended and unintended. Because quite often, what looked good at first can turn out to be very, very bad.
The people of North Carolina passed a law to control the use of public bathrooms. Most people of the state thought this was a good idea, including the governor. But some didn’t like the law, and many spoke up. Last week the NBA decided that it would cancel its All-Star game scheduled in Charlotte due to discrimination issues caused by this law. This change will cost Charlotte about $100 million.
That action by the NBA is what’s called unintended consequences
. Lawmakers didn’t really consider that the NBA might decide to take its business
elsewhere due to this state legislation. It’s what some people call, “Oops. I didn’t think about that
when I made my decision.”
Often unintended consequences are more important than first reactions to decisions.
Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, was a staunch supporter of unions. In his book Locked in the Cabinet, he tells the story of visiting an auto plant in Oklahoma supporting the local union. He thought his support would incent the company’s leaders to negotiate more favorably. Instead, the company closed the plant. Laid-off everyone. Oops. The unintended consequences of what he thought was obvious support led to the worst possible worker outcome.
President Obama worked Congress hard to create the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, for everyone in America. One intention was to make sure employers covered all their workers, so the law required that if an employer had health care for any workers he had to offer that health care to all employees who worked over 30 hours per week. So almost all employers of part time workers suddenly said that none could work more than 30 hours. Those that worked 32 (four days per week) or 36 suddenly had their hours cut. Now those lower-income people not only had no health care, but less money in their pay envelopes. Oops. Unintended consequence.
President Reagan and his First Lady launched the “War on Drugs.” How could that be a bad thing? Illegal drugs are dangerous, as is the supply chain. But now, some 30 years later, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that almost half (46.3% or over 85,000) of inmates are there on drug charges. The U.S. now spends $51 billion annually on this drug war, which is about 20% more than is spent on the real war being waged with Afghanistan, Iraq and ISIS. There are now over 1.5 million arrests each year, with 83% of those merely for possession. Oops. Unintended consequences. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
This is why it is so important leaders take their time to make thoughtful decisions, often with the input of many other people. Because the quality of a decision is not measured by how one views it immediately. Rather, the value is decided over time as the opportunity arises to observe the unintended consequences, and their impact. The best decisions are those in which the future consequences are identified, discussed and made part of the planning – so they aren’t unintended and the “decider” isn’t running around saying “oops.”
Think hard about the long-term complications of any decision.
As you listen to the politicians this cycle, keep in mind what could be the unintended consequences of implementing what they say:
- What would be the social impact, and transfer of wealth, from suddenly forgiving all student loans?
- What would be the consequences on trade, and jobs, of not supporting historical government trade agreements?
- What would be the consequences on national security of not supporting historically allied governments?
- What would be the long-term consequence of not allowing visitors based on race, religion or sexual orientation?
- What would be the consequence of not repaying the government’s bonds?
- What would be the long-term impact on economic growth of higher regulations on banks – that already have seen dramatic increases in regulation slowing the recovery?
- What would be the long-term consequences on food production, housing and lifestyles of failing to address global warming?
Business leaders should be very aware of the long-term consequences of their decisions. Every time a decision is necessary, is the best effort made to obtain all the information available on the topic? Are inputs and expectations obtained from detractors, as well as admirers? Is there a balance between not only what is popular, but what will happen months into the future? Did you consider the potential reaction by customers? Employees? Suppliers? Competitors?
There are very few “perfect decisions.” All decisions have consequences. Often, there is a trade-off between the good outcomes, and the bad outcomes. But the key is to know them all, and balance the interests and outcomes. Consider the consequences, good and bad, and plan for them. Only by doing that can you avoid later saying “oops.”
Writing on trends, I frequently profile tech companies that use trends to outperform competitors. But using trends is not restricted to tech companies.
By following trends, since 1998 Alexandria Real Estate Equities has tripled the performance of the NASDAQ, quadrupled returns of the S&P 500, and quintupled the Russell 2000. Alexandria has even outperformed technology stalwart Microsoft, and investment guru Berkshire Hathaway by 230%.
Although you probably never heard of it, Alexandria has trounced its real estate peers. Over the last three years Alexandria has returned double the FTSE NAREIT Equity Office Index, and double the SNL US REIT Office Index. Alexandria’s value has almost doubled during this time, and produced returns 2.3 times better than such well known competitors as Vornado Realty Trust and Boston Properties.
In 1983, Joel Marcus was a lawyer in the IPO market when he noticed the high value launch of biotech firms like Amgen and Genentech. He began tracking the growth of biotechs to see what kind of opportunity might appear to serve these high growth companies.
By 1994 Marcus realized that these companies were struggling to find appropriate real estate to serve their unique needs for laboratory space, and the infrastructure these labs require. It was a classic under-served market, and it was growing fast.
Jacobs Engineering (NYSE:JEC) was serving some of these companies’ needs, including erecting structures for them. But Jacobs did not own any buildings or consider itself a real estate developer. So Marcus approached Jacobs about starting a company to meet the real estate needs of this high growth biotech industry. Marcus put up some money, Jacobs put up some money, and other friends/associates combined to raise $19 million. There was no professionally managed money involved – and no real estate developers.
Focusing on the rapidly expanding biotech scene in San Diego, the newly created Alexandria bought 4 buildings. They refocused the buildings on the unserved needs of local biotech companies and did a quick flip, breaking even on the transaction. With just a bit of money Alexandria had proven that the market existed, the trend was real and users were under-served.
But, like any idea based on an emerging trend, growing was not easy. Using their first transaction as “proof of concept” CEO Marcus and his team set out to raise $100 million. Quickly Paine Webber (now UBS) secured $75 million in debt financing. But moving forward required raising $25 million in equity.
Over the next few weeks Alexandria pitched a slew of nay-sayers. From GE Capital to CALPERS investors felt that their first deal was a “1-trick pony,” and this “niche market” was not a sustainable business. Finally, after 29 failed pitches, the AEW pension fund, an early stage real estate investor, saw the trend and invested.
The Alexandria team realized that fast client growth meant there was no time to develop from ground up. They focused on high growth geographies for biotech, places where the trend was more pronounced, and bought 11 existing properties:
- In Seattle they found a cancer center they could buy, improve and do a sale-leaseback
- In San Francisco they identified a portfolio of properties in Alameda they could improve, lease to biotech companies and even suit the needs of the FDA as a tenant
- In Maryland they identified opportunities to support the lab needs of the Army Corps of Engineers forensic research lab, and ATF testing lab for imported vodka, and a medical testing lab near Dulles – which is now leased to Quest Diagnostics
Realizing that companies needing labs tended to cluster, leadership focused on finding locations where clusters were likely to emerge. They bought land in San Francisco, San Diego, New York and Worcester, MA. What looked like risky locations to others looked like profitable opportunities to Alexandria due to their superior trend research.
Historically pharma companies built their headquarters, and labs, in suburban locations where development was easy, and labs were welcome. Alexandria realized the new trend for emerging companies was to be near universities in urban environments, and although land was costly — and development more difficult — this was the right place to leverage the trend.
Today Alexandria is the bona fide market leader in labs and tech facilities in the USA. By seeing the trend early they bought land which is now so expensive it is practically untouchable – even for $1 billion. Their development pipeline includes Mission Bay, Kendall Square, the Manhattan borough of New York City and RTP (Research Triangle Park.) Today companies want to be where the lab is — and frequently the lab space is now owned, or being developed, by Alexandria.
This didn’t happen by accident. Not at the beginning nor as Alexandria plans its future growth. The company maintains a team of 13 researchers studying market trends in technology, and under-served real estate needs. They constantly track employers of tech/research people, competitors, historical and emerging customers — and identify prospective tech tenants who will need specialized real estate. A few of the leading trends Alexandria follows include:
- Urbanization — The siloed campuses set in bucolic suburbs is the past
- Innovation externalization — Over 50% of innovation in big pharma is now outsourced. And universities are spinning out innovations faster than ever into development centers for testing and commercialization
- Nutrition and disease management — These are emerging markets ripe with new products making their way to commercialization, and needing space to grow
Alexandria’s historical and ongoing successes relied first and foremost on using trends to understand underserved markets where needs will soon be the greatest. This is an important lesson for all businesses. No matter what you do, what you sell, or your industry you can generate higher returns, outperform your peers, and outperform the market rewarding investors by identifying trends and investing in them.
Thanks to Joel Marcus for providing an interview to explain the history and current practices at Alexandria.
The vast majority of individual investors have no idea how to pick stocks. So they often let someone else invest for them, and pay a hefty fee of anywhere from 1% to 5% of their assets annually. Or they buy some sort of fund or portfolio index, where they pay the fund manager usually more than 1% of assets for managing the fund. In the worst case, they pay the financial advisor their fee, and then the advisor buys a fund for the investor – which has that investor paying anywhere from 2% to 8% or even 10% of assets annually for investment advice.
Yet, we know that few asset managers can beat “the market,” whether measured by the DJIA (Dow Jones Industrial Average) or the S&P 500. A study in Europe showed no active manager beat their benchmark over 10 years, and in the U.S. 80% to 90% of fund managers failed to do as well as their benchmarks. And there are studies showing that even if a manager beats their index, after accounting for management fees and costs the investors almost never beat the market.
Any individual could buy the market index by simply opening an on-line account at any discount brokerage, for a very small cost, and buying the exchange traded fund (ETF) for the Dow (DIA – often called “Diamonds”) or the S&P (SPDR – often called “Spiders”). Thus, individual investors can do as well as the “market” at very, very low cost. Most academics will tell investors to not try and beat the market, because the market is wildly inefficient and investors are always without full knowledge of the company, and thus buy these indices.
But most investors are lured by the notion of “beating the market” so they pay the high fees in order to – hopefully – have someone do a better job of investing. And they end up disappointed.
Investors can “beat the market,” but it requires a different approach to investing than fund managers use. And it is far more suited to individuals, with long-term horizons – and it avoids paying those outrageous financial services fees. To be a long-term high-return investor individuals simply need to invest in trends.
247wallst.com published an article stating the editors had seen a report published by Jefferies, sent to them by Bloomberg, which claimed that 20% of all the gains in the total stock market since 1924 (some 93 years) were created by a mere 14 stocks. This sort of blows up all academic theories about investing in portfolios, as it drives home that most market returns are driven by a small collection of companies. Individuals would be better off if they invested in just a few stocks, rather than all stocks. But this means you have to know which stocks to own.
You would think this might be hard, until you look at the list of 14. There is a striking pattern. All were simply the biggest, most powerful companies leading an important, large trend. So if you identified the trend, and invested in the largest company creating that trend, you would do really well. And because these are large companies, investors aren’t carrying the risk of small companies that could be competitively destroyed by larger players. Interestingly, identifying these trends and the large players really isn’t that hard. Nor is it hard to recognize when the trend is ending, and it is time to sell.
We can understand this by looking at the list of 14 not by how much market gain they created, but rather historically when the majority of those gains occurred.
People have enjoyed smoking tobacco since at least the 1500s. Long before anyone knew about the chemical affects and shortened lifespan people simply enjoyed the practice of smoking and the impact nicotine had on them. As tobacco spread from France to England, eventually it moved to the U.S. and was the first ever cash crop – grown in America for sale in Europe. For literally hundreds of years the trend toward tobacco consumption grew. So, it is easy to understand why investing in Phillip Morris, which was renamed Altria, was a good move. As long as people kept buying more cigarettes investing in the largest cigarette company was a good way to increase your returns.
For hundreds of years people used whale oil and similar animal products for candles and lanterns. Wood and coal were used for cooking. But then in 1859 oil was successfully found, and it changed the world. Oil was far cheaper to produce than animal or vegetable oils and burned more consistently at a higher temperature than those products, wood or coal. And that unleashed a trend toward hydrocarbon production leading to the birth of countless new products. It would not have been hard to see that this trend was going to be very valuable. Thus two other names on the list pop up, Exxon and Chevron. These companies are successors of the original Standard Oil founded by John Rockefeller – which created tremendous returns for investors for many years as oil consumption, and production, grew.
Hydrocarbons were a tremendous contributor to the industrial revolution, allowing manufacturers to use engines in new products, and to improve their manufacturing. One of the earliest, and soon biggest, manufacturers was General Electric, another big value producer on the list of 14. And one of the biggest industrial revolution gains was the automobile, where General Motors became by far the largest producer. Investors who put money into the industrial revolution and the trend toward making things – especially cars – came out very well by buying shares in these two companies.
As the industrial revolution grew the middle class emerged, enjoying a vast improvement in quality of life. This led to the trend of consumerism, as it was possible to make things much cheaper and distribute them wider. Three of the biggest companies that promoted this consumer trend were Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble and Coca-Cola. All were in different product markets, but all were very big leaders in the growth of consumer products for a 1900s world (especially post-WWII) where people had more money – and the desire to buy things. And all three did very well for their investors.
Soon a new trend emerged with the capability of electronics. First came the advent of instant, modern communications as the telephone emerged. Regardless the cost, there was high value in being able to communicate with someone “now” even if they were in a distant location. Investors in Alexander Bell’s AT&T did quite well as phones made their way across America and around the world.
Soon thereafter mechanical adding machines were greatly improved by using electronics – initially relays – to make tabulations and computations. IBM was an early developer of these machines for commercial use, and very quickly came to dominate the market for computers. It was not long before every company needed a computer, or at least access to use one, in order to compete. Investors in IBM were well rewarded for spotting this trend.
As the market for consumer goods exploded Sam Walton recognized the inefficiency of retail product distribution. He discovered that by owning more stores he could negotiate better with consumer goods manufacturers, purchase products more cheaply and sell them more cheaply. He created the trend toward mass retailing driven by efficiency, and he rapidly demonstrated the ability to drive competitors completely out of many retail markets. Investors who identified this trend toward low-cost retailing of a wide product array made considerable gains by purchasing Wal-Mart shares.
As computers became smaller the market expanded, leading to the development of ever smaller computers. Microsoft created software allowing multiple manufacturers to build machines with interoperability, allowing it to take a dominant position in the trend to computers so small every single person could have one – and indeed eventually felt they could not live without one. Microsoft investors made huge gains as the company practically monopolized this trend and created the personal compute marketplace.
It was Apple that first recognized the trend toward mobility being created by ever faster connection speeds. Mobility would allow for radical changes in how many product markets behaved, and investors who saw this mobility trend were amply rewarded for investing in Apple – the company that became synonymous with internet-enabled products.
And as computing mobility improved it created a trend toward buying at home rather than going to a store. Mail order had almost entirely disappeared, due to lack of timely product fulfillment. But with the internet as the interface, coupled with modern, highly efficient transportation services, Amazon was able to give a rebirth to shopping from home and the e-commerce trend exploded. Investors that recognized Amazon’s vastly lower cost retail model, coupled with the infinite prospects for product variety, have been rewarded for investing in the large on-line retailer.
These 14 companies created 20% of all stock market gains across nearly a century. And each was the dominant competitor in a major trend. Several are no longer on the trend, and even a couple have filed bankruptcy (like AT&T and GM), thus it is easy to recognize why some have done far less well the last decade. The world changed and their business model which once produced excellent returns no longer does. But savvy investors should recognize when a trend has run its course, and drop that company in favor of investing in the leader of a major, new trend.
All investors should be long-term investors. Trying to be a market timer, and a trader, is a fool’s errand. To make high investment returns requires taking a long-term (multi-year) view – not monthly or quarterly. Therefore it is important that when investing in trends they be big trends. Trends that will have a large impact on every business – every person. Trends that can generate tremendous returns for many years.
Not everyone can be a stock picker. Therefore, most investors should probably have a goodly chunk of their money in an ETF. That can be done easily enough as described above. But, if you want to increase your returns to beat the market the key is to invest in companies that are large, and the leaders in a major trend.
What are the big trends today? There is no doubt “social” is a huge trend. How every business and person interacts is changing as the use of social tools increases. This is a global phenomenon, and it is a trend with many years left to extend its impact. Investing in the market leader – Facebook – shows good likelihood of obtaining the kind of returns created by the 14 companies discussed above.
What other trends can you identify that have years yet to go? If you can spot them, and invest in a dominant, large leader then you just may outperform nearly every active fund manager trying to get you to pay their fees.
(Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
“Get the assumptions wrong and nothing else matters” – Peter F. Drucker
President Donald Trump made it very clear last week that his administration intends to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. And he intends to make Mexico pay for it. He is so adamant he is willing to risk U.S./Mexican relations, canceling a meeting with the Mexican president.
Unfortunately, this tempest is all because of a really bad idea. The wall is a bad idea because the assumptions behind this project are entirely false. Like far too many executives, President Trump is building a plan based on bad assumptions rather than obtaining the facts – even if they belie his assumptions – and developing a good solution. Making decisions, and investing, on bad assumptions is simply bad leadership.
The stated claim is Mexico is sending illegal immigrants across the border in droves. These illegal immigrants are Mexican ne’er do wells who are coming to America to live off government subsidies and/or commit criminal activity. The others are coming to steal higher paying jobs from American workers. America will create a h
Unfortunately, almost everything in that line of logic is untrue. And thus the purported conclusion will not happen.
1. Although it cannot be proven, analysts believe the majority (possibly vast majority) of illegal immigrants enter America by air. There are two kinds of illegal immigration. President Trump’s rhetoric focuses on “entries without inspection.” But most illegal immigrants actually arrive in America with a visa – and then simply don’t leave. These are called “overstays.” They come from Mexico, India, Canada, Europe, Asia, South America, Africa – all over the world. If you want to identify and reduce illegal immigration, you need to focus on identifying likely overstays and making sure they return. The wall does not address this.
3. More non-Mexicans than Mexicans were apprehended at the U.S. border – and the the number of Mexicans has been declining. From 1.6 million in 2000, by 2014 the number dwindled to 229,000 (a decline of 85%). If you want to stop illegal border immigrants into the U.S., the best (and least costly) policy would be to cooperate with Mexico to capture these immigrants as they flee Central America and find a solution for either housing them in Mexico or returning them to their country of origin. It is ridiculous to expect Mexico to pay for a wall when it is not Mexico’s citizens creating the purported illegal immigration problem on the border.
4. In 2015 over 43,000 Cubans illegally immigrated to the U.S. – about 20% as many as from Mexico. The cost of a wall is rather dramatically high given the weighted number of illegal immigrants from other countries.
5. The number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. is actually declining. There are more Mexicans returning to live in Mexico than are illegally entering the U.S. Between 2009 and 2014 over 1 million illegal Mexican immigrants willingly returned to Mexico where working conditions had improved and they could be with family. In other words, there were more American jobs created by Mexicans returning to Mexico than “stolen” by new illegal immigrants entering the country. If the administration would like to stop illegal immigration the best way is to help Mexico create more high-paying jobs (say with a trade deal like NAFTA) so they don’t come to America, and those in America simply choose to go to Mexico.
6. Illegal immigrants are not “stealing” more jobs every year. Since 2006, the number of illegal immigrants working in the U.S. has stabilized at about 8 million. All the new job growth over the last decade has gone to legitimate American workers or legal immigrants working with proper papers. Illegal immigration is not the reason some Americans do not have jobs, and blaming illegal immigrants is a ruse for people who simply don’t want to work – or refuse to upgrade their skills to make themselves employable.
7. Illegal immigrants in the U.S. is not a rising group – in fact most illegal immigrants have been in the U.S. for over 10 years. In 2014, over 66% of all illegal immigrants had been in the U.S. for 10 years or more. Only 14% have been in the U.S. for 5 years or less. We don’t have a problem needing to stop new illegal immigrants (the ostensible reason for a wall). Rather, we have a need to reform immigration so all these long-term immigrants already in the workforce can be normalized and make sure they pay the necessary taxes.
8. The states where illegal immigration is growing are not on the Mexican border. The states with rising illegal immigration are Washington, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts and Louisiana. Texas, New Mexico and Arizona have seen no significant, measurable increase in illegal immigrants. And California, Nevada, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have seen their illegal immigrant population decline. A border wall does not address the growth of illegal immigrants, as to the extent illegal immigrants are working in the U.S. they are clearly not in the border states.
Good leaders get all the facts. They sift through the facts to determine problems, and develop solutions which address the problem.
Bad leaders jump to conclusions. They base their actions on outdated assumptions. They invest in the wrong places because they think they know everything, rather than making sure they know the situation as it really exists.
America’s “flood of illegal immigrants” problem is wildly overblown. Most illegal immigrants are people from advanced countries, often with an education, who overstay their visa limits. But few Americans seem to think they are a problem.
Most border crossing illegal immigrants today are minors from Central America simply trying to stay alive. They aren’t Mexican criminals, stealing jobs, or creating a crime spree. They are mostly starving.
President Trump has “whipped up” a lot of popular anxiety with his claims about illegal Mexican immigrants and the need to build a border wall. Interestingly, the state with the longest Mexican border is Texas – and of its 38 congressional members (36 in Congress, 2 in the Senate and 25 Republican) not one (not one) supports building the wall. The district with the longest border (800 miles) is represented by Republican Will Hurd, who said “building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.”
Good leaders do not make decisions on bad assumptions. Good leaders don’t rely on “alternative facts.” Good leaders carefully study, dig deeply to find facts, analyze those facts to determine if there is a problem – and then understand that problem deeply. Only after all that do they invest resources on plans that address problems most effectively for the greatest return.
Trend analysis is the most critical part of planning.
Some trends are hard to spot, because people think they are just a fad. Many folks think electric cars fit that category.
Other trends are hard to accept because they imply a big shift in how we live or work – or how we run our business. Scores of IT people who have written me over the years saying mobile devices on common networks (telecom to AWS) will never replace PCs connected to server farms. The implications of this trend are severely negative related to demand for their skills, so they ignore it.
But every plan should be built on trends, because these forecasts are critical for decision-making. It’s the future that matters, not the past. Too often plans are built on history, when trends clearly indicate that things are going to change, and old assumptions are outdated.
Demographic trends are easy to forecast, and important.
While some trends are hard to forecast, some trends are really easy to spot and forecast. And the easiest trend to understand is demographics. If you don’t use any other trends in your planning, you should have demographic trends at the core of your assumptions.
Take for example the movement of people across the United States. Ever since the wagon train people have been moving west. And, like my friend Buckley Brinkman (executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity) likes to say, “ever since the invention of air conditioning people have been moving south.” Yet, I’m startled how few organizations plan for this shift and adjust their strategies and tactics to be more successful.
From July 1, 2015 to July 1, 2016 the seven fastest growing states were western. And of 50 states, only eight lost population.
Growth is sublime, decline is disastrous.
Bruce Henderson, founder of the Boston Consulting Group, used to say that if you want to hunt or farm you’re far better off in the Amazon than you are in the Arctic. Basically, where there are resources, and lots of growth, it’s a lot easier to succeed.
For business, this means that if you want to grow your business – whether you’re installing HVAC systems or building a state-of-the-art battery manufacturing plant – you’ll find it relatively easier in faster growing states. It doesn’t mean there is no competition, but it does mean that growth makes it easier for competitors to succeed.
Contrastingly, there were eight states that lost population in this same 12 months.
This means that competition is intensifying in these states. As people move out there are fewer customers to buy what each business sells, so these companies have to fight harder, and price lower, to grow – or even maintain. As the population declines taxes have to go up because there are fewer taxpayers to cover government costs. These states become less desirable places for business.
The businesses in Illinois, for example, are in the middle of a bare-knuckle brawl over the state budget that has gone on for two years. The Governor and the legislature cannot agree on how to manage costs, or revenues. Bond ratings have been slashed as costs to borrow have gone up. Several services have been shut down, and student costs at universities have gone up while programs have been gutted or discontinued.
Governor Rauner (R – IL) has repeatedly said he wants Illinois to be more like Indiana, its neighbor to the east. Perversely people apparently are listening, because Illinois is shrinking, while Indiana grew a healthy 0.31%. For residents remaining in Illinois this worsens a host of maladies:
• the state’s jobs situation struggles as the number of paying jobs declines, making it harder to recruit new talent, or even keep its own university graduates;
• Illinois’ pension problems worsen, as there are fewer people paying into the pension funds while those drawing out funds keep increasing;
• Illinois is unable to fund schools properly, especially Chicago, due to less income – forcing up property taxes;
• taxes keep rising due to fewer people and businesses (when adding property taxes, sales taxes and income taxes Illinois is now the highest tax state in the country);
• new highways are being built with federal funds, but other infrastructure is in trouble, as city, county and state roads are pothole ridden. Trains and subways become outdated and fall into disrepair. And one-time budget Hail Mary’s, like Chicago selling its parking structures and meters in order to balance the budget for one year, strip citizens of future revenues while they watch parking (and other) service costs skyrocket;
• and Chicago has suffered the lowest real estate recovery rate of the top 30 major U.S. cities –not even returning to prices in 2008.
Growth solves a multitude of sins.
Just like a rising tide raises all boats, growth creates more growth. More people increases demand for everything, which increases business sales, which increases jobs and wages, which increases the value of real estate and household wealth, which increases tax revenue, which allows offering more services to make a state even more appealing.
On the other hand, shrinking can become like the whirlpool over a drain. As the problems increase more people decide to leave, making the problems worsen. As more people go, there are fewer people left behind to make things better. Jobs go away, wages fall, demand drops, real estate prices drop, infrastructure projects stop, services stop and yet taxes have to be raised on the fewer remaining residents.
Few trends are more important for planning than understanding demographics. Demographics affect demand for everything, and planning for changes offers businesses the opportunity to be in the right place, at the right time, to be more successful. And, demographic trends are some of the easiest to predict:
• population size
• average age, and sizes of age groups
• average income, and sizes of income groups
Plans should be based on trends, not history. Understanding trends, and their trajectory, can help you be in the right market, at the right time, with the right product in order to succeed. There are lots of trends, but one that is fairly obvious, and incredibly important, is simply understanding demographics. Is this built into your planning system?
It’s been over a decade since the Internet transformed print media.
Very quickly the web’s ability to rapidly disseminate news, and articles, made newspapers and magazines obsolete. Along with their demise went the ability for advertisers to reach customers via print. What was once an “easy buy” for the auto or home section of a paper, or for magazines targeting your audience, simply disappeared. Due to very clear measuring tools, unlike print, Internet ads were far cheaper and more appealing to advertisers – so that’s where at least some of the money went.
In 2012 Google surpassed all print media in generating ad revenue. Source Statista courtesy of NewspaperDeathWatch.com
While this trend was easy enough to predict, few expected the unanticipated consequences.
1. First was the trend to automated ad buying. Instead of targeting the message to groups, programmatic buying tools started targeting individuals based upon how they navigated the web. The result was a trolling of web users, and ad placements in all kinds of crazy locations.
Heaven help the poor soul who looks for a credenza without turning off cookies. The next week every site that person visits, whether it be a news site, a sports site, a hobby site – anywhere that is ad supported – will be ringed with ads for credenzas. That these ads in no way connect to the content is completely lost. Like a hawker who won’t stop chasing you down the street to buy his bad watches, the web surfer can’t avoid the onslaught of ads for a product he may well not even want.
2. Which led to the next unanticipated consequence, the rising trend of bad – and even fake – journalism.
Now anybody, without any credentials, could create their own web site and begin publishing anything they want. The need for accuracy is no longer as important as the willingness to do whatever is necessary to obtain eyeballs. Learning how to “go viral” with click-bait keywords and phrases became more critical than fact checking. Because ads are bought by programs, the advertiser is no longer linked to the content or the publisher, leaving the world awash in an ocean of statements – some accurate and some not. Thus, what were once ads that supported noteworthy journals like the New York Times now support activistpost.com.
3. The next big trend is the continuing rise of paid entertainment sites that are displacing broadcast and cable TV.
Netflix is now spending $6 billion per year on original content. According to SymphonyAM’s measurement of viewership, which includes streaming as well as time-shifted viewing, Netflix had the no. 1 most viewed show (Orange is the New Black) and three of the top four most viewed shows in 2016.
Increasingly, purchased streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, et.al.) are displacing broadcast and cable, making it harder for advertisers to reach their audience on TV. As Barry Diller, founder of Fox Broadcasting, said at the Consumer Electronics Show, people who can afford it will buy content – and most people will be able to afford it as prices keep dropping. Soon traditional advertisers will “be advertising to people who can’t afford your goods.”
4. And, lastly, there is the trend away from radio.
Radio historically had an audience of people who listened to their favorite programming at home or in their car. But according to BuzzAngle that too is changing quickly. Today the trend is to streaming audio programming, which jumped 82.6% in 2016, while downloading songs and albums dropped 15-24%. With Apple, Amazon and Google all entering the market, streaming audio is rapidly displacing real-time radio.
Declining free content will affect all consumers and advertisers.
Thus, the assault on advertisers which began with the demise of print continues. This will impact all consumers, as free content increasingly declines. Because of these trends, users will have a lot more options, but simultaneously they will have to be much more aware of the source of their content, and actively involved in selecting what they read, listen to and view. They can’t rely on the platforms (Facebook, etc.) to manage their content. It will require each person select their sources.
Meanwhile, consumer goods companies and anyone who depends on advertising will have to change their success formulas due to these trends. Built-in audiences – ready made targets – are no longer a given. Costs of traditional advertising will go up, while its effectiveness will go down. As the old platforms (print, TV, radio) die off these companies will be forced to lean much, much heavier on social media (Facebook, Snapchat, etc.) and sites like YouTube as the new platforms to push their product message to potential customers.
There will be big losers, and winners, due to these trends.
These market shifts will favor those who aggressively commit early to new communications approaches, and learn how to succeed. Those who dally too long in the old approach will lose awareness, and eventually market share. Lack of ad buying scale benefits, which once greatly favored the very large consumer goods companies (Kraft, P&G, Nestle, Coke, McDonalds) means it will be harder for large players to hold onto dominance. Meanwhile, the easy access and low cost of new platforms means more opportunities will exist for small market disrupters to emerge and quickly grow.
And these trends will impact the fortunes of media and tech companies for investors The decline in print, radio and TV will continue, hurting companies in all three media. When Gannet tried to buy Tronc the banks balked at the price, killing the deal, fearing that forecasted revenues would not materialize.
Just as print distributors have died off, cable’s role as a programming distributor will decline as customers opt for bandwidth without buying programming. Thus trends put the growth prospects of companies such as Comcast and DirecTV/AT&T at peril, as well as their valuations.
Privatized content will benefit Netflix, Amazon and other original content creators. While traditionalists question the wisdom of spending so much on original content, it is clearly the trend and attracts customers. And these trends will benefit streaming services that deliver paid content, like Apple, Amazon and Google. It will benefit social media networks (Facebook and Alphabet) who provide the new platforms for reaching audiences.
Media has changed dramatically from the business it was in 2000. And that change is accelerating. It will impact everyone, because we all are consumers, altering what we consume and how we consume it. And it will change the role, placement and form of advertising as the platforms shift dramatically. So the question becomes, is your business (and your portfolio) ready?
‘Tis the season of holiday giving. We hunt for just the right gift, for just the right person, to make sure they know we care about them. This act of matching a gift to the person has tremendous importance, because it demonstrates care from the giver about the recipient.
Once advertising was like that. Marketers built brands with loving care. They worked very hard to know the target for their brand (and product) and they carefully crafted every nuance of the brand – imagery, typography, colors, images, sounds – even spokespeople (famous or created) to project that brand properly for the intended customers. We’ve seen great brand images over time, from Tony the Tiger promoting cereal to start your day to Ronald McDonald bringing a family together.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Ad placement delivered the brand’s gift to the customer.
And, once upon a time, how that brand was placed in front of targeted customers was every bit as crafted as the brand itself. Marketers worked with ad agencies to make sure newspaper, magazine, billboard location, radio show or TV program matched the brand. The brand was considered linked not just to the medium, but to the message that medium projected. Want to sell a muscle car, you promoted it via media focused on sports, DIY projects, men’s health – a positive connection between the media’s message/content and the advertiser’s goal for the brand.
And marketers knew that if they put their brand with the right media content, in front of their targets, it would lead to brand identification, brand enhancement, and sales growth. The objective wasn’t how many people saw the ads, but putting the ad in front of the right people, associated with the right content, to build on the brand’s value, and make the products more appealing to target buyers. Placement led to sales.
Just like finding the right gift is important for the holidays, matching the gift to the recipient, finding the right ad placement was very important to the customer. It was an act of diligence on the part of the advertiser to demonstrate to target customers “hey, I know you. I get where you’re coming from. I connect with you.”
Then the internet changed everything.
In the old days marketers really didn’t know how many people connected with their ads post-placement. There were raw numbers on readers/listeners/viewers, but nothing specific. There was a lot of trust by the marketer that “owned” brand placed in working with the ad agencies to link the brand to the right media – the right content – so that brand would flourish and product sales would grow.
Yes, ads were measured for their appeal, how well they were remembered and audience coverage. But these metrics, and especially raw volume numbers, were each just one piece of how to craft the brand and deliver the message. It was reaching the right people that mattered, and that required people to make media decisions – and that required really knowing the content tied to the ad being placed.
Marketers clearly understood that customers knew the product paid for those ads to promote that content. Customers linked the brand and the content, and thus it was important to make sure they matched. The content had to be right for the ad to have its intended affect.
But in the internet age, all that caring about customers, branding and links to the right content began disappearing. Instead, ad decisions were dominated by metrics – “how many placements did my ad receive?” “how many people saw my ad?” “how many people clicked on my ad?” “how many page views does this web site generate?” “how many page views does this writer/blogger generate?” The brand was being lost – the customer was being lost – in identifying how many people saw the ad, and whether or not they clicked on it, and where they went after the ad was presented on the web page.
And, the worst of all, “Do we have the information to know who this internet surfer is, follow them, and deliver ads to them as they cross pages and web sites?” At this point, content no longer mattered. If some page viewer was known to be looking for a desk, ads for desks would be placed on page after page the reader (potential customer) visited — regardless the content!
Marketers allowed their brands to be disconnected from the content entirely – ouch.
In the era of programmatic ad buying, content no longer matters. Follow the target, hammer on them with ads, even if the brand is positioned first next to information on weather, and next on a site about buying inexpensive baby clothes, and next on a site about high end power tools.
The care and crafting of ad buying, which was crucial to brand building and demonstrating customers really mattered to those who created and crafted the products, and brand, was lost.
In 2016, we saw the ultimate in forgetting brand value while programmatically placing ads. “Fake news” emerged. And marketers started to see their ads next to those fake (often invented and totally false) stories, just like they would be placed next to legitimate information. The breakdown between content and brand was complete. In the unbridled pursuit of “eyeballs” brands were paying for the worst any media could offer – not journalism or legitimate content, but outright crap.
The election served to demonstrate this in an entirely new way. People went to websites, formerly considered “fringe,” such as Breitbart, to find out information on candidates and their supporters. And there would be ads. The ad was following the eyeballs, no longer the content. Family product ads, such as for cereal, were suddenly appearing next to content that was in no way associated with the marketer’s goal for that brand image.
And by being content independent, these programmatic ads were not just harming the brands – they supported bad journalism, and bad content.
“Click bait” became ever more important. With no people involved in ad buying, ads were no longer were tied to content so there was no “editorial” management of how the ad was placed. What those smart ad buyers once did, helping to build the brand, was lost. Now, any writer who could figure out how to use the right key words – and often outrageous content (of any kind) – was able to pull eyeballs. If s/he could pull eyeballs – regardless of the content – they pulled ads. And that pulled dollars.
Media brand value was dramatically lost – and journalism suffered.
In other words, you no longer needed the credibility of a brand like NBC, Wall Street Journal, ESPN, Forbes, etc. to obtain ads. Those old media brands worked hard to make edited content, reliable content, available to readers – and something a brand marketer could understand and use to build her customer base. But now all a publisher/producer needed was something that brought in eyeballs – and often the more outrageous, more salacious, more demeaning, more hostile, more ridiculous the content the more eyeballs were attracted (like watching a train wreck).
And the more this pulled ad money to non-journalistic, bad content, and away from legitimate content providers that focused on building their brand, the more it hurt journalism and marketing. What a decade ago seemed like a possible fear came true in 2016. Unharnessed media access by everyone was proven to lead to the growth of bad journalism as funds for good research, writing, editing and masthead curating was lost to those who demonstrated merely the ability to pull eyeballs.
Those who have benefited from this shift think programmatic ad buying is great. To them if people want to read from their site, look at their photos, cartoons and other images, or watch videos then these site owners claim there is no reason that advertisers should complain. “If people want this content, then why shouldn’t we be paid to create it. This is a monetized democracy of the media putting the customer in control.”
But that is simply not true. Customers link the brand message to the content on the screen. And there should be care taken to make sure that content and the brand message link. And that’s where programmatic ad buying is failing everyone.
Net/net, we need people involved in ad placement. Just as we care about the gifts we give at holidays, it takes a personal touch to make that selection work. It takes people to craft the delivery of ads.
Hopefully in 2017, the lessons of 2016 will become very clear, causing marketers and advertisers to rely far less on programmatic, and get people involved in ad placement once again. For the good of brands and for decent content.