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The Bubble Bath December 28, 2006

Posted by Bill in Google, MSN Search, online marketing, Search Marketing, traditional advertising, Yahoo Search Marketing.
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For SEMs and online advertisers, 2006 was a bubble bath. The tone was set at the end of 2005, when Google paid $1 billion for a 5% stake in AOL. That put AOL’s total value at $20 billion, or $1,000 per subscriber. Later this year, Google paid $1.65 billion in its well-publicized acquisition of YouTube, a company with sixty-five employees, no profit model, and a bevy of illegally copied material (complete with litigious owners waiting in the wings). But perhaps the biggest of them all, the granddaddy of all bubbles, is Google’s stock price itself, which at press time was hovering at a 57.85 P/E ratio. Indeed, analysts are also finally starting to catch on to Google’s hugely overvalued stock. Into this mess splashed an acquisition that finally made business sense: the Publicis Groupe’s plan to buy Digitas.

True, Publicis did offer Digitas shareholders a 25% premium over the closing price when the deal was announced, but this reflects actual upside, rather than perceived upside. As search marketers we’ve seen firsthand for years how advertisers have shifted their spend from offline into search and other online media. As the general public has spent more time consuming media online, advertisers have realized that the accountability of an online campaign greatly surpasses that of a traditional campaign. Overall advertising is growing at 4-5% per year, while digital advertising is growing at 30%. That statistic alone justifies the 25% premium that Publicis paid for Digitas.

The next step for advertisers is applying the highly touted accountability of online media to their offline campaigns. This requires the keen analytics and robust technology typically found in digital agencies, and notably absent from traditional agencies. These capabilities include measuring spikes in search behavior and traffic in response to TV, print, and outdoor ads. An agency that specializes in all media, both online and off, will be able to execute on initiatives like boosting bids on keywords mentioned in TV commercials, and building microsites as landing pages where consumers can easily read more info and purchase the product they saw on TV. This integration poses another huge advantage for Publicis’ clients, as they will not have to coordinate between two separate agencies. These factors further justify the 25% premium.

It’s always risky to speculate on the future, but there are certain outcomes that almost certainly will occur in some form or other. “Convergence” has been a hot buzzword in the industry, the idea being that users will take control of their TVs in the same way that they’ve taken control of online content. This, in theory will enable advertisers to target video ads behaviorally, demographically, and by keyword. But this theory presumes that TV will still be the only device used to consume video. In reality, perhaps “divergence” is a better word, because media will be consumed not just on TV, but on computers, mobile phones, mobile e-mail devices, MP3 players, and in cars.

Keeping track of and optimizing each ad’s performance, across a diverse user base with a diverse media-consumption device base, all while deploying targeting options and other optimization techniques, will require an even more advanced technology and even sharper analytics. A digital advertising firm is far better positioned to deliver these assets to clients than an offline media firm. This is perhaps the most insightful element of Publicis’s move, and even further justifies that extra 25%.

Much has been made of Digitas’ client relationships having real value, but in reality, the Publicis Groupe and the other offline advertising giants don’t need to buy client relationships. They’ve had clients’ trust for years. What they need are the technology and analytics to deliver a full suite of advertising options to all of their clients, with greater accountability and the ability to scale as technology advances. That’s the real value that Digitas brings to the table.

Holding companies should not be focused on buying aQuantive or paying a premium for client relationships. Rather, they need to focus on acquiring smaller, privately held companies that have built leading-edge technology platforms, embraced a culture where the statistician is just as important as the creative director, and with whom they can bring their pre-existing customers to the digital upsell.

What a refreshing note to the end of 2006. Just when we all thought the bubbles were rising over the rim of the tub, here’s a move that will allow all parties to soak in real, not imagined, value.

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