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Have you noticed recently that every web news and content site looks almost identical? And that it gets even worse if you scroll down below the “fold”. There, in the swamp, of “promoted” and “suggested” stories, you are liable to find exactly the same headlines for exactly the same stories as you move from site to site.

Web publishers love native ads because they are an easy way to monetize the audience they already have. Advertisers love it because, well, nobody cares to look at their ads anymore. But its becoming a zero sum game as media brands devalue their mastheads and when advertisers recognize that their sneaky content will become increasingly ignored by readers as they catch on to the con. Sponsored content might well become just as laughable as the integrated spokespeople in the P&G owned television shows of the fifties.

Where does this all end? Right now the trajectory is bad for publishers, difficult for content creators and potentially devastating for advertisers and their agencies. To the extent that what we think of as traditional “online” advertising is placed, it is being purchased not by people with a vested interest in the media brand, its constituency, its stable of journalists and creative people but rather by programmatic buying, where ad inventory is bid on and purchased by computers in real time. The impact of this trend is to speed up the commoditization of all media, putting huge pressure on branded media to cut costs, usually meaning that talented editors and writers suddenly find themselves freelancing for the highest bidder for their services.

At the very high end of the food chain, this is working for individuals with their own brands and followings. For example, Kara Swisher no longer needs the masthead and distribution power of the Wall Street Journal to ply her trade. If I’m a reader who likes Kara’s content (I am), I will search for her content wherever it might be. I no longer need the Journal. And if I’m an advertiser, I now have three choices. I can buy into a publisher’s story about the quality of their audience and the equity of their brand (but everything looks and sounds the same, so why?) paying huge premiums to be in that look alike content or, I can skip the Journal and pay Kara or Re/Code directly to be associated with her personal brand or, I could simply define my audience, cap my bid and let the computer go do its thing. Maybe I end up advertising in the Journal, maybe I end up in Re/Code but maybe not. I don’t know exactly where my ads will run but at least I will know that I’m not overpaying to reach my audience.

But what happens back at the Journal? The number of advertisers drops. The amount advertisers will pay is subject to tremendous downward pressure. The writing, long its hallmark, starts to become commoditized as pressure grows to conform to the rules of Google’s search algorithms and the data that almost always suggest that readers click on the lowest common denominator headlines and stories. The quality and character of all content is headed toward Buzzfeed at an accelerating pace.

What is a Publisher These Days?

The point of all this is that only the most courageous and deep-pocketed media brands can afford to fight to retain their brand equity by content alone. This is why you see smart media titles branching off into branded conferences, sponsorships, one-on-one interactions with media consumers as never before. If advertisers and agencies really believe that quality content and media brand differentiation matters to their image and brand equity, they will have to find better ways to collaborate with quality publishers than investing solely in sponsored content and leaving editorial environment decisions solely in the hands of the programmatic bidding machines. Reversing this race to the bottom is going to take courage, patience and resolve. Media brands, content providers and advertisers will need to find new and, most important, differentiated ways to collaborate as never before — while still maintaining editorial and creative integrity in the face of the data nerds who would commoditize us all.

(Originally Published on Medium April 11, 2015)