Exec on a mission to revive Net advertising

Robin Webster has the tricky task of leading a trade group whose trade has been in a free fall for months. She is moving fast, but the work that lies ahead can't be accomplished as quickly.

Robin Webster has the tricky task of leading a trade group whose trade has been in a free fall for months

As the first president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, formerly the Internet Advertising Bureau, Webster is trying to revitalize the five-year-old group's original focus: making the Internet a credible medium for advertisers.

Since joining in January, Webster has already accelerated two long-stalled IAB efforts. The organization in March issued a new set of standards for larger ads - which several sites immediately adopted - and it has also worked with the American Association of Advertising Agencies to make online media buying easier by releasing voluntary terms and conditions for ordering advertising on the Net.


In addition, the IAB has decided to limit its membership to publishers and companies that sell interactive advertising for publishers. Existing members that often have opposing objectives, like ad agencies and technology companies, won't be allowed to renew their IAB membership. Furthermore, the IAB's sister organization, the Wireless Advertising Association, whose members include carriers and device manufacturers, will be completely separate from Webster's group.

Webster was previously chief content officer at eMarketWorld, a producer of industry-specific Internet conferences, and from 1994 to 2000 she was executive vice president at the Association of National Advertisers, helping marketers develop interactive advertising.

Now, as head of the IAB, she has been moving fast - but the work that lies ahead can't be accomplished as quickly. The larger challenge for Webster and her board is to determine how version 2.0 of the IAB will identify itself. For starters, the group has broadened its scope to encompass all interactive media, including interactive television and wireless devices.

Webster also has a lot of educating to do. High on her list is attacking what she feels are the top misconceptions about the industry: that banner advertising doesn't work, that measuring click-through rates is the only way to judge performance, that the Internet is not a medium for advertising in the first place.

She isn't shy about saying the talent assigned to creating TV commercials should be designing Internet banners. "It's not the banner that's the problem - it's the creative," she says.

As for click-through rates, she says those are only relevant in gauging how much traffic is referred to another site or in measuring direct-response promotions. They are useless in determining Web advertising's overall effectiveness. For instance, Webster says, the metric doesn't reflect whether an online ad led to an offline sale.

She's pained, too, when advertisers say the Internet isn't a real medium because it doesn't fit their traditional definition of programming, like radio or TV. Webster not only intends to change this perception, she also wants to help advertisers figure out which kinds of campaigns will work online.

Nevertheless, Webster says Internet advertising's proponents have overpromised its potential.

"I think we went out and said, 'This is the ultimate accountable medium,' and maybe someday it will be, but it's not today," she says. "We still don't know how many people are watching TV. We don't have the audience measurement on radio yet or on print, so why should we expect to have cleared the hurdle in five years [on the Internet]?"

The IAB recently commissioned two studies to determine some of the answers. PricewaterhouseCoopers will look at why measurement terms like "impressions" and "visits" vary so widely among sites. Dynamic Logic, an ad measurement firm, is studying whether the new IAB ad-size units are more effective than traditional banner-ad sizes. Webster admits the results will take time to surface.

In the more immediate future, IAB task forces will recommend solutions to specific problems on the troubled Internet ad landscape. For instance, every six months a team has been assigned to review ad formats.

But late last year, as the ad market tanked and the industry struggled to survive, the IAB had virtually stalled. Webster says many member companies were focused on keeping up with their own growth, rather than worrying about industrywide issues. Also, as a volunteer organization, the IAB had intrinsic limitations.

"You really do need a professional staff where this is all they do - run things and keep things moving forward," she says.

The IAB began in the spring of 1996 as an ad-hoc project among the earliest commercial Web sites.

The association, which attracted 71 charter members just five months after forming, scored its first big win in December 1996, when it worked with a now-defunct coalition of advertisers to create standard banner sizes. Among the few major accomplishments of the young IAB was its benchmarking of online spending. The group commissioned Coopers & Lybrand to conduct the study and the company, now PricewaterhouseCoopers, has continued to measure it every quarter.

The survey of online ad revenue showed strong growth in the first few years. Even as publishers crossed into panic mode in the spring of 2000 - when dot-coms lassoed in their ad dollars - the numbers still pointed to growing revenue. But then the Internet downturn finally began showing up. The third-quarter 2000 survey indicated ad revenue declined 6.5 percent, or $138 million, from the second quarter, breaking the run of 17 consecutive quarters of growth.

Publicly, the IAB was relatively quiet as the skies darkened. Internally, it was planning a transition from a volunteer organization into a professional trade association. After a yearlong search, the IAB finally found Webster, someone with enough advertising experience, Net savvy and perhaps chutzpah to take the helm. Many people have confidence Webster can turn the IAB into a vital industry leader.

"Robin has added a lot of horsepower to the IAB," says David Smith, president of Mediasmith, an integrated media agency. "She is the voice of reason, and the IAB can potentially be the effective vehicle it was a few years ago."

Scot McLernon, executive vice president of sales at CBS MarketWatch.com, says his company is considering rejoining the IAB, now that it has become more active. "I think the IAB is renewed," McLernon says. "This is an industry that's in need of a strong and powerful voice for the publishers that can work with agencies and clients."

But others say the sins of the past will continue to haunt the group.

"There was a crisis in the industry last fall, and the IAB did almost zero crisis management," says Anne Holland, publisher of MarketingSherpa, which produces weekly interactive marketing newsletters.

The latest IAB revenue figures, for the fourth quarter of 2000, showed online advertising revenue totaled $2.2 billion. Although revenue grew 9 percent over the previous quarter, the increase was significantly lower than historical levels - for example, in 1999, revenue from the fourth quarter increased 46 percent over the previous quarter. Merrill Lynch & Co. expects online advertising to resume growing at 20 percent to 30 percent per year, beginning in 2002.

Such upbeat numbers will help Webster's cause, but they won't change her belief that advertising should not be any company's sole means of revenue.

"It baffles my brain cells that people expect to get content for free [on the Internet] when they're happy to pay for cable, magazines or newspapers and they understand the value of content," she says.

As publishers continue to introduce new paid services, it's unclear how big a role advertising will play in driving the revenue of Internet content companies. The role Webster hopes to play in ensuring the survival of online advertising, however, is much less mysterious.