In 2005, perhaps 2006, I registered the domain name, CaveatBlogger.com. I kept it for six or seven years choosing to not renew it right about the time when the name made sense, as 2013 was the year that the FTC announced new rules concerning blogging and endorsements.
I'm sure there was a good reason for registering it, which is what I must assume of the 100+ domains that represent a sample of my idea horde. And, while I can't recall the specific "Aha!" moment that compelled me to secure my yearly lease to "caveatblogger.com," I do recall the feeling of just as there is buyer beware, there is blogger beware. I just didn't expect to be experiencing it personally some eight years later.
Let alone eight years, five years is a long time. And, just over five years ago, when this article was written, I had just completed my second LeadsCon Las Vegas and was just gearing up for my first LeadsCon East in New York. A little over five years ago, were also in the midst of the financial crisis. The consumer internet was just starting its massive transformation to social and mobile, but by and large, the real transformation was in the online advertising landscape.
While the numbers don't quite reflect it, in 2009, we were in a mini-ad recession. There was far more inventory than advertisers, and when that happens, it's a breeding ground for performance-based marketers, most notably, bad ones.
Today, when we think of performance-based marketing, people think of cost per click ads, or, if were talking about the mobile ecosystem, cost-per-install. In 2009, performance-based marketing referred mainly to free trial offers designed not with consumers in mind but a certain breed of affiliate marketer - the arbitrager.
Performance-based arbitrage is a topic I have covered extensively, and there is nothing wrong with arbitrage in and of itself. It simply refers to taking risk and potentially profiting from that risk. The downside with arbitrage and any form of risk taking is that it can lead to people taking risks they shouldn't. In the performance-based media world, that risk taking was not so much a financial undertaking as it was a carelessness and lack of consideration for the consumers being marketed to.
From 2008 through 2011, we saw an unprecedented rise in truly bad behavior amongst affiliates, but likes sharks circling prey, with the financial windfall that was to be had, what was a little misrepresentation and lack of concern for the consumer? All one has to do is read purported the story of Jesse Willms to catch a glimpse into what the ad ecosystem was like in 2009.
I am no crusader, but I am highly sensitive to two things a) people getting duped by clever marketers, and b) playing fields that get ruined by a race to the bottom. Both of those thing came together in the flogger (fake blogger) and farticle (fake article) ecosystems.
So when writing this post, it was some of the early but intense activity of unconcerned marketers who were aided by compliant advertisers that understood exactly what was going on and what had to happen to keep the orders flowing. Crucial to this entire process is the ability to buy media.
I forget what year, but Yahoo actually had to tell the street to expect lower ad revenues because they realized what some "advertisers" were doing, i.e., the outright consumer fraud. In banning the floggers and farticles, it meant making less money. This was well after 2009, but it goes to show both the scale and the lack of awareness of this process. For on the surface, especially if you were a commissioned sales rep, you probably wouldn't see anything wrong; or, better said, you probably wouldn't do much digging to make sure the claims were substantiated.
So, if Yahoo, who at the time was arguably the largest display company around, didn't catch on, what could we expect of a self-service CPC platform? Unlike Yahoo, they wouldn't have signed IO's for every advertisers, and given the number of advertisers, approval would have been algorithmic. If not algorithmic, it would have been the responsibility of a team given broad guidelines but certainly not trained in the up to the moment nuances of performance-based marketers, many of whom probably used cloaking to make sure policy teams saw different ads than their users would.
Enter Adblade, a company that I had not heard of, and, because of my own myopia and frustration with what was happening, assumed must be complicit in the spread of flogs. And then, sometime in 2010 or 2011, I recall being at an industry function hosted by a well known investment bank or VC, and I get introduced to a Dr. Ash Nashed. "Ash Nashed," I think to myself. That sounds like a familiar name. But of course it is. Here I am meeting the CEO of the company that I accused of being involved in flogs and farticles, thinking to myself at the time of writing how clever I am to play off his being an M.D. and the diet pill trend of the articles.
I suspect the author of the Jesse Willms article, were he to meet Jesse a few years after publishing his article, would still look at Mr. Willms as the "Dark Lord," in which he was portrayed. I am not a journalist, and so I did no diligence other than a few screenshots. Yet, blogging is not Twitter or Facebook. It has a permeance to the content even if the posts were written in a manner more befitting today's temporary style. So, do a search for Adblade, and there is still a chance you will see this post, which is not an accurate representation of the company, especially today.
There is something that I did get correct in that article. I said, "Criticisms aside, Adblade has built a real business that will transform from flogger paradise to a long-term player in the ad network space." And that is exactly what has happened.
While I may not personally like all the ads I see, Adblade appears to have definitely transformed from my "floggers paradise" comment to a floggers beware environment. Even in 2009 the company was quite transparent. I didn't appreciate it then, but in the ads I referenced, each said "Advertisement" very clearly. Compare that to native advertising leader Outbrain and their ad units which, like Google, don't show an icon that only industry insiders would recognize as being ads.
And now, as though they have existed to make me eat my words, try as I might, instead of being able to look to them for the worst of the offenders, any advertorial advertiser on their platform has not just compliant language but none of the misleading and arguably illegal copy running elsewhere.
Looking back now, I am still amazed that Dr. Nashed was as cordial as he was, despite my use of his name and brand to vent against deceptive behavior. I suspect I will owe him drinks for as long as our paths overlap.