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Two sides in ESPN's Web advertising broadside

Other Web publishers will likely follow the sports giant's lead. But with ad networks, there's a long symbiotic relationship built up over years that will be hard to overturn.

MediaWeek has the scoop on a brewing revolt being orchestrated by ESPN against the use of ad networks. The report says that ESPN cut ties with Specific Media and other unnamed ad networks. If the story's accurate, you can bet other Web publishers will follow the sports giant's lead.

Publisher grumbling about advertising networks is nothing new. The critics will tell you that they diminish the value of their brands, and I suppose there's a measure of truth there. Algorithm-based ad selling isn't going to be for everyone. Of course, that hasn't stopped Internet publishers from doing business with them.

We got the first inkling something was up last month when reports surfaced of the much-commented-upon quip by Wenda Millard, the president of media at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, that companies were selling Web inventory like "pork bellies." Yeah, duh.

To keep perspective, let's remember that ad networks have helped bail out Internet publishers by monetizing unsold ad inventory. Yet the rap--unfairly or not--is that they often confuse advertisers by promulgating channel conflict and hurt a brand's relationship with its audience. This will be interesting to watch develop because there's a lot of pent-up animosity against the practice. Check out Jason Calcanis' riff in particular:

Grow up publishers...you have to take ownership of your advertising relationships, not give them away. Don't buy this BS that you can't do it and you should focus on making great content--that's a crock. Your inventory is pure gold and you can sell it. These ad networks try to intimidate small publishers into thinking they can't sell their own inventory--NOT TRUE! You don't have to get a yes from every advertisers, all you need to do is get one out of 25 advertisers to say yes and you've got a HUGE business."

I'm sure a lot of the people reading that passage will dutifully nod their heads and mumble, sotto voce, "Pass the ammo, brother!" But will this be a harbinger of immediate change in the world of Internet advertising? Could be, but there still are a lot of defenders of ad networks within the Web publishing world who can argue that it's too radical a step. Besides, why dispose of a decade-long symbiotic relationship at the drop of a hat?

If ESPN really wants to take the ad networks down, it'll have to work hard to convince the other big Internet publishers to join it in storming the ramparts. At that point, I wonder how that might impact DoubleClick. If you have any thoughts on that question, drop a line.

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