Meeting expecations

Very nice to meet a lot of readers at The Rebooting’s informal cocktail party. For all the flaws of Cannes – there are many, let’s be real – it remains a great meeting place, if not a great place for meetings. More on that distinction below.

First, a message from Onyx by Outbrain.

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Around the Croisette

Search apocalypse shifts. First, I need to walk back my swipe at the coupons hustle that got shut down by Google. A newspaper executive pointed out to me at Le Duplex that coupons as part of a newspaper bundle always existed. Traffic declines are a regular discussion. This isn’t coming back, even if it will normalize. The new figures from ComScore back up the anecdotal reports I have gotten of 10-20% year-over-year declines. 

Perplexity is the new AI boogeyman. Cannes is a great place to be reminded that talent imitates while genius steals. Perplexity looks strategically to be in the position of being the new TiVo – which by the way has a suite on the Croisette – rather than the next Google. Still, it appears set to develop “innovations” that Google will copy because Google can make every mistake in the book but still win because distribution is 100x more important than product; it’s time Silicon Valley stop peddling nonsense that says otherwise. The methods Perplexity is using for its AI “answer engine” are typically aggressive. Publishers are outraged. From Perplexity’s point of view, It’s understandable that in an uphill battle to crack the search market. Microsoft has tried for a generation and only has a rounding error of the market to show for it, although that’s over $10 billion because search is the best business in the world. The playbook is always the same: Make nice statements publicly, push the envelope as far as possible in the market.

More on publishing in an AI era: Today, from 3 to 5pm, The Rebooting is holding a live recording of The Rebooting Show at the Dotdash Meredith villa. I’ll be joined by Sara Fischer of Axios and Dotdash Meredith CEO Neil Vogel. Sign up for a spot. We’ll have cocktails, conversation, more cocktails. This is normal in Cannes.

Revenue per session as North Star. Publishing businesses are often complex, often with competing goals. When subscriptions enter the picture, ad sales sees a threat. Less inventory means less to sell. That’s falling away. The data from subscriptions programs is a powerful asset in a tough ad market where publishers are battling it out with everyone from grocery stores to taxi companies. Jason White, chief product and technology officer at The Arena Group, told me during a live podcast recording with EX.CO general manager for the Americas Johanna Bergqvist said he prefers to drive to a revenue per session goal. 

Why is Elon Musk here? I was surprised Elon Musk made the trip to Cannes. I thought he brought on Linda Yaccarino to handle the pesky ad people. His last remarks to the “advertising community” included an expletive over their wariness to embrace his vision of what free speech looks like. His remarks about advertising have betrayed someone who hasn’t spent much time understanding how the ad system works. I suppose that’s one path to first-principles thinking. He broke little new ground in his talk with WPP CEO Mark Reed. He was here less as the CEO CTO of a money-losing ad-selling tech platform and more as a celebrity. CMOs love celebrity attention, so they'll welcome an audience. It’s hard to see how advertising is anything more than a bridge for X. I would think he sees more value to it as training data for large-language models that will run out of fresh training material. You can be sure he’ll return to the idea that X can be some kind of payments platform. But ads? Very hard to see a future in which X is a major advertising player. 

Cannes tip: Leave Cannes. The Riviera has many far nicer and quieter towns than Cannes during a festival. 

Meeting expectations 

Every Cannes story is legally obligated to point out that the real value of this thing lies in the meetings. They take place on yachts, on beaches, on helicopter rides, in boats to St Tropez, and always over drinks. 

Cannes supports an entire economy of events, dinners and outings that are designed to facilitate meetings. Sure, it might seem a lot to pay MediaLink $850,000 for a cubicle meeting space on the beach. Somehow that math pencils out.

Cannes veterans will make very persuasive cases that the meetings with partners, colleagues, customers and prospects make the expenses worth it. It doesn’t matter if most of the meetings are with people who live in your own city. 

Cannes has always been best for is meeting people. This is different than having meetings. Meeting people is much more enjoyable than meetings, which are synonymous with Zoom, haggling over a time and place, and someone itching to hit the whiteboard or share their screen. Meeting people is much better, especially if it’s at a Yahoo-sponsored Chainsmokers concert on a beach. The many dinners, cocktail parties and concerts are facilitators. At a time when people are often on screens at all times, there’s something nice about a return to the very human impulse to meet other humans, all the better if it’s around a pool branded “Priceless” as part of a MasterCard activation.

I’m partial to unstructured meetings. Just yesterday, I grabbed coffee with a South American newspaper editor who explained the media business landscape in his market, ran into multiple former colleagues, got a car ride in a Fiat 500 from a Canadian couple who decamped to the Riviera during the pandemic and stayed, and saw many people I’ve known over the years but for whatever reason only see here. I ran into one publishing executive who I’d flaked on setting up a meeting with. We caught up under an awning of a luxury store and were soon joined by another exec we both know. The reunion element of Cannes has real value.

People tend to like serendipity more in theory than reality. At my last job, I was opposed to starting a structured “meetings program” that would matchmake ad tech sellers with the publishing executives who attended events. It felt very heavy handed to herd people into a windowless hotel conference room with a giant countdown clock looming as the din rose to a a frenzy. The unbridled sales energy in those rooms was similar to a concert, only with the heavy musk of pure capitalistic frenzy. I was wrong on that one; the hosted-buyer approach is good business because you know you’ll deliver. Everyone and everything ends up on a spreadsheet or in a CRM.

Still, serendipity is more valuable in my book. Meeting people organically at a cocktail party struck me as preferable to an arranged sales date, especially if the publishing executive was induced to take the meeting as part of their free pass. What I got wrong was that people want dependability. They don’t like risk. Even if the right people are at a place, there’s the risk that you won’t connect with them.

Publishing brands are increasingly embracing the role of conveners. When I ask for parts of their businesses that are growing, some kind of events is often at the top of the list. A strong media brand has “convening power.” I don’t see that changing. Vogue isn’t at risk of being displaced from the Met Gala by Instacart. The test of media brands is whether they can get the right people in the room. You can’t micro-target your way there, sorry data crunchers.

That shift should be celebrated. The brands that can pull it off will have a clear focus, deep ties to an audience or even community if we must. This can level the playing field. You do not need massive reach. That levels the playing field.

Thanks for reading. Send me feedback by hitting reply.

I’ll have one final Cannes dispatch tomorrow before a weekend in Paris followed by a trip to Belgrade. Next week’s newsletters will be written at Cvetni Trg.