An Ad Executive Often in the Vanguard Peers Into the Future

Rob Norman was greeted with a social media flood of well-wishes and compliments from marketing executives at major brands and even rival ad companies when he announced in November he was retiring as chief digital officer of GroupM, the media-buying arm of WPP.

“There are few people who actually knew, know and will always know what’s next,” Rishad Tobaccowala, chief growth officer for the Publicis Groupe, wrote on Twitter. “Rob is one.”

The responses underscored Mr. Norman’s reputation, built over more than three decades, as a clarifying voice in a cacophonous media landscape.

Mr. Norman, 57, has had a front-row view of that shifting world through his roles at GroupM, which spends billions of dollars a year on behalf of a long roster of WPP advertisers, from Campbell Soup to Unilever. (GroupM, where Mr. Norman remains a consultant, claims it’s responsible for one out of every three ads worldwide.)

While television and newspapers were the dominant forces in his native England when Mr. Norman started his career, he began working with online advertising in the mid-1990s, taking on challenges like increasing listings on search engines like Excite and AltaVista.

Later, he guided brands and colleagues through the heydays of MSN and Yahoo and the rise of platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and streaming TV. Along the way, Mr. Norman became known for sharing his insights at industry events and in trade publications, always with a healthy dose of dry British wit.

Mr. Norman recently spoke with The New York Times about where the media and advertising worlds are now and where he thinks they are going. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

There is a huge focus on how dominant Google and Facebook are in digital advertising, where they are often referred to as the “duopoly.” Some people have a hard time seeing that change.

The people who are most stuck in the world are those who see hegemonic positions now and don’t believe that now can be disrupted — despite the fact that what exists now only exists because everything’s been disrupted.

At the beginning of my career, the hegemonic position was held by ITV and the big commercial broadcasters. Then it was held by this display triumvirate of Yahoo, MSN and AOL and, separately, search by Google. And it took quite a long time to get here.

If you asked anyone in 2009, ‘Guess what the combined market shares of Google and Facebook will be in 2017,’ I’m not sure there would have been anyone that would have come close.

How long do you think will they maintain that position?

It kind of depends on what Google and Facebook allocate their resources to, and like everybody else, it depends on how they manage to navigate actual and potential regulatory environments going forward. I think if they were both worried about a thing today, it would be what regulators think about them, because they’re not at the peak of their popularity with those folks at the moment, it would seem to me.

I think that’s why people are so interested in the Amazon story and were so interested in the Snap story and were so interested in Twitter’s story — because everyone’s looking for the next one to break through.

What’s the next thing that’s going to look and feel completely different that disrupts how people interface with the world around them? My guess is that five to seven years from now, there will be at least one company that people will think of in the top five most important enterprises in advertising that simply doesn’t exist now.

Last month, the Walt Disney Company said that it had reached a deal to buy most of 21st Century Fox, which would fit into its plans to introduce two Netflix-style streaming services and give the company a majority stake in Hulu. (Comcast and Time Warner have the minority stakes.) What do you think?

Imagine a massively emboldened Hulu.

If Disney decides to put the Fox assets in entertainment and movies into Hulu, and Comcast decides to put Universal and NBC studio assets into Hulu, too, then certainly from a domestic point of view, you end up with a product that looks pretty fantastic if people watch television.

You could have things like day-after episodes of new drama of the Hulu model and then the entire movie libraries of Universal, Fox, Disney, Pixar and all of the other stuff with it.

Then what happens if that same group of people says to the broadcasters of the world: “What we have here is a working business model of what the studio system plus the broadcast system can look like in a new world, with a tiered-option model based on some combination of live, day-after, on-demand, paid, ad-funded and so forth, and basically you could slice it whichever way you’d like for your market. We’ve got the content block and the technology license block so that everyone can build their own castle in all these markets.”

Disney has BamTech, remember. [Disney has a majority stake in BamTech, the company that built HBO Go in time for the fifth season of “Game of Thrones,” and will build Disney’s new streaming services.]

It may not be owned 100 percent by one company, but it could be a new phenomenon that could be a kind of distributed monopoly, which I don’t think anyone’s really thought about.

And this could potentially run ads?

Because you’re using the same underlying systems, you suddenly have a data pool that crosses all of that content, all of those users and potentially all of those markets. People are asking the question about what’s the third force? That would probably be the answer.

What’s another way that could go?

I think if I learned one thing over my career, it is that Newton was right: The objects that are in motion stay in motion, and that motion tends to accelerate, hit plateaus and reaccelerate.

Given the asymmetry of certain enterprises in the world, you kind of wonder as to whether or not new Disney, with all of its IP, has in fact become the juiciest peach in the world to be consumed by Apple.

If Apple was going to make a “one bound and you’re serious” move into the video content business globally, and the provision of video service business globally, it could make sense. You then have most of Hulu and all of the IP in Pixar, Marvel and all of the other things that Bob Iger has been assembling over the years, and you have ESPN. That wouldn’t be a terrible place to start, and they could do it for 30 percent of their market cap.

What do you make of Facebook’s plans to prioritize “meaningful interactions” between friends and family while showing less news to its users?

You can on one hand take it at face value and say that Facebook is taking a step back to their roots. The other way you could argue this is that Facebook has decided that there is a degree of toxicity which comes from being overtly an economic participant in a news-based value chain, and that the economics of it are not worth the perceived risks of association.

The one thing that’s kind of disturbing about all of this to me and potentially The New York Times is: Are we moving into a world where the dominant platforms of media consumption are basically getting close to a point where they’re blacklisting the monetization of news?

What have you seen that makes you think they’re getting close to that?

It seems that there is no huge demand in Google’s program commissioning to commission news. I don’t see there’s a big appetite for Facebook saying, “We would like 20 news organizations to provide news bulletin programming for Facebook Watch.”

We know there are dozens and dozens of news organizations around the world, or at least a dozen or two that include The Times, Reuters, Bloomberg, the BBC and so on, who are, for the most part, the keepers of truth in news and the people who keep the public informed.

And it seems odd to me that if you have aspirations to take up a very significant part of the media consumption time of the public that you do not have an overt policy for the dissemination of news and to participate in the funding of news for your audience.

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/28/business/media/rob-norman-advertising.html by SAPNA MAHESHWARI