What Students Want to Know Most About Ad Tech, Answered

Adweek Advisory Board member and Hypergiant founder Ben Lamm shares his expertise

ben lamm
Ben Lamm answered questions from a marketing class at Boston College. Hypergiant
Headshot of Nicole Ortiz

The ad-tech industry was having a turbulent year even before the coronavirus pandemic upended digital advertising. So what does the industry look like now, and how can people just entering it find their footing?

We invited students from Boston College professor Kay Lemon’s applied marketing management course in the Carroll School of Management to ask Hypergiant co-founder and CEO Ben Lamm questions about ad tech and marketing. Most of the students are marketing majors, and all of them are graduating in the spring.

Katherine A. Herlihy: I’m sure that ad tech has developed along with consumer trends and varying technologies. What is the greatest change you’ve observed in ad tech, and do you predict any major changes in the future?
Lamm: The biggest thing about ad tech is that most people don’t even see online ads. How do we change that? We have to rethink what an ad is. Ads are less than 150 years old in the form we think of them now. Maybe they, like all industries, need to be rethought. My guess is that in the future we see less, not more, ads. But also we see less competition, and I’m not sure if that is good for the world.

Julia N. Amato: Do you think that certain industries or product/service categories benefit from using ad tech or marketing tech more than others? Are there any particular industries that you think do not use ad tech enough but should?
B-to-B companies don’t know how to advertise really in any way that is effective. Most of them don’t because they don’t know who their customer is. There is massive room for improvements in that space. We don’t advertise at Hypergiant because we get a lot of inbound requests. We get those through great brand, great work and great word-of-mouth success. My big questions: Does B-to-B need ads if they create better brands? And how does everyone advertise less, not more?

"The world needs more creatives, not less. Most advertisements are boring. We need people brave enough to take more creative chances, to be entertaining and to drive desire."
—Ben Lamm, Co-Founder, Hypergiant

Sarah J. Santoro: How has the role of creatives changed as a result of trends in digital advertising and marketing? As you can get more and more targeted with ad placement, should companies become even more targeted and personalized with messaging and ad concept? How granular is too granular?
You cannot be too granular. Most companies have less than 5,000 customers, so you need to micro-target to get 5,000 customers. That’s so specific; you should know people’s names. Yes, that is not true for Fortune 500 companies, but how did they get there? By knowing people’s names. Know people’s names. Know what they like. Know why they like your product and sell that to them.

The world needs more creatives, not less. Most advertisements are boring. We need people brave enough to take more creative chances, to be entertaining and to drive desire. My whole company is built off a great B-to-B brand because it’s a lot more fun to have a creative brand, and it’s a lot more effective.

James Helf: It seems to be a hot-topic issue to discuss the merits of cookies and design a replacement. What are the shortcomings of cookies? How could it be improved upon/replaced? And how will that affect ad tech, both on the company side and the consumer side?
The biggest problem with cookies is that they track your online usage to target information at you. Even with consent being asked now by most websites, the issue is still that cookie tracking has become inherent to our usage pattern of the internet. If we replace it, we still are just coming up with a new non-cookie technology.

Instead, what we need to do is figure how we want to use the internet and then legislate for that usage: Either we think it’s fine to be served ads, or we want to not be served ads. That’s a human decision, not a technology decision.

Gillian R. Rozynek: Do you believe there will be enough technological innovation in the future to limit the amount of retargeting for an ad if the consumer has already purchased the product? Is there any way to know that/stop the retargeting of ads based on the consumer’s purchase history?
Go build that. I’m not going to build it, but you should. Companies should be better about knowing when to sell things to a consumer, but this is not necessarily about building better ads. It’s about better knowing your customer. Knowing your customer is about talking to them, about great CRM systems, about understanding consumer mentality and the buying cycle for your products. It’s about the granular understanding of your human customer. Sure, ads can get better, but really companies need to get better at this first and then ads can improve.

"Knowing your customer is about talking to them, about great CRM systems, about understanding consumer mentality and the buying cycle for your products. It’s about the granular understanding of your human customer."
—Ben Lamm, Co-Founder, Hypergiant

Gregory C. Kacergis: Many people have expressed concern or fear over advertising being invasive or creepy when the ads they receive seem to know them just a bit too well. Do you see any possible solutions to this problem given the current technology?
No—consumers already gave up their privacy and then have stopped lobbying for more. This ship has already left. We can pull back some privacy concerns, but it’s too late for most of it and a tit-a-tat response to protect privacy will ultimately fail. Governments may be able to regulate in some compelling way, but I’m not seeing the potential for that happening at this moment.

Barrette Janney: How do you think the working-from-home movement in place right now will affect brands and how they advertise now and in the future?
This question has two parts. Working from home culture will result in an increase in direct mailers to people’s homes, but this was already happening even before the COVID-19 crisis. Social media ads are too expensive, and Google ads are hard for people to manipulate appropriately. This will change, and at the same time, people will continue to spend more time locally and outside urban areas. We may see an ultimate boost to local papers and hyper-local OOF ad spend.

Also interesting is what will happen to the price of ads as millions of businesses shutter. A lot of small mom-and-pop businesses won’t be able to reopen, and then we will see a big dip in ad sales. It could be a great time for well-capitalized businesses to take advantage of cheap (or increasingly less expensive as demand weakens) ad platforms like social media, where people are spending lots of time while they are at home.

Elizabeth G. Voss: What are some of the most essential skills in terms of ad tech for students to develop before starting a career in marketing?
Understand data and human psychology. The big thing about effective advertising is that it uses data effectively to instigate behavior. Understand both in order to get ahead.

Patrick T. McGrath: Outside of the current methods, what is another source of data that you think would be useful for targeted advertising that is not currently being utilized?
If we could actually get brainwave responses to ads, I think we would have an entirely different understanding of how brains respond to all ads, and that source of data would be deeply insightful. There are companies doing this, but short of a world with [Elon Musk’s human-technology interface company] Neuralink or another implantable, we won’t have that sort of always-on data stream. If we did, though, we’d certainly know more about ads, effectiveness and how to market.

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@neco_ornot nicole.ortiz@adweek.com Nicole Ortiz is a senior editor at Adweek, overseeing magazine departments such as Trending, Talent Pool, Data Points, Voice and Perspective.