Yes, it’s true – I did it

Life is full of surprises – and sometimes they’re even pleasant.

Out of the blue, and twenty year after the fact, someone writing in Time Magazine gave me credit for the fundamental insight that made the early Internet industry possible and later formed the basis of Google and Facebook’s fortunes:

The recognition that click through was the metric that was going to make the Internet into a commercial medium.

I know that sounds kind of grandiose, but as one of my heroes the late George Seldes once said: “Even the gods can’t change history.”

Here’s the history

As late as 1994, no one had a clue how the Internet was going to become a paying proposition.

In fact, in those days people in the tech industry who were overly interested in the Internet’s commercial potential were tolerated with the same condescension that used to be shown the village idiot.

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and other visionaries were on the public record as outspoken critics of the idea that the Internet could be commercialized and that the effort was even worth considering.

Strange, but true

I had been wrestling with Internet commercialization since I was first introduced to the idea by Mark Graham in the early 1990s.

To help move things along and maybe even break the then-unbreakable logjam, I organized a small meeting of some of the brightest people I knew who were interested in solving the Internet commercialization puzzle.

I scheduled the meeting, quite deliberately by the way, for May 24th, 1994. (Serious telecom history buffs will recognize the significance of May 24th. Hint: Go back 150 years.)

Henry Dakin loaned me his top floor meeting room at 3220 Sacramento Street in San Francisco. Previous tenants of this building included Apple’s “skunkworks” multimedia development team and Mark Graham’s SovAm Teleport, one of the earliest and most interesting non-military, non-academic uses of the Internet.

Attendees included…

* Mark Graham, who in those days was known as “Mr. Internet” and was cited in 1993 by MicroTimes as one of the 100 most important people in computing
* Marc Fleischmann of Internet Distribution Services, the first person to hang out a shingle as a full time commercial web developer. Among other things, he was the first person to put a real newspaper online for free reading (the Palo Alto Weekly.)
* Rick Boyce, then a media director for the Hal Riney & Partners advertising agency in San Francisco

Media directors are the “where the rubber meets the road” people at ad agencies. Account people schmooze clients, creative people made the ads, but it’s media people who figure out where to place the ads on TV and in magazines and newspapers. It’s a key, if unsung, job that can make or break an advertising campaign.

I had heard Rick speak several months earlier at a SIMBA media conference where he gave an impressive talk on the challenges facing media buyers in the age of 500 cable channels.

After his talk, I asked him what he thought the challenge would look like when there were tens of thousands of Internet channels. Then I invited him to our brain storming session in May.

I had no idea what fruit, if any, our meeting would yield, but here’s what happened

On a break, I showed Rick that not only could web servers count page views they could also measure how effective an ad was by calculating the percentage of people who clicked on it.

I told Rick that being able to count clicks was going to give advertisers unprecedented ability to track and, most importantly, test ads for effectiveness.

This is something that was already possible, if unwieldy, and had done by smart direct response advertisers (a minority of advertisers) in print and on TV for decades.

At the time of our meeting, other than the ever-pioneering Tim O’Reilly and his Global Net Navigator (GNN), no one was selling advertising on the Internet. The ads that GNN sold were were not priced based on impressions, let alone clicks, but on a general sponsorship model.

Then came the boom

A few months after our May meeting, Andrew Anker who was CEO of Wired’s then brand new Hotwired website hired Rick to handle ad sales for the new company, a job Rick did masterfully.

Hotwired was the first web publication to sell ads in a professional way and the first company to make real money at it.

While it took a while for other people to catch on, when they did it was the propellent that fueled the boom in web-based publications that turned the Internet into a commercial medium.

Rick was also the first person to provide his ad buying clients with detailed metrics like CPM and cost per click.

While there have been many improvements in finesse since then, in twenty plus years there’s been no fundamental improvement on this basic model since we sorted it out on a Saturday afternoon in May in 1994.

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have been the only person thinking about click through rates back then.

However, it’s highly likely I was the only person actively and systematically reaching out to ad and media industry folks (Rick wasn’t the only one) and explaining to them in a detailed way that despite general incredulity on the part of Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue and Wall Street, the web absolutely had a realistic shot at becoming a significant advertising medium.

The author of the Time Magazine article, Tony Haile, who recounted this story in much abbreviated form is no bozo on the bus. He’s the CEO of Chartbeat which does reader analytics for and more than 4,000 other big publishers and brands.

I’ve never met him and have no idea how he sourced this obscure bit of Internet history, but he’s clearly a guy who does his homework.

P.S. Six months after our May 1994 meeting, I sponsored and organized the first conference ever held that focused exclusively on the commercial potential of the web. I invited the same cast of characters to participate – plus one.

The “plus one” was Marc Andreessen – and if you know the history of the web, you know how that story turned out.

P.P.S. Interested in new developments in Internet marketing?

My colleagues and I know a lot more about it than we did twenty years ago.

Here’s how I make my expertise available these days: The System Club

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

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