After the Last Sky

Where does the bird fly,
After the last sky?
—Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian Poet

I have flown up like the primeval ones…
I appear in glory with the strides of gods…
As for him that knows this pure spell,
it means going out into the day after death
and being transformed at will.
—Ryewolf, ‘Legend and History of the Benu Bird and the Phoenix’

Trying to make sense out of a troubled media ecosystem, it behooves us to seek answers wherever we can find them. For me, a dyed-in-the-wool direct marketing quant that pushed the limits so hard and far that in Marshall McLuhan’s words, they began “to operate in reverse”, poets like T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Kipling and Darwish, above, have each helped me in different ways. What an odd journey!

In both Islamic and Jewish mystical traditions, there are seven heavens. The colloquial “seventh heaven” is the final destination, if you will. In Buddhist meditation, there are seven layers of consciousness on the road to universal enlightenment, where the seventh level is the field of universal knowledge; “the last sky” so to speak.

Darwish uses “sky” and “heaven” interchangeably, and in Semitic languages they are indeed from the same root. So what is a bird to do after soaring the last heaven? And this ultimately is the question for media and marketing folks. Where do we go after we have explored all of what appears on our horizon? After we have visited the last sky?

For the handful reading these musings of mine, you know that I believe that present online marketing methodologies have hit the last sky. We marketing and media birds have migrated from search to every conceivable targeting methodology. I might have used the metaphor of Dante’s descent into Hell to describe our marketing journey, but I thought the above title was catchier and more hopeful.

Some people misinterpret my writings as gloom and doom. Not true. Only if you want to continue doing what is futile will you find pessimism. But there is a way out. There is a way for this bird to stay aloft and keep flying.

What is needed is nothing short of a transformation. For any that have experienced the ‘pure spell’ of transformation, you know the resulting exaltation. So, what the heck am I talking about?

The present media ecosystem is dysfunctional. We all know that advertisers subsidize the ecosystem. But the ecosystem has become so unwieldy, things have gone terribly wrong. The basic problem is that the relationship between audiences and advertiser has fundamentally eroded.

Media outlets get government subsidies to stay afloat to promote the prevailing political mythologies (see Iraq WMDs as an example).  But audiences are buying the propaganda less and less and fleeing the mainstream media in droves. Advertisers are in a quandary because the media landscape is so complex and fragmented that achieving authentic reach is problematic.

The great “pay wall” debacle attempts to shift the economic burden from advertiser to exhausted and financially strapped audiences. That “sky” did not take long to close. For the past few years, the targeting “sky” has attracted a tremendous flock. The behavioral targeting folks dominated the trades and conferences.

Besides employing voodoo math, targeting methodologies attempt to turn all media into accountable, direct marketing opportunities. But treating all media from a direct-marketing perspective does not scale for advertisers and certainly does not create demand. It relies on existing intent instead of creating that intent. Advertisers utilizing targeting methodologies stalk audiences, when they should be enlisting them in a common cause.

Meanwhile, audiences continue to turn a blind eye to the growing marketing clutter. As we built this on-demand media universe, we discovered that audiences have no demand whatsoever for advertising. Worse, they are repelled by it. The media ecosystem is increasingly stressed because the ‘solutions’ offered usually mean doubling down on what clearly has not been working – more targeting and more ads.

So where do we go from here? How can we rise from the ashes like a Phoenix?

The answer is actually quite simple, albeit transformative. Instead of putting more ads into content, put the content into the ads.  Stop a moment and read that again, and ask yourself:  What is the only reason anyone ever visits any website?  The answer: For the content they expect to find there.  Ergo, instead of using ads to attract audiences, use content instead, and surround the content with the ad! We do this with licensed video clips all the time and make six times more money than we did with pre-roll, which is why we’ve stopped offering pre-roll completely. We have been transformed, so-to-speak.

This can be done with text articles as well. Imagine a Drudge Report headline on “Hairy Ants” going to a Raid website. Audiences don’t care where they consume the content.  They just want it.  Publishers should be bundling audience and content together, and delivering both to advertiser websites.

Imagine giving audiences what they really want – content – and surrounding that content with a brand message.  What a great idea!  Essentially this is how it was done in days of old, back in the early days of radio and television. The role of content was and has always been a means to deliver audiences for advertisers. Somehow, this simple idea has been lost over time.

So where does the bird fly after the last sky? Right back where it started, that’s where.  I have no illusions about the media ecosystem adopting this simple proven solution, because so many are in denial and too busy doubling down on what doesn’t work. In the meantime, if you want to watch a little Hitchcock without an annoying pre-roll, click here. *

*Disclosure- The “advertiser websites” where the licensed video clip and the Hitchcock video are currently playing is owned and operated by a sister company owned by us, These were only used to demonstrate how content is used to attract audiences.

About Jaffer Ali

Jaffer Ali is the CEO of e-commerce company, He is a serial entrepreneur who has touched every part of the online ecosystem since 1998. Jaffer is known as a contrarian thought leader who has contributed over 250 essays to industry trades covering every aspect of online media and marketing topics. A collection of his essays can be downloaded for free: Chasing String In The Digital Era.


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