Starting An Advertising Business Without Wanting To Kill Yourself
We’ve just launched a boutique advertising network for independent gaming websites called Eudaimoneers. It’s about the least likely thing that me-of-20-years-ago could have imagined doing. It’s disconcerting, but it feels good, man. I’d like to tell you some of the why of both.
You’ve probably seen Bill Hicks’ advertising rant from back in 1993. Even if you haven’t, the probability approaches 1.0 that you’ve seen somebody reference it if you’ve ever read a single message board thread in the last 20 years where people were talking about advertising. But just in case, here it is (and there’s a lot of cursing and barely-suppressed anger and general billhicksiness, so: warning if it’s new to you)
Here’s how he starts, just in case you’re not up for the swears
By the way if anyone here is in advertising or marketing… kill yourself. It’s just a little thought; I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day they’ll take root — I don’t know. You try, you do what you can.
Seriously though, if you are, do.
Aaah, no really. There’s no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers. Okay — kill yourself. Seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good.
That’s a strange way to kick off an essay about trying to launch a new advertising business, I know. Stick with me.
Some people — even people who don’t make a living from it — kind of love advertising. A lot of folks are down with the program. I’ve never watched a Superbowl in my life, for example (though I have watched a few Stanley Cups after enough beer was proven to be a) present and b) cold), but I am given from what I read on the internet at least to believe that many people watch the games not for the grunting and kicking and tackling and manly buttocks-patting as much as for the advertisements being played during the Big Show. Which, you know, fine.
Some people tolerate ads. For most, that’s probably the default position. We’re swimming in them all the time, and if we’ve given much thought to it, we’ve probably resigned ourselves to one or more of the reasons we’re given that they generally fall into the spectrum ranging from Unalloyed Good to Necessary Evil. The justifications include things like ‘without advertising you wouldn’t be able to learn about marvellous new products and services that can make your life better’ or ‘without ads, the prople who produce most of the media that keeps you entertained and amused — tv shows, websites, movies, games — wouldn’t get paid, and so that stuff wouldn’t get made’ or ‘it’s the ENGINE OF OUR POSTINDUSTRIAL ECONOMY’ or ‘jooooooobsssss’.
Then there are the people who hate advertising, like Bill Hicks, may he rest in peace. I’ll tell you, friends, for decades, I was one of those people. In a way, I still am. Which is weird for a couple of reasons: first, I’ve probably spent more time over the last 15 years building websites which I have stubbornly refused to monetize through advertising than I have doing my actual day job, and second, like I said, I’ve just launched and am trying to build an advertising network.
I want to tell you about the project, and the story of how I got here, and maybe a few things I’ve learned along the way. To get to today’s what and why, I need to go back a few years and gather some threads.
Thread #1: In Which Video Games Teach Me About Virtuous Action
I’m a middle aged man (a middle-aged hetero cis-male middle-class caucasian with shiny hair and good teeth, which sets me teetering atop the privilege pyramid, I know), and I kind of love video games. It’s been nearly life-long love for me. I started back in 1976, when I was as over-excited as any 11-year-old was back in that day by the cornucopia of Cool! Stuff! in the Sears catalog, and I somehow managed to convince my mom to buy one of the Home Pong consoles — the only console I’ve ever owned. As ridiculous as it sounds, playing Pong was a revelation. You could move the paddles ON THE SCREEN by twiddling a little knob while sitting on your sofa. Holy crap!
As much as I enjoyed the experience of controlling those white blocks floating on the cathode ray tube, at least for a while, it just fed a desire for more. More blocks! More colors! Well, more than one color, at least. I started lobbying (all right, begging) for an Atari 2600 as soon as they were announced. Those things cost upwards of CA$300 at launch, though — one of the most expensive consoles ever, taking inflation into account — and that made it a much harder sell, particularly given how quickly my Pong-mania had faded, something my parents did not fail to remind me.
In a move of surprising wisdom, though, my folks suggested a compromise in 1978 — they wouldn’t spend that kind of money on a gaming device that might end up gathering dust under the big RCA in the living room, but they would consider spending around four times as much on an actual, real computer. I could play games on it if I wanted, but they hoped I’d use it to learn. And so I did. My desk upstairs became home to a hulking, silver-grey TRS-80 Model III.
And so I learned to program, and wrote some of my own primitive games and demos. Later, I also spent hours in Beck’s Arcade in my Northern BC hometown, getting ridiculously good at Defender and hoping I’d get to tag along to whatever gravel pit party was on for that night.
And so eventually there came a day, a lovely hormonally-drenched summer day, when I realized that I might just be missing out on a lot by sitting in front of that plastic box so much — mostly sex and booze and rock and roll and 19th century Russian novelists and tropical islands and fast cars and entirely other categories of fun, and I so tugged the plastic cover down over the old Model III and I rarely touched a computer for the purposes of recreation for the next couple of decades, other than the occasional drop-in to an arcade or bar for a bit of nostalgia.
They were great times, those computerless years. It’s not something that the relatively affluent young people of Canada these days would even consider as an option. I am an old.
In the late 1990s, I was living in Australia, doing IT development stuff, and I got curious, and tentatively — just a taste!— starting playing video games again. And it was good. Years went by, I settled in Korea, got married, got a steady job, and gaming became a small but pleasurable regular part of my life again.
In 2007, I started MefightClub. (The name — a little opaque and mildly confusing to the many people who have joined us since who aren’t Metafilter users — was a joke that stuck. Metafilter members refer to themselves as ‘MeFites’, so… well, you get it.)
It was at first just a forum for a bunch of Metafilter members who had discovered how much they loved Team Fortress 2, but it’s grown into a small general gaming community that’s about 4000 members strong today.
Playing together, talking about games we loved, we pretty quickly discovered how great it was to have a shared gaming place that was free from, well, idiots and sexists and homophobes and all the rest of the long laundry list of Gaming Types Best Avoided (but which are upsettingly common). We spent a lot of time talking and thinking about what we valued as an infant community, and, as these things sometimes do, a policy to protect those shared values organically evolved.
Inclusiveness and kindness (and a general fondness for scotch) became the watchwords, and as our collective pride in making a Good Place grew, we formalized those emergent community standards in the site copy that people see on the front page before they sign up.
This was long before gamergate and all of its nastiness arrived on the scene. Or rather, the nastiness had already been an exhausting roar of background noise, a source of the embarrassment at being a reasonable adult human being while also enjoying video games, before it all splashed out in waves of unpleasantness and abuse in 2014. Having a haven to enjoy our gaming pastime that was outside of the gamergate fallout zone during that time was a great relief. I learned stuff from that.
Over the years since, I’ve been immensely proud to host a place where, as much as I’ve been able, with the happy co-operation of our membership, people who had come to expect that their interactions with other gamers were doomed to be unpleasant because of their gender or race or sexual orientation or for other reasons were welcome and could feel welcomed. It’s been enormous fun. Good friends have been made and good times have been had, and we’ve donated more than $20,000 to charity over the past few years.
It’s changed my life, and I’ve come to regard it in its small way as Doing Something Good in the world, a something that could only happen with the collaboration of other good people. That’s not a feeling that I’d ever expected to experience in connection with video games. And it’s made me think.
Thread #2: Monetizing Passion Projects Is Weird and Uncomfortable
I’ve been building web stuff for coming up on 20 years now. I’ve done some paid web development for people, but none of the personal projects I’ve worked on over the years were done to make money. They’ve been labors of love, each and every one, and even if most of them weren’t particularly ‘successful’, they gave me great satisfaction. I like building things, and if I were better with my hands, or lived in another era, I’d probably be making furniture or something instead.
As MefightClub grew, it became more expensive to run. Not hugely more expensive, but enough so that I started to think about ways to keep the lights on without dipping too far into my own pocket. My dream, of course, was to follow in the footsteps of Matt Haughey, who created Metafilter and with some bumps along the road turned it into a viable business that supported himself and several employees, all without compromising his integrity or alienating (most of) the thousands of users who call the site their home on the web, myself included.
There were some strictly technical differences that complicated things: a different level of public accessibility that, along with the conscious decision to keep MefightClub small and intimate, meant that a pure page-view-based display ad solution wasn’t going to work very well at MFC. Algorithmic contextual scattershot advertising like Adsense and its kin thrive on volume. And even though I was serving over a million page views a month to MefightClub members, none of them were public, by design.
Maybe 5 years ago, I actually tried Adsense as an experiment, after asking the community if they were amenable and getting nearly-unanimous support.
It made me feel… dirty. It was depressing seeing ugly ads for things like Adult Friend Finder or cheeseball Chinese MMOs or the Adsense equivalent of penis enlargement spam. I’d spent so much time designing the site to look just the way I liked it (or just the way I liked it to the extent that my skills at the time could achieve), and then suddenly: oh dear. So ugly.
Even dialing it back to text ads felt wrong and tawdry and bargain basement. I couldn’t stomach it, and at the end of the short experiment, it only made a matter of a few dollars. So much stress and self-loathing for so little money. I’d learned my lesson.
And to be honest, a part of the whole experience that left a bad taste in my mouth was a lingering aversion to advertising, and a dislike for the way that advertising was being done on the internet.
There was a time, like I said, when I billhicksed it with the best of them. But dabbling in the black art of website monetization for the first time, well, it got me interested, and my eyes opened to the very real problems of independent website publishers in making enough money to keep the lights on, let alone make a business of their labors, without compromising their integrity. I’d never tried to make money from my web stuff before, and the experience of having a go brought home what a fraught thing it can be.
Eventually, community members convinced me that accepting donations was a happy compromise, and that’s what I’ve done since, with great gratitude. These days, with the advent of low-friction services like Patreon, more and more independent website owners are doing the same. It’s a way to monetize without monetizing, an honorable way for makers of webstuff to seek support for their work.
I can’t help feeling, sometimes, though, that soliciting donations is a capitulation of sorts, an acknowledgement of sorts that Bill Hicks might have been right, and it’s just Manichean good or evil and there’s no viable Middle Way.
But I don’t think he was right.
Thread #3: What’s It All About, Stavros?
Back in the upper Neolithic, I minored in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. I cannot recommend it to seekers after anything other than a letter grade. It came perilously close to snuffing out my youthful enthusiasm for Pondering The Big Questions. Happily, though, I was lucky enough to have friends who enjoyed the complementary activities of a) drinking b) sitting beside bodies of water and c) philosophizin’, and so mostly the experience just instilled in me a strong impulse to distrust Experts, which was probably a good result.
Since then, the day-to-day exigencies of life kept me, as they do most folks, from spending too much time stroking my beard and contemplating Important Stuff, but over the years, I kept on reading, and though I’m not a religious person, kept on feeding my hunger to dig deeper into questions of religion and meaning and ethics and all the rest of the existential dishes on the steam table of the epistemology buffet.
They say (whoever they are) that when you reach a certain advanced age that questions about what to do start to give way to questions about how to live, and for me, that has been true. As I rounded the corner of my 40s, I started to think a lot more about the kind of person I was and the ways in which I fell short of my ideals. I started to think more about what it meant to live a good life. I started to think about how to act in accordance with virtue, and how, now that it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to change the world, I might be able to do some good in the corner of it where I had some small influence. I started to think about the fact that even if I kept myself in shape, I might have 20 or so years left. And I started to think a lot about what would happen if I had less than 20 years, and what would happen to the people in my life who depended on me if my time came sooner than I might like.
I started revisiting some of my old drinking friends — Plato and Socrates, the Buddha, Kong-tse and Meng-tse, the Roman moralists, the Abramahic Trio, and a whole bunch more — and trying to rebuild and repair some of the philosophical infrastructure I’d let the Termites of Necessity gnaw away at for too long. I had a lot of fun doing it, too.
I thought about the way I felt about MefightClub as a Good Place, and about the stories members of the community would tell me and others about the positive effect it had had on their lives.
I thought about the dozens of projects I’d put up on the web over the past 20 years, and my stubborn refusal to make money from them.
I thought about the way that advertising on the web was broken, how adblocking led to redoubled obnoxiousness and desperation from advertisers, which led to more adblocking, and how dirt-stupid and utterly predictable that was.
I thought about how the war of web advertisers on their own customers was leading them to increasingly bold invasions of privacy, and where that was inevitably going to end.
I thought about Google.
I thought about how I used adblockers, too, and often forgot entirely to whitelist sites I wanted to support, and that I was actively increasing in tiny increments the chances that some of those sites I loved would not be able to support themselves, let alone make sense to their creators as a business. Or that they’d resort to increasingly desperate advertising measures to try and compensate for the increasing numbers of their visitors actively blocking those ads, and where that was inevitably going to end.
And that felt like shit.
I thought a lot about how it might be possible to cut through the web advertising gordian knot and get to a place where everybody would benefit and nobody would have to compromise their integrity.
And I thought about The Deck Network and The Humble Bundle, two web businesses whose success happened not in spite of but (I believe) because of their ethical convictions. The Deck ad network (for the web design and development community) with its commitment to simplicity and privacy and refusal to buy in to the growth-above-all mentality, and the Humble Bundle, supporting and promoting (mostly) independent game developers and donating tens of millions of dollars to charity at the same time.
Two businesses for which I felt nothing but respect, a feeling which, aging (ok, aged) punk that I am, semi-reformed hicksian ranter that I have been, was strange and bewildering.
Warp, woof, weft: the heart of the matter
And so, here I am, with this just-launched ad network.
Yes, it’s just like the Deck, in a different vertical market, something that Jim Coudal, the founder of the Deck, has said in a few interviews that he’d expected to see more of. Thanks, Jim — we’re taking your good advice and emulating your excellent example. And it’s a bit like the Humble Bundle, because we’re going to give 10% of our revenues to charity, if we can build a network that actually has revenue. Fingers crossed, there.
The project weaves together important threads from my life — my love of building things and supporting community, my love for making websites, my love for gaming and MefightClub and the values we’ve co-created there, my desire to make gaming better in whatever way I could, and my decades of beard-stroking about what the good life might be, what action is accordance with virtue is, what the point of life should be, and the value of trying to do a little good on a small scale rather than attempting to change the Whole World.
It’s just an ad network. There are millions of those, it seems.
But it’s also one way — just one — out of the beacon-tracking, supercookied, big-data privacy-invading algorithmic contextual faux-targeted kaleidoscopic intrusive pagebloating advertising morass that the web is weighed down by these days. In our small corner of it, at least.
It’s one way, we hope, to rebuild a little trust in the three way relationship between advertisers, independent gaming website publishers, and the gaming fans that visit those sites. It’s one way to call a truce in the ever-escalating adblocking war of all against all. Fifty-five percent of gamers run adblockers, apparently. And with good reason.
We’ve been thrilled to read so much discussion about the questions we’ve been thinking furiously about too in our run-up to launching the Eudaimoneers. A lot of really smart people have come to very similar conclusions from a whole constellation of different starting points, and that tells us that maybe we’re on the right track, and with luck, we’ve got the details right.
What are the details? Well, they’re at the site, in profusion. The elevator pitch is simple, though: network sites show one of our 190x80 ads on a page, and no other ads. We only take ads for stuff we personally would like to see ads for, as gamers. We plan for about 30 sites with 30 ad slots per month. Ads get shown evenly throughout the network for a flat monthly fee. We don’t track users of the sites in any way; the only data we capture is raw impression and click totals. And after we pay out to our network members, we donate 10% of proceeds to a charity chosen by our network sites every month. Simple, ethical advertising.
That’s it. Nothing earthshattering — just a way to do bit of utilitarian good-maximizing, in this little area that we know something about, for everybody concerned.
This project is me trying to find a way to apply the lessons I’ve learned and the small struggles I’ve gone through and the challenges I’ve faced over the years to a business that will, with luck, not only cut through those knotty issues for myself, but help do the same for others. Like all my web projects over the years, it’s a labor of love, but maybe this time, it can also be a business. It’s the best I can do.
Our hope is to sincerely serve everybody with a seat at the table: readers, publishers, and advertisers (and pull up a chair for charity while we’re at it).
Indie gaming website owners can confidently run ads from the Eudaimoneers to make money, knowing the ads will be attractive, unobtrusive and interesting to their visitors and members. I wish I’d had that option back in the day.
The reputation of gaming as a hobby has taken a terrible beating in the wake of the Gamergate stuff. Our pledge to donate 10% of our revenues to charity is our way of trying to help rehabilitate that image a bit, and it is inspired out of my great pride in the tens of thousands of dollars MefightClub members have donated to charity over the years. Building and rebuilding trust is part of the mission, and we hope that gaming fans who visit our network sites will decide to support the site owners, charities, and us by whitelisting those sites in their adblockers, if for no other reason than to send a message to the 800 pound advertising gorillas.
For gaming site advertisers we want to prove that all of the user-tracking and supercookies and the invasion of privacy isn’t necessarily necessary. That return on advertising budget investment can happen without obsessive data collection. That gaming advertising can be effective without being huge and intrusive. And that their audiences will respond positively, that trust can be rebuilt, and that the tide of adblocking can’t be stemmed without a spirit of co-operation and a new approach that respects the web users they’re trying to reach. We know its an uphill battle, but we believe it’s a hill worth climbing.
For us, the Eudaimoneers, me and my oldest friend, who’ve been philosophizing together beside bodies of water with bottles of rye for nearly 40 years: we are trying to build an ethical business, a business we can be proud of, a business that doesn’t make us feel weird and uncomfortable. Doing this inside the circle of advertising (carefully smudging out the pentagram that was marked on the floor, first) just means we get extra points for difficulty if we succeed.
And so, to the Ghost of Bill Hicks: my respect and apologies. I’m getting into advertising, but I don’t see any need to kill myself.