adtech110807.pngThe online advertising technology sector is bubbling over. New startups are launching and getting lots of funding as giants like Google, Microsoft and AOL gobble some of the larger companies up for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ad:Tech, a semi-annual conference that features a broad swath of companies in the online ad industry, is in the middle of the action. Its New York event earlier this week attracted over 14,000 registrants and included the launches of Facebook’s and Myspace’s new advertising systems that rely on user data to target ads.

But if optimism characterized the event, optimization did not.

Problem: There are so many companies that no one knows what anyone else does. Besides slight differences between artwork and attractive-looking people manning the booths, all these companies blur together. Mock poker tables and business card contests for so-last-quarter’s iPhone remain the most visible strategies to attract folks to booths.

Julie’s suggestions: Include an insert in the program guide that divides booths by meaningful categories, not vague buzzwords. The current program guide color-codes booth listings with Marketing Channels, Media Strategies, Search, Creative/Technologies, and Research/Metrics categories. What do those even mean?

If you want to learn about behavioral marketing, go to these booths. If you want to learn about search engine marketing technologies, go here.

The program guides could further provide booth differentiation with some kind of graph of comparative third-party information (like Comscore’s numbers on visitor reach and impressions for the ad networks, or grouping of companies by shared venture capital funders).

Problem: The people manning the booths kind of know what their companies do, but have little idea what their competitors do. This is especially the case for bizarrely-named start-ups, but a relevant point for bigger names like DoubleClick and Hitwise as well. A conversation I had yesterday at one ad network’s (opulent) booth:

Julie: What does (company X) do?
Booth guy: We’re an ad network.
Julie: How many sites do you represent?
Booth guy: 5,000.
Julie: (pause) What kind of ad formats to you sell?
Booth guy: Banners.
Julie: (awkward pause, leaves the booth).

Julie’s suggestions: Sales heads should understand that people walking the hall have no idea what their company does, and have an even harder time understanding it in the context of the rest of the exhibit hall. They should train their booth representatives with a basic understanding of the competitive landscape and how they should discuss it. Seed them with easy-to-remember selling points, like “Our ad network only works with Fortune 500 advertisers”, or “our ad network has a proprietary behavioral technology that (major brands X, Y, and Z) have enjoyed for repeated branding campaigns.” Plan different talking points for different booth visitors (marketers, press, potential funders, potential business partners, beginners to the space).

Problem: The people with ad dollars to spend —the people everyone wants to talk to—were sparsely represented, confined to agency executives speaking on panels behind closed doors. The disconnect was apparent. Tuesday’s afternoon keynote on conversational marketing, with an impressive panel of executives from Ogilvy, NBC Universal and Nielsen moderated by The New York Times’ Stuart Elliott, didn’t spend any time discussing start-ups that could facilitate conversational (or viral/interactive) marketing. Instead the conversation revolved around the tired discussion of Dove’s Evolution video. Enough already! We get it—the Dove video got 500 million video views with essentially $0 paid in media budget. But if Unilever (and Ogilvy’s) “aha” moment of the year was a one-off campaign about the massive power of a good freebie video on YouTube, independent of a single service at the conference, we’ve got issues.

Julie’s suggestions: This is a tricky one. The folks who plan and buy media are spending most of their time running away from the sales calls that all of our wonderful new ad-supported technology companies are making – not checking out the geek fest at AdTech. And in a sense, they’re spot on. We need organization and consolidation of the expanding ways you can slice and dice an internet audience, because the marketer’s job is getting a lot more complicated, and they are having a dismal time navigating the sea of seemingly endless options. Perhaps if we made the Exhibit Hall less intimidating and easier to navigate, we’d see more media buyers trolling the floor—but I doubt it.

BONUS: Don’t think you were going to this AdTech recap without a Facebook mention. While the Valley was salivating on every word of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement about the company’s new ad system, Madison Avenue wasn’t nearly as concerned. Some media folks I spoke with had no idea there was even an announcement on Tuesday till their email notifications rolled in later on. The folks who did know had three points of feedback: Facebook is a great fit for many (but not all) brands, they plan on spending significant ad dollars on the site, and Mark Zuckerberg’s ego is approaching Achilles-sized proportions.