Drew Ianni spends most of his time talking to the biggest names in performance marketing about the biggest trends.

So, what’s his take on it all?

Anyone who’s ever thrown a big party has known that nervous moment when you wonder: what if nobody shows up.

So it was for Drew Ianni, programming chairman for ad:tech, before the recent show in San Francisco. Sure, he’d invited all the right guests, booked a big hall and made sure there was plenty of food, but with the economy in the doldrums, ad rates plunging and a general malaise falling over the marketing world, he had his moments of doubt.

Indeed, one in four of the pre-registrants were no-shows. But the 9,200 warm bodies who did show up managed to cause such a huge traffic jam at the check-in tables that ad:tech officials decided to let everyone in on the first day without conference badges.

Nobody was more relieved than Ianni, who spent months pondering the critical issues in the performance marketing space and carefully picking the best people to talk about them. “We’re pretty pleased with the turnout, given the state of the economy,” he said.

In the aftermath of the show, Revenue Performance caught up with him for an interview that reflects his bird’s-eye view of affiliate marketing, brand-building, social marketing and other critical issues facing marketers amid the steepest downturn in consumer spending since the Great Depression.

What did you learn at ad:tech?
What I learned from the audience and community is that despite the economy everyone is still upbeat. There’s still strong growth potential within digital. Some of the other media can’t say that. There’s more of a doom-and-gloom atmosphere in the newspaper publishing business. TV is still relatively flat with just the same money spinning around.

Digital is still there. There’s a bump in the road and we don’t know how big the bump is or how big an effect it will have on the industry but I don’t think anyone is worried that digital is going to suffer in a large way. If anything, I think people are looking out there and wondering if, in the long run, this will help digital. As marketers tighten their belts and try to become more efficient: will digital look really good and come out even stronger than we could have if we hadn’t had a downturn?

The IAB says 57% of online advertising is now performance marketing, so that’s clearly a growth area. Does that fit in with the perception you got when speaking with people at the show?

I think the conversation needs to shift away from “Is it performance? Is it branding?” What’s “performance?” At the end of the day, I think marketers are going to redefine it. Their overall marketing objectives are going to become more performance-oriented. As all media become digital and arguably become more measurable, then they also become more performance-oriented. The more you can measure something in a very granular way, it becomes more performance-oriented because of that.

Sure, I think with search, or things where you’re guaranteed sales on cost per action or cost per click, I think marketers will continue to look to that. But if branding in its many forms works online and ultimately drives sales – and that’s measurable – that’s performance, too. I think marketers in general will become more performance-oriented. But I think the definition of performance will broaden and will include things like branding and cost per action and cost per click. I think that’s why the big picture is so bright for people. Everyone is beating up on display right now. Display looks a lot different than it did two years ago and display – including video and multimedia and different formats – is going to look a lot different two years from now.

Jimmy Wales makes a good point. You can say “Doritos, Doritos, Doritos” and make an impression. It may not be to get a particular response from a particular audience, but it’s a really balanced strategy that maybe we haven’t embraced enough, given we have the potential to study so many metrics on the web.

Absolutely. Just doing a relatively targeted run-of-site on Yahoo for Doritos? Is that a great way to drive brand equity, awareness, interest and all those considerations? Maybe, maybe not. But if I say I’m going to go to MTV Networks, or Spike, or ESPN, I’m sure that if I’m Doritos or the agency representing Doritos, I can go to all of them and say, let’s do something interesting and compelling from a display standpoint that includes video, that includes integration, that includes sponsorships, then I’m sure we’ll have a very real impact on brand awareness,
and consideration and impact and overall brand equity.

Not all marketers are direct marketers, and the vast majority of ad spend is spent by non-direct marketers at the end of the day. So it’s all relative.

Let’s move to social marketing. Are you on Twitter?

I’m not on Twitter. I don’t post on it. I should be immersed in it. It’s not like I don’t look at the interface or certain things, but no, I don’t go to Twitter.

Social marketing is growing in interest as people try to figure out models for monetization. Did you get a sense that agencies and brands are showing more interest as you were putting together the show?

I think so. I think social media has gotten beaten up a little bit in the last six months or so in regards to “The party’s over?” and “Where did the rubber really hit the road here?” and “Where are there some real advertising opportunities?” and “Where are there danger zones?” You go to any of these top agencies or top brands, and they have really smart people in there talking to the MySpaces and the Facebooks every day. And they’re trying new things, and they’re seeing what’s working. Everyone wants to move so fast, and that’s the nature of this industry.

Facebook as a company – as a business – didn’t even exist four years ago. And here we want to write them off because it doesn’t make sense from an advertising sense. Well, look at television in 1954. We move in this compressed accelerated cycle of sort of marketing acceptance or acceptance of new media and I think that’s unfair. I don’t think the industry ought to sit around and whine about it, because that’s just the nature of the beast and that’s what they have to deal with.

If you’re an investor in Facebook and you’re looking to build overall core revenue in Facebook, you have to accept that as well, and the clock may run out. But given their scale and their reach, the clock isn’t going to run out on Facebook. They’re not going to run out of money. I think they’ll figure it out. I think this model of large social media companies from an advertising standpoint is still to be determined.

If you actually go into Facebook and get a brief from them on here’s what we’re doing, and here’s the different brands we’re talking to, and here are the things we experimented with, and what we’re thinking about, I think they’ll be fine. Is that an organization that sells $2 billion in advertising in the next couple of years? Probably not.

With social marketing, one thing I’m hearing from the ad networks is that the agencies are actually behind and that the networks are on the cutting edge. Is that your perception?

I’d want to know how they define cutting edge. Are they offering the best scale-oriented buy? The best pricing? Or are ad networks saying they’re really improving targeting? What do you think they mean?

I’m hearing when they go into a presentation with an agency, the agency people act like they know what’s going on in social media, but don’t actually seem to have a good grasp for how it works or medium to use for a particular campaign. I’ve heard people say things like “the agencies don’t have a clue,” which is pretty harsh. Do you think there’s some truth to the idea that networks are blazing the trails?

To me, that’s kind of a disconnect. When I think of buying on an ad network, other than targeting who I’m trying to reach, in terms of what I’m buying and how I’m buying it through the networks, I don’t consider that a strategic exercise. With the networks, you’re basically looking for price. It’s a price issue. Because the networks typically deal in volume and scale despite the nature of their inventory and what they do, that’s not a strategic business. That’s not a strategic buy, to me. I think there’s a lot more going on between the people at Facebook and agencies and brand. There’s a lot of education going on.

Are some agencies doing a better job of proactively wanting to learn about this new market? Sure. That’s always been true for agencies in new media. I don’t think it’s that agencies don’t get it. I think it’s just that agencies by their nature are conservative. They move slowly. They don’t like risk. That doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. I think it just takes them longer to jump into the deep end of the pool.

What was the most surprising thing you heard at ad:tech?
I was a little surprised for [Hulu CEO] Jason Kiler to come out and say, hey, we’re big believers in TV in terms of building their own brand. I think he has a very interesting point in that a brand like Hulu, which is purely an online brand, obviously has the advantage of being on a Super Bowl spot. Jason made no bones about what that spot and what their advertising with Alec Baldwin has done, including great word of mouth. So that was a little surprising to me.

The Facebooks and the Yahoos and the Googles of the world were all created, by and large, without spending a dime on advertising. But I think we’re getting into this new chapter in digital and new media where it’s going to be important for social media companies and large concerns to consider traditional television advertising.

If you had to do something different about your last show, what would it be?
Maybe I should have gone down to their front door, but I would have liked to have had Twitter there. I tried. But I just couldn’t get a response from anybody. I was disappointed that Twitter wasn’t there, much less respond to my inquiries.

Did you tweet them?
I probably should have.