Do Digital Media Agencies Have a Plan?

dude-wheres-my-carDigital agencies used to get paid for unpacking an incredibly complicated digital landscape for marketers. Faced with all kinds of new marketing opportunities, advertisers turned to savvy digital agencies to figure out where to spend their money, and how much of it to dedicate to display, mobile and social channels.

The dingy little secret was that the agencies didn’t really plan much of anything. The way it worked was that agency planners would make an Excel template, create an RFP document, instruct the media owners to send back all kinds of creative ideas and fill out the media plan template. RFPs sent publisher teams spinning into action, churning out exciting-looking PowerPoints with screenshots and suggested spending levels.

Not much of this was scientific. Publishers often promised more inventory than could be delivered, knowing they would never get the full budget allocation. Agencies asked for various “budget levels,” knowing they would allocate only $50,000 per publisher – but asking to see $200,000 plans to get a better sense of where CPMs might be negotiated. At the end of the day, the agencies would pick the winners and losers, usually the five publishers on the last plan, plus a few “challengers” or new ideas to impress the client with “innovation.” Once the plan went live, publishers could count on a quick cancellation or massive change to the contracted plan. Nothing ever seemed written in stone once the first impression was served.

Sounds pretty lame, right? Sadly, a lot of media is still planned this way. But, thanks to all kinds of programmatic innovation, times are rapidly changing and digital agencies are going to have to find out how to change with it.
In the old paradigm, agencies largely provided value by dealing with the intricacies of negotiating with vendors, moving data from plans to ad servers and billing systems and keeping clients in the loop on how their digital media “investments” were performing. Optimization was largely defined as cancelling a bad deal and re-allocating budget into a better one.
Today’s ad technology has given marketers and their agencies a lot more knobs and buttons to push. We are rapidly seeing a shift away from manual, Excel-based processes to nimble, web-based planning technology, driven by centralized data.
There are no spreadsheets inside of MediaMath or AppNexus. Publishers don’t offer PowerPoints in iSocket or AdSlot. And agencies are pushing legacy media-buying systems like MediaOcean and Strata to adapt to a digital world without spreadsheets and fax machines. A host of new, web-based planning and buying systems (like Bionic!) are also starting to disrupt the status quo, as agencies try and reconcile the old ways of buying media with a world in which billions of ad impressions are available through interfaces and big clients like P&G say they are going to buy up to 70% of ads programmatically.

Recently, a big European group of publishers introduced an RFP to have their entire digital inventory catalogued and made available through “programmatic direct” technology. Publishers want to give advertisers the efficiency and access they crave but have complete control over pricing and availability. That’s where the world is heading.
So what happens to an agency whose sole digital expertise consists of sending out Excel templates for publishers to fill out with pricing and avails? Sounds like the value they have been providing – lots of manual horsepower to help with complicated workflow – is going to become completely irrelevant. You can buy all the social media you want through easy-to-use interfaces.

It’s easy to hire a few smart “traders” and give them access to a DSP and gain access to the universe of inventory available in programmatic RTB. And now it’s increasingly easy to negotiate premium inventory deals inside programmatic platforms and secure those guaranteed impressions. A number of big marketers have decided it’s so easy that they are starting to do it themselves by bringing digital marketing in-house.
Digital media agencies’ legacy business models are expiring faster than a Madison Avenue parking meter. What should innovative agencies be doing to change and continue to provide real value to their clients?

  • Planning: “Planning” is not planning anymore. It’s investment management. Even though there are new ways to procure the media, your clients still need to know how it’s performing and moving the needle for their business. Figure out how to measure beyond clicks and common CPA metrics and try to get inside your clients’ real budget numbers. Are you gaining access to the client’s P&L and first-party data so you can help them measure by more important metrics, such as net new customers?
  • Teaching: Just because desktop display and social ads are commoditized doesn’t mean clients don’t need to understand the latest ways to rise above the noise. Are you schooling your clients on nascent native mobile opportunities or the latest ways to leverage RTB video to enable branding at scale? These are ideas that come with the help of vendors and publishers, but agencies need to stop collating others’ ideas and start helping vendors translate their opportunities into the framework of the client’s business. That is where the right digital agency can provide value.
  • Doing: The manual, spreadsheet-driven world of “22-year-old media planners” where labor, rather than strategy, was at a premium are over. But, in a programmatic world, execution – the “doing” – is more important than ever. Reallocating budgets to match performance cannot be totally algorithm-driven when spending is across multiple channels in systems that do not speak to each other. Agencies are perfectly positioned to be in the middle of dozens of systems, reconciling spending and performance against both long- and short-term client goals. That’s a job that can only be done by people.

The irony of today is that lot of systems are starting to make digital media planning less complicated from a transactional and workflow standpoint but the overall digital landscape is more complicated to navigate than ever. The digital media agencies that survive must change the way they plan, teach their clients and execute in order to survive and thrive.

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 7.25.14]

Complexity is the Digital Agency’s Best Friend

Agencies are afraid of change, but change always happens. Is your manual workflow a "red stapler?"

Agencies are afraid of change, but change always happens. Is your manual workflow a “red stapler?”

But Solving the Right Problems are the Key to the Future

I once heard Terence Kawaja remark that “complexity is the agency’s best friend.” It’s hard to argue with that. Early digital agencies were necessary because doing things like running e-mail campaigns, building websites, and buying banner ads were really complicated. You needed nerdy guys who knew how to write HTML and understood what “Atlas” did. Companies like Operative grew admirable services businesses that took advantage of the fact that trafficking banner ads really sucked, and large publishers couldn’t be bothered to build those capabilities internally. The early days were great times for digital agencies. They were solving real problems.

Fast forward 13 years. Digital agencies are still thriving, mostly by unpacking other types of complexity. “Social media experts” were created to consult marketers on the new social marketing channel, “trading desks” launched to leverage the explosion of incomprehensible RTB systems, and terms like “paid, owned, and earned” were coined to complexify digital options. It’s hard being a marketer. So much easier to hand the digital keys over to an agency, and have them figure it all out.

Some of that complexity is dying, though.

Have you ever done any advertising on Google? It’s not that hard. You can get pretty good at search engine marketing quickly, and it doesn’t take anything more than common sense, an internet connection, and a credit card to start. Facebook advertising? Also dead easy. Facebook’s self-service platform is so intuitive that even the most hopeless Luddite can target to levels of granularity so minute that you can use it to reach a single individual. Today’s platforms leverage data and offer great user interfaces and user experience mechanisms to make the complex simple.

This has created the OpenTable effect. Remember when you had to call 8 different restaurants to get a Valentine’s Day reservation? What a pain in the ass. I used to always get to it late, and usually spend a few hours getting rejected before finding a table somewhere. Today, I log into OpenTable, type in “11743” and see all the available 8:30 reservations for two in Huntington. A few clicks, and I am locked in. Would I ever go back to doing it the old way? Sure, why not? Call my beeper if you need me. Please “911” me if it’s important.

So, with all of this innovation making the complex simple, and all of these platforms democratizing access to advertising inventory, analytics, and reporting, why are digital agencies still making a living off of the lowly banner ad? Is there a good business left in planning and buying digital display media?

Programmatic RTB is coming on strong, now representing the way almost a quarter of banner inventory is purchased. That’s a good thing. Platforms like Rubicon Project and Appnexus are making it easy to build great businesses on top of their complicated infrastructure. Marketers can hire an agency to trade for them, or maybe just build their own little team of smart people who can leverage technology. That seems to be happening more and more, making managing RTB either a specialist’s game, or not an option for the independent agency.

Really complicated, multi-channel, tentpole campaigns and sponsorships can never be automated. They represent about 5% of overall display spend, and that’s really where a digital agency’s firepower can be leveraged: the intersection of creativity and technology. That sector of digital involves a lot of what’s being called “native” today. Working with content owners and marketers to build great, branded experiences across the Web is where the smartest agencies should be right now.

How about the rest of the money spend on digital display—the 70% of money that goes through the transactional RFP space? A lot of agencies are still making their money buying reserved media, trafficking ad tags, and doing the dreaded billing and reconciliation. Marketers who pay on a cost-plus basis are starting to wonder whether spending money to have expensive agency personnel create and compare spreadsheets all day long is a good use of their money. Agencies that do not get paid for such work are seeing their margins shrink considerably, as they grind away money paying for low value tasks like ad operations. Clients don’t care how long it took you to get the click tag working on their 728×90. Just saying.

A lot of this viscosity within the guaranteed space is being solved by great “programmatic direct” technologies. Right now, you can use web-based systems to plan complex campaigns without using Excel or e-mail, and you can leverage web-based tools to buy premium inventory directly from great publishers—the kind of stuff not found inside RTB systems. Protocols and standards are being written that will, in a few short months, make the electronic IO a reality. Systems are being built with APIs that can enable trafficking to go away completely. Yes, you heard me. People should not have to ever touch JavaScript tags. That’s work for machines.

This future (“programmatic direct”) has been coming for a long time, but it is still met with resistance by agencies, some of whom are continue to benefit from complexity—and others who are (rightfully) scared of change and what it means for their business. Looking at legacy workflow systems, you wonder why they are so hesitant to leave them, but the cost of switching to new systems is high in terms of emotion and workplace disruption—and previous attempts to “simplify” agencies’ lives didn’t really work out that way.

So, how can digital agencies start to change, and embrace the new world of programmatic direct tools, so they can turn their energy to strategy and client care, rather than be an “expert” in processes that will eventually die?

Part of that is learning to recognize if you have a “wizard” on staff. The Wizard is the guy that has truly embraced complexity within the agency. He is the “systems guy” who knows how to pull complicated reports out of legacy workflow platforms. He probably knows who to write the occasional SQL query, and he knows where all the bodies (spreadsheets) are buried. When a web-based technology salesperson comes calling on the agency, and shows the CEO or VP of Media what web-based programmatic direct buying looks like, they are showing an agency a world where a lot of complexity is suddenly made simple. That demo shows the future of digital media buying: a directory-driven, centralized, web-based method of planning, buying, and serving inventory. Just like search! C-level agency executives and media people want it. They want their employees focused on strategy and analytics…not ad trafficking. But to get it, they invariably tell you to go see the Wizard. “Fred is our ‘systems guy.’ He’ll know whether this can work for us from a technical standpoint.”

That’s when innovation dies. Fred, the Wizard of the legacy systems, will shut down any innovation that comes his way. Complexity is Fred’s best friend. When you are the only guy that can pull a SQL query from your data warehouse, or reconcile numbers between SAP and your agency’s order management system, then you are a God. Fred is God…and he doesn’t want a downgrade. Complexity is the reason great digital agencies were built, and continue to thrive. Tomorrow’s big challenges are going to come from complexities in cross-channel delivery and attribution, and keeping up with new platforms that are delivering amazing native marketing opportunities, not being the next at reconciling ad delivery numbers from servers.

When innovation comes knocking on your door, don’t let Fred answer it.

[This post was originally published in AdExchanger on 6.3.13]

The Agency of Procrustes

Is Your Media Shop the Right Fit for the Digital Age?

Nassim Taleb’s marvelous book of aphorisms is called The Bed of Procrustes, named after the myth of Procrustes, a cruel owner of a roadside estate between Athens and Eleusis in ancient Greece. According to Taleb,

He abducted travelers, provided them with a generous dinner, then invited them to spend the night in a rather special bed. He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection. Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched.

Taleb’s point is that we humans tend to “squeeze the world into crisp, commoditized ideas.” In short, we try and fit things we don’t understand into our particular worldview. But, what if the new things don’t fit?

As a digital media agency owner faced with keeping up with the times and (more importantly) earning margins from notoriously labor intensive digital campaigns, it is tempting to fall back on time-worn models. If you think about the tried and true “agency” model, it is exactly what the dictionary says it is: “a consensual fiduciary relationship in which one party acts on behalf of and under the control of another in dealing with third parties.” In other words, the client can do the work himself, but would rather stick to making widgets or selling plane tickets than have 300 different media and technology relationships to contend with.

The problem? That’s not enough anymore. What clients want—and an increasing number of them expect, is a different definition of “agency.” Maybe even a legal understanding of the term: the person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved. Is your digital agency exerting true power on behalf of your clients, or are you just buying media? I believe that, in a world where technology enables most agencies to have ubiquitous access to media and software tools, the modern digital agency needs to go beyond traditional notions of “agency” and provide their clients with unique expertise.

The traditional agency “bed” is still rather misshapen for the world of emerging technology. Most shops still don’t have a cohesive social strategy (beyond Facebook); the technology to properly target audiences through exchanges; or the ability to leverage technology to wring performance from digital creative. Some do, and are leveraging relationships with social technology providers, DSPs, and creative optimization companies. The problem here is that many of those technology providers are going directly to your clients as well.  So, how do you defend against disintermediation and start building proprietary expertise to enable you to win and retain digital business in the future?

  • Data: Create it, analyze it, tie into your clients’ data, and make it actionable. I know an agency in upstate New York that only gets paid every time its client performs an oil change. The agency is tied into their client’s POS system, and gets a true end-to-end view of attribution. They know how they are getting people to the business, when, and how they are getting them to return. I know other agencies that, through tools like Datran’s Aperture, are getting a household-level view of who is converting on their online campaigns, and using online data to go offline to seek new customers and reengage them. If you are not leveraging the data you currently have—and seeking to partner with your client to create or get access to new streams of data, then you are not being an extension of power to your client.
  • Technology: How is your shop leveraging available technology to gain efficiency? Media platforms like Transis, Facilitate, and TRAFFIQ (disclosure: I work for TRAFFIQ) offer agencies the ability to let workflow technology handle the blocking and tackling of digital media (RFPs, AdOps, billing, etc) so agencies can work on things that have value (strategy, creative execution, data analysis).  What about real time bidding technology that uses machine learning to auto-optimize campaigns based on performance data? If you are not leveraging technologies like these, then you are already in danger of becoming extinct.
  • People: If you are in fact going to leverage data and technology to transform your agency business, then you are going to necessarily need different people. In the good old days, you could hire a 22-year old for $25,000 and bill them out at $40,000. Unfortunately, the 22 year old wants $35,000 these days, and by the time you train them to be a “digital media expert,” a larger shop will pay them $50,000 to take advantage of the free training you gave them, and start billing them out at $75,000. Also, that 22 year old media person who used to good at collating spreadsheets and ignoring publisher e-mails is not the person who is going to transform your business. Someone who can dive into data to determine media placements—or someone who is passionate about the social space and understands the new social technology ecosystem are the folks that are going to make a difference (and profit) for your agency now.

In the end, Procrustes faced poetic justice. One of his guests was the mighty Theseus, of Minotaur-slaying fame. Theseus invited Procrustes to lie in his own bed and, seeing it slightly too small for his frame, decapitated him to create the perfect fit. Your agency may not currently be the right fit for clients that need advanced digital agency help. The answer, however, is to make your bed fit your clients better, rather than shrink them down so they fit into your legacy paradigm.

[This article originally appeared in Adotas 3/16/11]

Agencies: Working Hard or Hardly Working?

A recent meeting with a large agency’s digital planning team left me wondering who is doing the real work these days: agencies or ad networks? I was there to talk about our solution for making sense of an increasingly crowded and complicated digital space. Today’s media planners and buyers have to be able to navigate through a 300,000 channel world for their clients — and be able to take advantage of dozens of new creative executions, placements, and targeting capabilities. Their clients trust them to find a receptive audience wherever they are on the web — and deliver enough scale and performance to make it effective and affordable.

One of the planners in the room was responsible for a seven-figure pharmaceutical budget. When I asked him how he was evaluating new traffic sources, he said, “I buy on two networks. They find me headache suffers and my client is satisfied, why would I want to risk it by moving money around?”

“I buy on two networks.” Surely he couldn’t be serious.

After I left the meeting, I continued to be astonished by the reply. Sure, buying on those networks was easy (and probably pretty effective) but what was the agency bringing to the table? Why wouldn’t the client simply place those two network buys themselves, and gain an extra 10% in performance by eliminating the agency’s fee?

Furthermore, what if the client’s CMO asked that planner where his ads were running? He couldn’t tell him with any certitude. It seemed to me like a pretty expensive and risky marketing strategy.

The agency is passing along their job along to a network, who is keeping all the data from the campaign. Even if the company sold a ton of migraine pill prescriptions, they still don’t know how they were successful—and who responded to their ads. Even worse, that network can now go and pitch all of the client’s competitors, who now stand to gain for the investment they made building an audience.

If I were the client, I would be justified in firing this agency.

The successful agency not only continually works to discover new pockets of high-performing traffic for their clients but they actively manage the campaign, and share performance results with them. If I want to reach migraine sufferers, the easiest thing in the world is to call WebMD and sponsor their migraine section; I am guaranteed a contextually-relevant placement in a high quality setting. Easy.

Same thing as buying a car. If I want a really reliable German automobile that seats 5 adults, with leather seats, all-wheel drive, and impeccable handling, I just go the Mercedes dealer and pick up a new S-Class.

The problem starts to arise when I get my monthly bill. Is $1,200 a month too much to pay when I can get to work in the same relative comfort in a $600 a month Audi, or a $350 a month Volkswagen?

Maybe, as a media planner, I can find five health sites that target migraine sufferers and string together the same audience for a lot less money. In addition, maybe there are premium opportunities I can get on smaller, more vertically focused sites that the leading site cannot or will not offer me?

Don’t get me wrong, WebMD is a great place to advertise. But that’s something even my mother knows. Do you really need to pay 15% to an agency for them to recommend that strategy?

So, how hard is your agency working for you, anyway? Every advertiser who uses the services of a media agency for their media planning and buying should ask themselves and their agency this question every single day. If they did, I think they would unfortunately find in many cases, the answer to be: not very hard.

How can an agency then justify the fees that they are collecting? They can do it by continually looking for better performing traffic. The only way to do that is to spread dollars around, find pockets of traffic either through other networks, or direct-to-publisher sites. They can do it by deploying smaller per-publisher budgets, while benefiting from smaller incremental risk.

Sure, it will take more work, but that’s what the client is paying for.

[This originally appeared in Adotas on 3/9/2010]

The New, New Agency Model

Is Your Digital Agency Configured for Success?

With all the new technology and access to data, you would think running a digital agency in 2011 would be tempting. After speaking with a few hundred digital agency principals over the last several years, I think I would rather work at a car wash. At least you are outdoors doing low-value repetitive tasks. Let me explain.

I think most digital agencies were started by really smart people who saw the opportunity to provide their clients with the “magic” of media. Interactive ads, true measurement, real user engagement, ROI, and cross-platform messaging that reached consumers where brands wanted to be found. That is still true. The early ones nurtured their accounts from direct mail to e-mail, and then from broadcast into the web, a little budget at a time. When digital media truly arrived, digital agencies were at the vanguard of a new era: technology-driven creative shops and data-driven media agencies that crammed brand messages into the 728×90 mini billboards we love to hate, but occasionally produced some real internet marketing magic.

After a while, the magic was gone.

Digital campaigns have a tendency to suck every penny of margin out of an agency. The client wants to serve rich media, but doesn’t want to pay for it. They have $50,000 to spend but they want 10 A-tier sites on a plan, all of which have a $25,000 minimum. They want to run 5 creatives per placement, and switch them every two days, based on performance. They need their ads pixeled, and hooked up to their Google Analytics platform, which reports traffic numbers that never match up with their ad server. Then they want to know why. Most importantly, they want to be billed correctly, and that means making demand-side and publisher-side ad servers talk together, and agree on impression amounts (which, from my experience over the last 15 years, has never happened once). That’s an awful lot of work.


That’s why (as the 4As reports), digital margins can be 10 times lower than the margins on traditional media campaigns. That’s called mucho trabajo, poco dinero. Since digital agencies don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, they are going to have to figure out how to make more margins from their business, rather than leverage the traditional agency model of overworking extremely young employees until they burn out (essentially, the mucho trabajo, poco dinero cheap labor model). Here are a few things the modern digital shop must embrace for long term success:

1)      Use a Platform (or two): I paraphrase from David Kenny’s remarkable keynote address at the OMMA 2010, “if you are still using people to do work that servers can do, you are already irrelevant.” What value is there in providing ad operations for your clients (none, they just want their ads to work properly). How about reconciling and billing against different delivery numbers? Again, how does that provide value for your client? Those are low-value tasks that must be accomplished, but things that don’t make you a better agency for your clients. There are many systems out there that can centralize these low-value tasks (ad trafficking, billing reconciliation, reporting, etc) so your agency can focus on your clients.

2)      Hire some Nerds: I’m talking about math nerds. Media used to be about finding audience based on panel-based surveys. Now, media is about finding audience by using data, and then using performance and audience measurement data to perfect that audience—and using quantitative analytics to bid on that audience and optimize your results. Since media seems to be about understanding and leveraging data, you are going to need a few people who speak the language. They aren’t the same old English majors from liberal arts colleges in the northeast, either. And the good ones are expensive.

3)      Be Strategic: This sounds obvious, but sometimes the definition of “strategic” gets lost in the weeds when it comes to digital. Sometimes, an agency feels it is being “strategic” when they partner with enough technology companies that offer their clients a variety of digital tactics (social, video, mobile). But having those partnerships and capabilities is far different than using them smartly, in a way that gives your shop the edge over your competition (they have access to all the same technology as you do). True strategy involves finding what works for your clients and creating repeatable processes that lead to long term success. When your clients say they “want to do social” are you smart enough to determine whether they simply need access the Facebook API—or are they looking to find their customers through conversational density around their products, such as Buzz Logic offers? How you offer “social” to your clients should come with its own, unique strategic model.

4) Partner: Agencies are really just an extension of their clients, and they should operate that way. Now, we are seeing agencies building their own technology to leverage media buying power (and even earning commissions from inventory sources), and acting a lot like technology and media companies. I’m not sure (at least for media agencies) this is sustainable. Building great creative that drives forward brands (whether through sales, or just audience exposure) is key—and finding new audience to interact with those brands in the new multiple screen world is where the core competency of today’s digital agency should be. Let the technologists build the technology. They are happy to let you use it, and willing to partner (with both their technology and people) to share success.

Looking around at all the different technology available to digital agencies these days, we aren’t far away from when starting an effective campaign, building amazing creative, deploying it to the exact audience you need, measuring it, optimizing it, and billing it will be as simple as….well, doing it on Facebook. That means that, once you and every other agency begin to avail yourself of that technology, you better be left with something unique to sell your clients.

[This article appeared in ClickZ on 2/18/11]

Choosing between Performance and Branding in Digital Display?

Depending on how you are measuring success, maybe you don’t have to.

The New Data Ecosystem

According to Blue Kai, I am a tech savvy, social-media using bookworm in the New York DMA, currently in the market for “entertainment.” At least that’s what my cookie says about me. Simply by going to the Blue Kai data exchange’s registry page, you can find out what data companies and resellers know about you, and your online behavior and intent.

In this brave new world of data-supported audience buying, every individual with an addressable electronic device has been stripped down to an anonymous cookie, and is for sale. My cookie, when bounced off various data providers, also reveals that I am male (Axciom), have a competitive income (IXI), 3 children in my family (V12), a propensity for buying online (TARGUSinfo), and am in senior management of a small business (Bizo). I am also in-market for a car (Exelate), and considered to be a “Country Squire,” according to Nieslen’s PRIZM, which is essentially a boring white guy from the suburbs who “enjoys country sports like golf and tennis.” Well, I am horrible at tennis, but everything else seems to be accurate.

As a marketer, you now have an interesting choice. Instead of finding “Country Squires” or “Suburban Pioneers” on content-specific sites they are known to occupy (golfdigest.com, perhaps), now I can simply buy several million of these people, and find them wherever they may be lurking on the interconnected web. This explains why you suddenly see ads for Volkswagens above your Hotmail messages right after you looked at that nice Passat wagon on the VW website. Today’s real-time marketing ecosystem works fast, and works smart. But, what are the advantages of buying users versus the place where they are found?

Putting aside the somewhat “spooky” aspect of web targeting (such as using insurance claim data to target web visitors based on their medical conditions), I think every marketer agrees that these capabilities are where online media is going, and they present a powerful opportunity to both find and measure the audiences we buy. But, how do you decide whether to buy the cookie, or the site?

A Different Way to Measure Performance

Most marketers will insist that audience buying is meant for performance campaigns. This is largely a pricing consideration. Obviously, if I want to sell sneakers to young men that are well down the purchase funnel, it makes sense to buy data, and find 18-35 year old males who are “sneaker intenders” based on their online behavior and profile, and reach them at scale across the ad exchanges. Combined data and media will likely be under $4CPM, and probably less since both the data and media can be bid upon in real time. For most campaigns with a CPA south of $20, you need to buy “cheap and deep” to optimize into that type of performance.  It sounds pretty good on paper. There are a few problems with this, however:

What are they doing when you find them? Okay, so you found one of your carefully selected audience members, and you know he’s been shopping for shoes. Maybe you even retargeted him after he abandoned his shopping cart at footlocker.com, and dynamically presented him with an ad featuring the very sneakers he wanted to buy, and you did it all for a fraction of a cent.   The problem is that you reached him on Hotmail, and he’s engaged in composing an e-mail. What are the chances that he is going to break task, and get back into the mindset of purchasing a pair of sneakers? Also, what kind of e-mail is he composing? A work-related missive? A consolation note to a friend who has lost a loved one? Obviously, you don’t know.  Maybe you reached that user on a less than savory site, or perhaps on a social media site, where he is engaged in a live chat session with a friend. In any case, you have targeted that user perfectly…and at just the wrong time. This type of “interruption” marketing is exactly what digital advertising purports not to be. Perhaps a better conversion rate can be found on ESPN.com, or a content page about basketball, where that user is engaged in content more appropriate to your brand.

How do you know where the conversion came from? Depending on your level of sophistication and your digital analytics toolset, you may not be in the best position to understand exactly where your online sales are coming from. If you are depending on click-based metrics, that is even more true. As Comscore’s recent article points out, the click is somewhat of misleading metric. There are a lot of data that contribute to that notion but, put simply, clicks on display ads don’t take branding or other web behavior into account when measuring success. Personally, I haven’t clicked on a display ad in years, but seeing them still drives me to act. Comparing offline sales sales life over a four week period, Comscore reports that pure display advertising provides average lift of 16%, pure SEM provides lift of 82%–but search and display combined provide sales lift of 119%. That means you simply can’t look at display alone when judging performance—and you really have to question whether you are seeing  performance lift because you are targeting—or whether you are achieving it because your buyer has been exposed to a display ad multiple times. If it is the latter, you may be inclined to save the cost of data and go even more “cheap and deep” to get reach and frequency.

How do you value an impression? Obviously, the metric we all use is cost-per-thousand (CPM), but sometimes the $30 CPM impression on ESPN.com is less expensive than the $2 RTB impression from AdX. Naturally, your analytics tools will tell you which ad and publisher produced the most conversions. Additionally, deep conversion path analysis can also tell you that “last impression” conversion made at Hotmail, might have started on ESPN.com, so you know where to assign value. But, in the absence of meaningful data, how do we really know how effective our campaign has been? I really believe that display creates performance by driving brand value higher, and some good ways to measure that can now be found using rich media. When consumers engage within a creative unit, or spend time watching video content about your brand, they are making a personal choice to spend time with your message. There is nothing more powerful than that, and that activity not only drives sales, but helps create lifetime customers.

For today’s digital marketer, great campaigns happen when you understand your customer, find them both across the web and on the sites for which they have an affinity—and find them when they are engaged in content that is complimentary to your brand message. Hmmm…that kind of sounds like what we used to do with print advertising, and direct mail. And maybe it really is that simple after all.

[This article appeared 1/12/11 in AdWeek]

PLATFORM WARS #2: The Future of Display

The Future of Display Advertising will depend on Content, Data, Integration, and Control

It’s funny, but if you are around the display advertising business long enough—whether on the agency, publisher, or technology side—you tend to forget that the acronyms “DSP” and “RTB” didn’t even exist until recently. Now, we take for granted that we live in this “digital ecosystem,” surrounded by technology and data everywhere we look. But, what does the future of digital display look like?

** * Content: It is the content, stupid. Always has been and always will be. It’s why WebMD, WSJ, and TripAdvisor get $30 CPMs and everyone else gets $2. You want to buy audience? Why not buy it from the sites that have the right content to attract it? And, guess what? Those are the same consumers who have the “purchase intent” and you don’t need a million data-injected cookies to tell you that. The future of display advertising is bright for publishers that produce the kind of content that warrants high CPMs, and insist on valuing their content. I think that much of that content will inevitably be stored behind pay walls, creating two distinct Internets: the free, ad-supported one; and the paid one.

***  Data: The world is changing, and the data marketplace we know isn’t going to be very long-lived. Even if you believe (as I do) that cookies are fairly harmless and somewhat convenient (I would personally rather see relevant ads than not), you know the current situation must change. The Wall Street Journal’s recent “Data: What They Know” series simply stirred an already simmering pot a half-turn. The future is going to involve a great deal more transparency, and the ability for consumers to opt in and out of a cookie pool easily.

***  Integration: Tomorrow’s winners will also have to embrace open technology. Everybody knows the symbiotic relationship that display and search share. Why, then, is it so difficult to mate data from the two disciplines in a meaningful way for the average advertiser? Why is it so difficult to manage audience buying and guaranteed buying with the same tools? The future in display will offer advertisers the ability to easily discover, buy, and manage display buys—powered by insights that go beyond stale panel-based analytics. Imagine being able to model, in advance, how a display buy will perform alongside a complimentary search campaign, and then optimize both with the same tool? We are very close. Display is not going to be about display anymore.

***  Control: The future is a world where the publishers and advertisers wrest control back from the technology players. Why are agencies building their own DSPs? Because they are being disintermediated by technology players who know how to get the advertising performance that they don’t. Hell, if finding a bunch of quants and coders is what it takes to stay in the game, it’s only money, right? Holding companies have never been afraid to invest their clients’ money on the latest and greatest technologies and trends over the years. Why are publishers building their own platforms (i.e., Glam)? Because they getting $1 CPMs for their content, and exchanges are selling it for $8. All of that is going to end—badly. Over the next 2 years, the winning platforms will be those that offer both sides of the market transparency and control over buying and selling media.

So, all of this speculation is certainly very exciting. Then again, it’s the year 2010 and most agencies are still buying digital media by using fax machines and collating spreadsheets. What is very clear is that the current display advertising ecosystem is unsustainable. The wide array of technology players layered between advertiser and publisher is already shrinking, as companies consolidate or are absorbed, and the winners and losers are chosen. The conversation has been dominated by data lately—and that’s where it should be. Most of the display advertising out there is the kind of commoditized inventory that is worth only 75 cents, and data can play an important role in making even the worst inventory find a relevant audience. However, one of the reasons that companies like AdVerify are gaining so much steam, is the fact that an abundance of low-quality goods inevitably leads to a gray market.

The future of display will be one in which brand advertisers use technology tools to mix audience buying and guaranteed buying—informed by search (and other) data—in the same platform. Buying campaigns from reputable publishers will be painless and easy, and marketers will be able to make optimization decisions based on real data—both historical and forward-looking. Brand advertisers will buy premium audience segments through opted-in cookie pools from top-quality sites, and pay commensurate CPMs. Performance buyers will still be able to buy audience from networks and exchanges, but may settle for lower quality audience segments (cookie pools from publisher networks with lower quality content).

I am looking forward to the future.

[Published 10/6/10 in iMediaConnection]