Are Publisher Trading Desks Next?

tradingDeskA long time ago, I was selling highly premium banner ad inventory to major advertisers. Part of a larger media organization, our site had great consumer electronics content tailored to successful professional and amateur product enthusiasts. The thing we loved most was sponsorships and advertorials. We practically had a micro-agency inside our shop, and we produced amazing custom websites, contests, and branded content sections for our best clients. They loved our creative approach, subject matter expertise, and association with our amazing brand. They still capture this revenue today.

The next thing we loved was our homepage and index page banner inventory. We sold all of our premium inventory—mostly 728×90 and 300×250 banners—by hand, and realized very nice CPMs. Back then, we were getting CPMs upwards of $50, since we had an audience of high-spending B2B readers. I imagine that today, the same site is running lots of premium video and rich media, and getting CPMs in the high teens for their above-the fold inventory and pre-roll in their video player. I was on the site recently, and saw most of the same major advertisers running strong throughout the popular parts of the site. Today, a lot of this “transactional RFP” activity is being handled by programmatic direct technologies that include companies like NextMark, Centro, iSocket, and AdSlot, not to mention MediaOcean.

What about remnant? We really didn’t think about it much. Actually, realizing how worthless most of that below-the-fold and deep-paged inventory was, we ran house ads, or bundled lots of “value added ROS” impression together for our good customers. Those were simple days, when monetization was focused on having salespeople sell more—and pushing your editorial team to produce more content worthy of high CPM banner placements.

Come to think of it, it seems like not much has changed over the last 10 years, with the notable exception of publishers’ approach to remnant inventory. About five years ago, they found some ad tech folks to take 100% of it off their hands. Even though they didn’t get a lot of money for it, they figured it was okay, since they could focus on their premium inventory and sales relationships. In doing some of those early network deals, I wondered who the hell would want millions of below-the-fold banners and 468x90s, anyway? Boy, was I stupid. Close your eyes for a year or two, and a whole “Kawaja map” pops up.

Anyhow, we all know what happened next. Networks used data and technology to make the crap they were buying more relevant to advertisers (“audience targeting”), and the demand side—seeing CPMs drop from $17 to $7, played right along. Advertisers LOVE programmatic RTB buying. It puts them in the driver’s seat, lets them determine pricing, and also (thanks to “agency trading desks”) lets them enhance their shrinking margins with a media vigorish. Unfortunately, for publishers, it meant that a rising sea of audience targeting capability only lifted the agency and ad tech boats. Publishers were seeing CPMs decline, networks eat into overall ad spending, DSPs further devaluing inventory, and self-service platforms like Facebook siphon off more of the pie.

How do publishers get control back of their remnant inventory—and start to take their rightful ownership of audience targeting?

That has now become simple (well, it’s simple after some painful tech implementation). Data Management Platforms are the key for publishers looking to segment, target, and expand their audiences via lookalike modeling. They can leverage their clients’ first party data and their own to drive powerful audience-targeted campaigns right within their own domains, and start capturing real CPMs for their inventory rather than handing networks and SSPs the lion’s share of the advertising dollar. That is step number one, and any publisher with a significant amount of under-monetized inventory would be foolish to do otherwise. Why did Lotame switch from network to DMP years ago? Because they saw this coming. Now they help publishers power their own inventory and get back control. Understanding your audience—and having powerful insights to help your advertisers understand it—is the key to success. Right now, there are about a dozen DMPs that are highly effective for audience activation.

What is even more interesting to me is what a publisher can do after they start to understand audiences better. The really cool thing about DMPs is that they can enable a publisher to have their own type of “trading desk.” Before we go wild and start taking about “PTDs” or PTSDs or whatever, let me explain.

If I am BigSportsSite, for example, and I am the world’s foremost expert in sports content, ranking #1 or #2 in Comscore for my category, and consistently selling my inventory at a premium, what happens when I only have $800,000 in “basketball enthusiasts” in a month and my advertiser needs $1,000,000 worth? What happens today is that the agency buys up every last scrap of premium inventory he can find on my site and others, and then plunks the rest of her budget down on an agency trading desk, who uses MediaMath to find “basketball intenders” and other likely males across a wide range of exchange inventory.

But doesn’t BigSportsSite know more about this particular audience than anyone else? Aren’t they the ones with historical campaign data, access to tons of first-party site data, and access to their clients’ first party data as well? Aren’t they the ones with the content expertise which enables them to see what types of pages and context perform well for various types of creative? Also, doesn’t BigSportsSite license content to a larger network of pre-qualified, premium sites that also have access to a similar audience? If the answer to all of the above is yes, why doesn’t BigSportsSite run a trading desk, and do reach extension on their advertisers’ behalf?

I think the answer is that they haven’t had access to the right set of tools so far—and, more so, the notion of “audience discovery” has somehow been put in the hands of the demand side. I think that’s a huge mistake. If I’m a publisher who frequently runs out of category-specific inventory like “sports lovers,” I am immediately going to install a DMP and hire a very smart guy to help me when I can’t monetize the last $200,000 of an RFP. Advertisers trust BigSportsSite to be the authority in their audience, and (as importantly) the arbiter of what constitutes high quality category content.

Why let the demand side have all of the fun? Publishers who understand their audience can find them on their own site, their clients’ sites, across an affiliated network of partner sites, and in the long tail through exchanges. These multi-tiered audience packages can be delivered through one trusted partner, and aligned with their concurrent sponsorship and transactional premium direct advertising.

Maybe we shouldn’t call them Publisher Trading Desks, but every good publisher should have one.

[This article originally appeared in AdExchanger on 4/5/2013]

The Five Things to Expect in a DMP

Getting back control over their inventory is giving publishers a lot to think about.

“We want to make sure that we’re controlling what happens with data . . . we want to make sure we control pricing. Control’s a very important message. We don’t want there to be a cottage industry built on our backs” – Nick Johnson, SVP, NBC Universal

What do publishers really want? It’s simple, really: Power and control. In order to survive the ad technology era, publishers need the power to monetize their audiences without relying on third parties, and complete control over how they sell their inventory. In this era of “Big Data,” there is a fire hose stream of tremendously valuable information for publishers to take advantage of, such as keyword-based search data, attitudinal survey data, customer declared data from forms, page-level semantic data, and all the 3rd party audience data you can shake a stick at.

All of this data (cheap to produce, and ever-cheaper to store) has given rise to companies who can help publishers bring that data together, make sense of it, and use it to their advantage. Currently, ad technology companies have been using the era of data to their advantage, utilizing it to create vertical ad networks, ad exchanges, data exchanges, DSPs, and a variety of other smart-sounding acronyms that ultimately purport to help publishers monetize their audiences, but end up monetizing themselves.

Rather than power the ad tech ecosystem, what if data could actually help publishers take back their audiences? If “data is the new gold” as the pundits are saying, then smart publishers should mine it to increase margins, and take control of their audiences back from networks and exchanges. Here are the five things a good data management platform should enable them to do:

  • Unlock the Value of 1st Party Data: Publishers collect a ton of great data, but a lot of them (and a LOT of big publishers) don’t leverage it like they should. Consider this recent stat: according to a recent MediaPost article, news sites only use in-site audience targeting on 47% of their impressions, as opposed to almost 70% for Yahoo News.  By leveraging site-side behavioral data, combined with CRM data and other sources, it is possible to layer targeting on almost every impression a publisher has. Why serve a “blind” run-of-site (ROS) ad, when you can charge a premium CPM for audience-targeted inventory?
  • Decrease Reliance on 3rd Parties: The real reason to leverage a DMP is to get your organization off the 3rd party crack pipe. Yes, the networks and SSPs are a great “plug and play” solution (and can help monetize some “undiscoverable” impressions), but why are publishers selling raw inventory at $0.35 and letting the people with the data resell those impressions for $3.50? It’s time to turn away those monthly checks, and start writing some to data management companies that can help you layer your own data on top of your impressions, and charge (and keep) the $3.50 yourself. Today’s solutions don’t have to rely on pre-packaged 3rd party segments to work, either, meaning you can really reduce your data costs. With the right data infrastructure, and today’s smart algorithm-derived models, a small amount of seed data can be utilized to create discrete, marketable audience segments that publishers can own, rather than license.
  • Generate Unique Audience Insights: Every publisher reports on clicks and impressions, but what advertisers are hungry for (especially brand advertisers) are audience details. What segments are most likely to engage with certain ad content? Which segments convert after seeing the least amount of impressions? More importantly, how do people feel about an ad campaign, and who are they exactly? Data management technology is able to meld audience and campaign performance data to provide unique insights in near real-time, without having to write complicated database queries and wait long times for results. Additionally, with the cost of storing data getting lower all the time, “lookback windows” are increasing, enabling publishers to give credit for conversion path activity going back several months. Before publishers embraced data management, all the insights were in the hands of the agency, who leveraged the data to their own advantage. Now, publishers can start to leverage truly powerful data points to create differentiated insights for clients directly, and provide consultative services with them, or offer them as a value-added benefit.
  • Create New Sales Channels: Before publisher-side data management, when a publisher ran out of the Travel section impressions, he had to turn away the next airline or hotel advertiser, or offer them cheap ROS inventory. Now, data management technology can enable sales and ops personnel to mine their audience in real time and find “travel intenders” across their property—and extend that type of audience through lookalike modeling, ensuring additional audience reach. By enabling publishers to build custom audience segments for marketers on the fly, a DMP solution ensures that no RFP will go unanswered, and ROS inventory gets monetized at premium prices. 
  • Create Efficiency: How many account managers does it take to generate your weekly ad activity reports? How much highly paid account management time are publishers burning by manually putting together performance reports? Why not provide an application that advertisers can log into, set report parameters, and export reports into a friendly format? Or, better yet, a system that pre-populates frequent reports into a user interface, and pushes them out to clients via an e-mail link? You would think this technology was ubiquitous today, but you would be wrong. Ninety-nine percent of publishers still do this the hard (expensive) way, and they don’t have to anymore.

It’s time for publishers to dig into their data, and start mining it like the valuable commodity it is. Data used to be the handcuffs which kept publishers chained to the ad technology ecosystem, where they grew and hosted a cottage industry of ad tech remoras. The future that is being written now is one of publishers’ leveraging ad technologies to take back control, so they can understand and manage their own data and have the freedom to sell their inventory for what it is truly worth.

That’s a future worth fighting for.

[This post originally appeared in ClickZ on 2/29/12]

Digital Marketing Questions in Search of Answers

Over the course of the past year, my colleagues and I have gone around the country speaking to more than 400 agencies about their digital advertising businesses. These agencies represent the lifeblood of American business: They are the regional shops that market the local hospital chains, regional tourism, restaurants, and retailers. Whether they are in Anchorage, Miami, Sioux City, or New York City, they are all facing similar digital media challenges.

The 300,000-channel world of digital marketing is exponentially more complicated than the not-so-distant past when radio, broadcast, and out-of-home advertising were the only games in town. “Most clients expect some level of digital services from their agency,” according to Tammy Harris, the media director of Neathawk Dubuque & Packett, a leading healthcare marketing firm based in Richmond, Va.

This makes it much harder for agencies to deliver impeccable plans, provide great analytics, and continually ensure better rates and performance. Plus, clients want to use analytics to uncover how their products are selling in a new, connected age. The old black box of television offered a model that worked for a long, long time; if you had enough money to feed it, the television produced an audience broad enough to justify the marketing expense. Agencies fed the beast with commercials and earned market share. Now, with an audience splintered into hundreds of cable and satellite channels, and with 25 percent of the audience fast-forwarding through the commercials with their DVRs, that model is broken. Radio is better off, but even that is being corroded by pay-to-play models. Besides, it has always been hard to build a brand verbally.

So, agencies are faced with the need to build client brands online through websites and Facebook pages. They have to get customers to those pages via search marketing and display ads. Is it that hard to figure out where the digital audience for a product lives? Of course not. Agencies that want to reach young men can find themselves on ESPN or Break.com’s media kit within the space of 60 seconds. Want to reach people with hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating)? There’s a whole section of WebMD dedicated to it, and the site would be delighted to sell you a sponsorship. Want to build a Facebook page and stock it full of fans you can constantly tweet to? A few recent college graduates can have that up and running and packed full of content in a week or two.

The problem isn’t executing a digital marketing strategy or finding an audience. The problem for agencies is that is really hard to do it at scale — and even more difficult to make any money doing it. A recent study by AAAA cited that the cost of servicing digital campaigns averages 30 percent of an agency’s media cost, as opposed to 2 percent for television buys. That sounds hard to believe, but not when you think about the back-end an agency needs to be truly successful in the digital space.

As Harris puts it, “The bulk of the time required to plan and place traditional media happens up-front, while digital media requires attention throughout the run. The ability to track, optimize, and report so many metrics requires many hours, and because digital media often costs less than traditional, it means agencies are doing more work for less money.”

Even if you are just a media shop, you need some serious tools to get the job done. First off, you need to be able to build and maintain cutting-edge websites, and that capability encompasses a lot of expensive, technical personnel. Researching sites with any credibility means having access to expensive Nielsen or comScore subscriptions. Doing SEO and SEM? You better have a young employee to head up your search and analytics practice, and these folks aren’t cheap. If you want to serve ads with any volume, and have access to your own data, you will need your own ad server. How about tracking website activity? Enter Omniture, or other analytics software. What about optimizing campaigns, tracking conversions, putting up and taking down ad tags? Get ready to hire and maintain a serious ad operations team. And it doesn’t end with the campaign.

After all of this, in even the most successful online marketing effort, the billing and reconciliation game is just beginning. A client might ask, “My server says you served 100,000 impressions, and you are charging me for 125,000?” To which the agency might respond, “Who pays, based on whose numbers, and when am I getting paid anyway?” It goes on and on. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine how agencies make any money on digital advertising at all.

For Marci De Vries, former head of media of Baltimore-based IMRE, and now a small-agency owner herself (MDV Interactive), digital marketing can quickly become a zero-sum game. “If the developer of these tools can make money on expensive tools, then good for them,” she says. “What I’ve seen lately is that those expensive tools are bought by 10 percent or less of their market, and then are underutilized because only a few license seats are purchased. The overall value to an agency of expensive software is close to zero. Meanwhile, the web community is copying the functionality, databases, and ability to provide meaningful information and distributing it for free or almost free. The overall value to agencies is very high, although it also levels the playing field between small shops and big shops. The web community likes to level the playing field.”

Kent Kirschner, the owner of The Media Maquiladora, a Latin American specialty agency with offices in Sarasota and Mexico City, says the problem is starting to get even more pronounced as multicultural agencies begin to come to the digital party. “Margin compression is a phenomenon affecting all aspects of the industry,” he says. “The rise of CPC, CPA, and other performance-based pricing has compelled all marketers to think that our profession now should be held to a different measure. Our creative and strategic work is now almost inevitably met with skepticism if there isn’t some direct and easily identifiable performance metric attached to it. So clients value what we do less and drive us to wring more and more out of our media partners and our teams. In many cases, they don’t pull their own weight in developing appropriate data measurement systems to identify the impact of our work.”

It’s not only measurement that impacts an agency’s margin and daily workflow. Real in-house innovation must continue to be what differentiates agencies from each other — and the host of widely available tools on the market. “The internet continues to drive the price point for traditional agency materials down to zero every day,” De Vries says. “There is a community on the web that is in favor of sharing repeatable work so that more money can be spent on real innovation. To help eliminate what they consider mundane tasks, they offer free design templates, CMS platforms with extreme performance, and in some cases even free logo work.”

Peter Gerritsen, well-known ad man and now Transworld Advertising Agency Network (TAAN) head, feels the same way. “The squeeze of economic conditions on the advertising community, and on marketing budgets, has created an environment of cost-control at any price, even to the detriment of quality,” he says. “While this is short-sighted, it has become the lead in negotiating compensation. In many areas, it has become not about the value of doing it best, but how little it will take to just get it done. The advertising industry has commoditized many of the steps required to produce communications. A commodity is measured by cost, not by quality. Expertise is measured on outcomes and value. The experts command premiums for their work. Agencies need to position themselves as experts in defined businesses. Deep expertise is better than commoditized capabilities.”

Agencies are now forced to do what they always do when it comes to margin compression: share the pain with their publishing partners. The good shops send out a brief to 20 sites, collect creative ideas from them, and collate the best five into a plan that fits from the standpoint of budget and practicality. Usually, the largest sites get on those plans simply because the agency wants to create the least amount of friction when closing a deal. Want to reach young men? Look no further than ESPN.com.

Agencies that are charged with performance simply go to networks, which find them the cheapest “targeted” inventory they can. Agencies don’t know where their clients’ ads are running, but how else do you get geo-targeted, contextually targeted, user-targeted, and re-targeted inventory for less than a $10 CPM? But what have the agencies really done? They don’t know how they got the performance, or how to find it again. They don’t own any part of the value chain of that process: the sites, the targeting, the data, or the analytics. Scary. Sounds like something the client can get directly — for 15 percent less.

Gerritsen values the media mix more on performance than delivery. “The value is in the insights and the delivery of successful outcomes,” he says. “How this is delivered may not be through internal resources, but as a trusted method of information exchange between media, agent, and marketer. It’s not necessarily about who owns the data, but rather, about the creative use of the information to produce success. I don’t like the term ‘aggregator.’ It doesn’t demonstrate any value, just the ability to cobble together a pile of stuff. The value of the best networks and exchanges is the shared responsibility to balance costs and benefits to all participants.”

For agency owners like Kirschner, there is no question about maintaining control of publisher relationships. “Despite the fact that there is such a proliferation of options in the digital space today, it has never been more important for agencies to maintain direct relationships with publishers,” he says. “While networks and exchanges offer convenience and supposedly compelling pricing, the reality is that the publisher at the end of the loop ultimately wants to see a campaign succeed, and he or she has the direct experience and audience knowledge to ensure that happens. There are many tools available that allow these personal relationships to scale within a large media department, so the appeal of networks and exchanges diminishes.”

I currently work for a company that is trying to help small to mid-sized agencies tackle some of the technology aspects of buying and selling digital media. In most sales jobs, it takes a while to get a meeting with a decision-maker. Frankly, I was surprised at how quickly CEOs, CFOs, and digital media VPs agreed to meet with our company at first. Sure, we have a captivating sales pitch, but the reason we get so much uptake is that there is real pain out there on the agency side.

The online media industry is far from being sorted out. Until a standard set of practices and tools gets established (which might never happen), agencies are going to need reliable, trusted partners to help them profitably navigate the digital landscape. Agencies will forever be evaluating new platforms, networks, exchanges, ad servers, data providers, and myriad other tools and services. But, for the agencies we talk to every day, it’s not the tools that make the agency — it’s how the tools are used that ultimately makes the agency successful.

As De Vries says, “Agencies that were built on a manufacturing model (paying inexperienced employees to send mailers all day long) now need to focus on innovation instead because that’s where the money is now. It’s hard to innovate every day in an agency.”

Epic FAIL

This is why agencies buy direct.

Much has been written about the notorious “logo vomit” map of famed internet banker Terence Kawaja. I reference his handy charts on my blog, and often his “Display LUMAscape” as a reference point for thinking about the digital display business, and what will happen to it. Many have tried to navigate through the various categories and dissect what may be “happening” in the space, which is a favorite pastime of company executives trying to raise money for many of the identified advertising technology outfits referenced within. Nobody ever really tries to explain the whole thing, though. It’s just too complicated, I guess. Allow me to try:

 “A few years ago, people started to figure out that you could use technology to target advertising to people on the Web. Ever since then, 250 companies have placed themselves in the middle of the transaction between the advertiser and the inventory, confusing everyone. Now, most of them are running out of money and will sell cheap, get acquired, or go out of business.”

Perhaps that oversimplifies things slightly, but the reality is that there are many companies in the space that are primed for one of those three scenarios. Unfortunately, most of them will sell for less than their investment, or go out of business. Here are the three big reasons we have gotten here:

It was a Bad Idea

The whole point of most of the companies on the Kawaja map is to help advertisers use data to find exactly the right audience at the right time, serve them the right ad, and maybe find something out about them that helps drive branding or sales. In the past, most advertisers used to do that contextually (putting ads for shoes in Vogue, for example) and it seemed to work pretty well. When that Internet thing came along, publishers could get something nearing their print CPMs for “site sponsorships” and premium banner advertising alongside good content. Sooner or later, however, publishers decided to put banners ads on all of their pages, creating the advertising largest inventory glut known to man. That created a big problem.

All of that banner space needed to be monetized somehow, and publishers were quickly discovering that it was hard to make money on the trillions of monthly advertising impressions they had created. But nobody wanted to buy $10 CPM banner ads on message board pages, and the “contact us” page. So, in order to “solve” this problem, exchanges popped up and allowed publishers to “monetize” this space by having various parties bid on the inventory. Things got even better when data companies came in, and were able to layer some demographic data atop those impressions, making audience buying possible for the first time. The venture money flowed, as smart young technologists created fast-moving software companies to help marketers exploit this trend as they sought a way to help reduce industry average CPMs from $20 to $2.

Mission accomplished! In the last 10 years, average CPMs have been drastically reduced, 100% of a publishers inventory is being “monetized” (often by 10 or more companies), and you can target an ad down to one’s shoe size.  So, what’s the problem? Hasn’t turning advertising from an art into a science worked?

The answer is: Yes, but not for all of the companies on that map. People visit three sites a day, and one of them is Facebook. If you want audience targeting, why not just find exactly what you want from a social network? They are the ones with the real audience data. They are also the ones with the audience scale, having about 5 times as many “profiles” as the next largest data company. The problem with all the companies trying to sell you audience targeting and ad technology is that it only works when you have audience scale (they don’t) and deep audience data (they don’t have that either).

Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn (and the next company that people are willing to share their private information with) are going to win the audience targeting game. When you are talking about audience buying at scale, social media IS digital media.

It’s Still about Art

If you believe that the average web user visits only two sites a day besides Facebook, then you better find them on those sites—and give them a really amazing experience with your banner ad. That thing should play video, games, talk to you, and almost pay you to look at it. Since only three out of every 10,000 people will click on it, you had better make sure the creative really tells a terrific story and gets your brand message across too.

That means standard sized banners that work with exchange-based buying are pretty much irrelevant, since they have a hard time doing any of the above. It also means that context has to accompany placement. It is not enough to reach a “35 year old woman in-market for shoes.” You have to reach her when she is on her favorite fashion site, or otherwise psychologically engaged in shoe consideration. The ad should be in a brand-safe environment that engenders trust—and compliments the creative in question. That sounds suspiciously like premium display advertising…the stuff that was being sold 10 years ago!

In a certain sense, we have almost come back full-circle to guaranteed, premium advertising. And that means an emphasis on the creative itself. If you look at the map, it’s clear that creative isn’t a part of the picture…but it might be the most important thing driving the future of the digital display advertising business.

It’s Confusing

Even if agencies and advertisers wanted to take advantage of a few of the of companies cluttering the “landscape,” they would need to log into and learn multiple systems. As a marketer looking to reach women, am I really going to log into Blue Kai and bid on demographic “stamps” from Nielsen, log into AppNexus and apply those to a real-time exchange buy, constantly log into my DART account to check ad pacing and performance, periodically log into my Aperture account to download audience data, and then log into my Advantage account every month to bill my clients? Maybe—but that’s exactly the reason why digital media agencies are making 3% margins lately. Most of these technologies are really great on their own, but string together too many of them and you start to get lost in the data, and are unable to react to it.

For digital marketing to be effective, a set of standards need to be created that enables systems to work together and share information. Basic B-school dogma teaches you that effectiveness starts to break down when a manager has more than 5 direct reports. If you believe that, then it’s not hard to imagine the effectiveness of a 22-year old media planner managing 5 logins on behalf of his agency.  It’s not just confusing, but impossible.

We have built an industry ripe for aggregation, and the Googles, Adobes, and IBMs of the world will not disappoint us! So, what companies will succeed in this ecosystem?

– Social Scalers: If you agree that all reach advertising targeting audiences will eventually be on social networks, then you should look to work with companies that are making social advertising scale effectively. Doing Facebook advertising is incredibly easy—but doing it right is hard. Doing it properly requires extreme multivariate creative optimization and, more importantly, knowing what to do with the mounds of truly actionable audience data that Facebook and other social networks will hand you. Companies like XA.net that are doing this are EPIC WIN.

 – Creative enablers: Since the conversation is coming back to the creative, how can technology help make great creative even better—and help advertisers understand how that creative is being engaged with?  The click is a dead metric to most seasoned advertisers, who are spending more time with branding measurement tools (Vizu) and creative ad analytics startups (Moat) that are well positioned to “science-ify” the truly important part of advertising: the creative itself. Companies doing that well are also going to be EPIC WIN.

 – Standard Bearers: With all of the logins out there, it is inevitable that one company is going to try and create the technology stack for next generation media buying that puts all the pieces together seamlessly. There are a number of companies trying to do this right now (full disclosure: I work for one of them), and I believe there will be a lot of advertisers and agencies relieved to log into a single platform, and be able to access all of their vendor relationships in one dashboard.  This will take some time, but the companies that enable standardization across technology providers will also WIN big.

[This post originally appeared 7/20/11 on eConsultancy blog]

Beyond Bidding

Why Real Time Bidding is More Important than you Think

Last week, I wrote that companies that depend on what we think of as “RTB” are in danger of missing larger opportunities. I argued that RTB technology is important, but that advertisers still need inventory quality, contextual relevance, and scale—something that today’s real time platforms are struggling with. If the game is truly about utilizing data to target audiences, companies are also burdened by an uncertain legislative environment—and the fact that big players like Facebook have an impossible data advantage. My point was not to dismiss the technology itself, only that RTB is only a single piece of the larger digital media puzzle. Getting RTB right is also the key to success for many of the companies in the digital media ecosystem. Here are the trends to look for over the next 18 months:

Moving Upscale

Let’s face it: agencies want to buy what they want, when they want. It doesn’t matter how cheap the prices are. The problem isn’t that agencies don’t understand that some inventory is better delivered through RTB. The problem is that their clients want their ads seen in certain places, and they want to know exactly where those ads will appear, and when they will appear. Clients also tend to want their ads to appear on sites that they have heard of, not necessarily “OpenX  Longtail” or “PubMatic Default” no matter how great the performance is. Human nature is all about exerting control over those things we can control, and it’s no different with advertising. The desire for control in real time bidding leads naturally to demand side domain grouping, in which advertisers carve out limited tranches of pre-approved inventory into which to bid, and forego many of the pure remnant options.

Now that publishers have spent some time exposing their inventory to DSPs, they now have more experience working the systems, and a better sense of what floor prices to set for certain inventory types. I recently had lunch with a large vertical publisher who told me that he recently discovered that a small amount of his inventory was consistently being won at a $1,700 CPM (it appears as though some DSPs do not offer a pricing cap for automatic bids)! At one time, technology companies understood how to monetize inventory better than publishers, but that dynamic is rapidly evolving—and for the better. After a few years of premium and remnant monetization, most publishers have a sense for where their inventory sells and performs best, and they are quickly realizing the benefit of putting more premium inventory up for bid to a trusted pool of advertisers. Watch over the next several months as more publishers take the lessons of exchange-based inventory selling, and start turning $5.00 CPM inventory into $10.00 CPM inventory by leveraging RTB technology to create small, private exchanges for their best inventory.

Private Exchanges

Will building private exchanges be the way ad tech companies score big with their demand and supply side customers?

These private exchanges are more than just a way for publishers to create increased competition for their premium impressions for an installed demand base. Private exchanges are an important piece of the entire monetization puzzle for publishers. Salespeople are motivated by commission plans, not necessarily corporate strategy, and they are also expensive. Reducing the cost of sales—while insuring that every premium impression is monetized properly, and at full value—is top of mind for all publishers right now. They got beat on remnant inventory technology, and you better believe that they won’t get fooled twice with their premium supply. They are going to figure out a way to let technology help them control and monetize it, and they are going to keep the lion’s share of the revenue for themselves. Innovative companies like aiMatch are helping to revolutionize this effort.

Private exchanges are going to enable publishers to place their entire premium inventory into biddable buckets, and let their advertisers have “seats” that enable them to get access. Ultimately, certain publishers will have upfront markets, in which the most premium inventory is sold for holiday times—and an active “spot market” in which the remainder of their premium inventory is sold at prices that exceed variable floor prices. Publishers will employ trading desk operatives that control the inventory they place in all exchanges (remnant and private), and employ fewer salespeople to hold the biggest clients’ hands. RTB is simply not about making cheap inventory better anymore. It’s about creating new market dynamics that raise the cost of the valuable inventory—and lessen the cost of sales.

Beyond Display

So much energy in the Kawaja logo vomit map has been created by companies in the real time display space that I believe we, as an industry, are somewhat blind to the opportunities happening in real time elsewhere. Digital media marketing is about marrying best practices in display, search, affiliate marketing, mobile, and video to get results. As branding becomes more measurable (thanks to Vizu, Aperture, and other technologies), more and more brand money is going to the digital pie. It’s quite simple: brand money goes to where the eyeballs congregate, and they happen to be cast upon computer screens, mobile phones, and tablets as much as television and newspapers these days. However, putting all of that together is not easy for the modern digital marketer. Real time can help.

Real time buying systems are slowly migrating from pure display into multi-channel media management systems that can find cost efficiencies across display, search, and mobile. AppNexus recently released Windows Mobile inventory into its exchange, and Android browser inventory is sure to follow. Now, you can bid for eyeballs seamlessly in the same platform, without regard to where they may be focused on. Enter programmatic buying technologies that can allocate spend across differing mediums (search display), buying methodologies (guaranteed, real-time), and pricing methodologies (CPM, CPC, CPA)—and suddenly you have real time systems that aren’t about “RTB” if you follow me. They are about getting all of the combinatorial values of an effective media plan correct, using campaign attribute data—and historical performance and pricing data. The bottom line is that the machines are going to be making the allocation calls in the future, and we are going from real time bidding, to real-time media decisioning. That’s a big change.

Immediacy

Another interesting aspect (and perhaps the most important) of RTB is immediacy. Real time bidding systems are collapsing the time window between having a great marketing message, and your ability to distribute it quickly. Twitter’s sponsored posts are one great example, Facebook’s self-serve ad interface gives instant satisfaction, and companies like DashBid are helping advertisers put their ads directly into the “hottest” video content, using bidding systems. Now that content is being curated by end users even more than by publishers, marketers need the ability to access audiences quickly, as they follow the latest meme, news trend, or fashion. Systems that offer the ability to go from idea to execution quickly, and are easily adaptable will win in this new RTB-driven ecosystem.

[This post originally appeared in eConsultancy on 6/30/11]

The Great Publisher Disruption

ADOTAS – Remember when you used to really depend on your local paper? For finding jobs, houses, getting the local weather forecast, selling that boat in your yard, and getting last night’s sports scores? I still do…but barely.

Most of what your local paper offers can be found in greater abundance (and at higher quality) elsewhere and, now that everyone is glued to their iPhone, rather than flipping newsprint on their commute, most of that content is only a click (or, more likely, a finger touch) away.

Jobs Section –> Monster.com
Real Estate Section –> MLS, Zillow
Business News –> WSJ.com
Weather Report –> Weather.com
Classified Sales –>Craigslist
Sports –> ESPN.com
Travel Section –>TripAdvisor.com
National News –> WSJ.com
Gossip –> PerezHilton.com

As the above demonstrates, the only area of superior content the local news website has left is local news, and even that has suffered as papers reduce reporting staff and rely more upon outside content providers to fill pages. Although local papers came to the online party rather late, they managed to quickly build reliable websites and leverage their most valuable content effectively.

Monetizing that content has fallen far short of revenue expectations for the most part. The AAAA’s recent report that ad agencies lose up to a third of their media cost servicing digital media buys (as opposed to only 2% with television) was eye opening, but probably nothing compared to what publishers feel.

Back when I was running sales for a Nielsen group, we were struggling with the fact that the same $100,000 once earned by selling a small schedule of print ads was now taking an enormous effort to create.

With print, you are simply selling space. The advertiser provided the content (a PDF) and you put it inside a magazine or newspaper, alongside compelling editorial. Publishers focused on producing the content they wanted and advertisers produced brand ads that appealed to a like audience.

Then, all of the sudden, advertisers started to lose interest in print advertising alone. Sure, maybe they still ran a small print schedule, but now they wanted some content to go along with it: maybe a “microsite” or a custom series of events, or perhaps an advertorial.

Then publishers found themselves allocating resources to writers, designers, and photographers—and acting like a small agency on behalf of their clients. Kind of cool, but the problem was that the advertiser had the same $100,000 to spend. They were all over you, and they wanted stuff like “ROI.” Publishers’ margins were compressed, resources (once dedicated mostly to producing their own content) were misallocated, and their employees were getting burnt out.

Let’s take this to 2007, and the emergence of social media. Now advertisers didn’t even need publishers to develop their content, because they could create their own blogs from scratch (Blogger) and start building online communities (Facebook). Enter Twitter and now every employee in the building has their own mini PR platform which could be leveraged for the company.

Talk about disruption. With thousands of really smart writers, photographers, and designers willing to work cheaply, from home — and with access to free, web-based tools equal or more powerful than any in-house software a publishing company could provide, now publishers were losing the only edge they had: the ability to produce content at scale.

The Googles of the world will always argue that they “need” content providers like The New York Times to continue to provide thought leadership, but web-based content marketplaces like Associated Content and others have only validated the concept that traditional publishers (no matter how big their websites are) are losing their power positions when it comes to content. (Except WSJ, which produces content so exceptional that people are willing to pay for it, but that’s for another article).

So, in this new reality, the publisher is left trying to protect his last tangible asset: his online advertising inventory. He can’t sell subscriptions, he can’t pay to have leadership in any other category besides local news, and now huge sites can geotarget ads to create larger audiences than he has. Spot quiz: who has more unique users in the Anchorage, Alaska DMA: Yahoo or the Anchorage Daily News? I don’t know either, but this is part of the problem.

When the starting point for most computers is search, local media misses the boat on what used to be their wheelhouse. Search for “Anchorage restaurants” on Google, and Fodors, Yahoo, and the local visitor’s bureau sites come up before ADN.com.

In response to this atmosphere of ever-increasing margin compression, competition, customer dilution, and constant need to understand and embrace new technologies, local publishers turned to the experts in online revenue monetization: networks, exchanges, and aggregators. Now (with networks and exchanges), as simple as placing a few ad tags throughout their pages, newspapers could monetize the 70% of inventory they couldn’t sell directly.

Establishing a daisy-chain of ad calls to backfill their unsold inventory was easy, and at least there was some visibility into revenue (amount of impressions available, divided by 1,000, times 65 cents). Despite the ease of use, the rates continue to be painfully cheap, and you never can really tell what the tolerance level of your audience is for an endless stream of teeth whitening, tanning, diet, or Acai berry offers will be.

Aggregators like Centro, LION New Media, Quadrant One, or Cox Cross Media offer a much better solution: real advertisers that need and respect real local inventory. These aggregators provide a great one-stop shop for advertisers and agencies that may not have the depth of knowledge (or personnel) to negotiate and service a multitude of small buys on dozens of local media sites.

As a result these aggregators earn the money they arbitrage by providing the expertise to buy local media at scale. Smarter companies like Centro are leveraging the in-house systems they have developed over the years to navigate this process and making it available to agencies directly (Transis).

However, when it comes to selling premium inventory, specialized sponsorships, or anything beyond standard inventory, the aggregators can’t really play in that space at scale; advertisers still need to partner with local media to make those deals happen.

Ultimately, I see local websites winning by being able to offer more than just inventory. For them, hustling uniques and impressions is a zero sum game. They will never compete against the networks and (with 65-cent CPMs on their remnant space) the networks and exchanges aren’t exactly their best allies.

What agencies need is for technology to help them scale the way they reach advertisers, in an open and transparent way—and systems that give them the ability to do more than place an ad tag on their pages and pray for a good campaign to hit the transom.

We feel the future for publishers is an open marketplace that enables good local media sites to package their premium inventory to advertisers who truly value the local audience: the regional ad agencies across the country who service the local hospitals, schools, banks, and businesses that need local content aimed at local customers.

Ultimately, publishers need systems that can give them placement level control over their inventory, total pricing and deal point control, and access to both agencies and direct advertisers in the same environment. There should be a place between getting a 75-cent Acai berry ad on your homepage and running a $50 CPM rich media expandable.

Publishers need to be able to negotiate both types of deals, and do them at scale, with total control. An open and transparent marketplace that enables publishers to market their entire inventory—not just remnant—is where the future is headed.

[first published in Adotas, 4/1/2010]

PLATFORM WARS #1: Endangered Ecosystem?

Is the Current “Digital Advertising Ecosystem” Endangered by Overpopulation?

I am looking at an “ecosystem map” by LUMA Partners banker Terence Kawaja.*It is an 11×8.5 Pantone-hued logo vomit of incomprehensible names:  Blue Kai, AdXpose, Yieldex, AppNexus, Dataxu, TRAFFIQ (full disclosure: I work for the latter one, pronounced “Traffic”). From left to right, the landscape depicts the players in the business of digital display advertising, from those that buy the ads (agencies and marketers) to those that sell them (online publishers) and everyone in between. Over the last few years, not only have the players on either side increased but, thanks (or no thanks) to technology, the broad middle ground between the two has exploded.

Now, the advertiser can access a buying platform , buy on an exchange which uses cookie data to target an audience found on multiple websites, whose audience composition are verified by a third party, who are then served an ad by an ad server, with a creative that may be dynamic, and finally reconciled and billed by yet another software provider. And this is just the run of the mill stuff. Even in an industry rife with middlemen, the noise in the marketplace for the average media buyer is epic. What is happening out there, and why is it so confusing?

To the optimist, all of this wonderful technology is helping marketers buy the audience they have always wanted to target. Instead of having to buy ESPN.com at double-digit CPMs, now the advertiser seeking “sneaker intenders” can plug into a million cookie-appended sites and hit users with a dynamically generated running shoe ad that hits the reader as he is accessing jogging content on a favorite long-tail blog, and deliver him a geotargeted ad that shows him coupon on his size Asics from the nearest shoe store. And all for an $8 CPM. So what’s the problem?

For the publisher, the problem is that it’s way too cheap. After years of publishing all of their content for free, and placing a dozen network and exchange ad tags on their sites to monetize remnant inventory, the world is overwhelmed with banner inventory. Publishers—who sell only 30% of their total banner inventory on a good day—are stuck monetizing the large majority of their banners at an industry average $0.75. Yet, the networks and exchanges who have co-opted the publisher’s very audience via cookie data, are making a cozy $5 CPM selling “audience segments” and “behavioral targeting.” Ouch. You wonder when the (decent) publishers of the world will finally wake up and firewall all of that content they’ve paid a fortune to create and distribute.

In addition to the fact that publishers have been caught flatfooted by the broader trend of buying audience vs. buying the place where it is found, they haven’t really learned to leverage the tremendous power they wield: Owning some very nice eyeballs on one of the most important screens in the market today. Are television ad sellers dependant on several dozen third-party intermediaries who skim 90% of their revenue? No. The money that they have lost due to channel explosion, they have found other ways to make up: namely, monetizing their content through different distribution (DVD sales and rental, DVR rental, overseas distribution, and cable licensing).

The introduction of the iPad was another painful reminder of how poorly publishers are doing when it comes to content monetization. Essentially, they have allowed the ultimate 3rd party (Apple) monetize all of their mobile content for them, and they are left begging at Steve Job’s table for scraps. Oh wait—the “ultimate 3rd party” is actually Google, and they have already let them control their site traffic and much of their content monetization through search. Oops.

So, what is my point, anyway?

The point is about control, and who is exercising it in this increasingly complicated landscape. Looking at the publisher’s dilemma, it is clear that they have (for the time being) surrendered control to a variety of 3rd parties with technology expertise in the hopes of staying relevant in a digital advertising economy. In addition, today’s advertising agencies are increasingly becoming irrelevant, as they are increasingly dependent on the dozens of technology companies that control the way ads are created, displayed, measured, and transacted upon. The agency value proposition of publishers (we have the audience) and agencies (we know how to reach them) has eroded, which essentially opened the door to this new horde of technology players.

Yet, I am pretty sure both sides have only started to fight to get some of that control back. On the agency side, we have seen agencies building their own DSPs, so they can control the inventory and targeting capabilities. On the publisher side, smart companies like Glam are building their own ad platform (GlamAdapt) promising to “a 3rd generation ad platform built for emotional digital branding,” whatever that means. Both sides are trying to take control of the value they create by building platforms, which is admirable. But, in doing so, aren’t they building closed systems that, over time, will create their own ecosystems and be unable to quickly adapt to changes in the market? In other words, are they building Windows, rather than leveraging Linux?

This battle for control is going to see many of the ecosystem players in the middle get absorbed by the larger players on either side of the equation, and an explosion of platforms designed to make sense of the large array of choices and ultimately organize the ecosystem as a whole. The real battle will be among those companies that are building open, scalable platforms that enable both agencies and publishers to choose among the various moving parts, based on their need. In tomorrow’s platform, an agency will register, plug in what ad server they use (Atlas), their primary 3rd party data provider (Comscore), their existing publisher relationships, the different data companies they use (BlueKai, etc), and their billing system (Advantage)—and have a single interface to manage their search and display. Publishers will log into the same system and be able to participate in a marketplace where they set their own rates, and are able to leverage in-system data providers to create discrete audience segments and match them with advertiser needs. Tomorrow’s ad platform will also include both guaranteed buying (great for brands) and RTB buying (great for performance).

In the end, for such a system to exist, all players must start by ceding more control back to the buyers and sellers at the end, and the parties in the middle of the ecosystem must develop the APIs and integration paths that make systems interoperable. As a series, “Platform Wars” will look at all the different players in the space, and the ongoing battle for control as digital media technology evolves, and winners and losers are chosen.

*from his excellent May 3rd presentation at IAB’s Networks and Exchanges keynote address,  with the delightful title of “Parsing the Mayhem,” back when he was at GCA Savvian.
[This article originally appeared in iMedia Connection on 7/14/2010]