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]