There’s No App for That

Building the Technology Stack for Next Generation Digital Media Buying and Selling

Last week’s IAB Network and Exchanges conference was full of the usual self-congratulatory “use cases” of byzantine, data-based strategies for squeezing conversions from web-based display banners for direct response campaigns—or, alternatively, helping to drive “branded performance,” based on the listener’s preference. I was sitting next to an attorney from a large media company, tasked with making sense of the ad technology business. “I have to be honest,” she said, “I have been looking at this business for 18 months, and I still don’t understand what you people are talking about half the time…and I’m a smart person.”*

Unfortunately, that is the exact sentiment of many media planners, account managers, and marketing managers confronting the vast array of choices in display advertising. Once they figure out the alphabet soup of DSPs, RTB, and (now) DMPs, they start to wonder if they actually want—or need—the technology in question. Agencies are trying to figure out how to be the gatekeepers, and advise their clients on the best technologies and practices to drive branding and performance, but the work required to string together all of the various options makes earning money difficult. Digital media margins are in the toilet right now, and will remain there until agencies can manage all of these disparate systems with efficiency.

In the ad technology business, there’s an “app” for almost any way one wants to find and buy an audience—and many more applications for getting and understanding performance. Unfortunately, there is no operating system that can host all of these and make them work together seamlessly. The ideal scenario would be a world in which marketers could bring the different media applications they want to use into a single, unified system. Call it a “media dashboard” that would enable an agency to create a campaign, plug in their 3rd party research data, ad server of record, segmentation data licenses, audience measurement/verification providers, and billing system and enjoy access and control from a single interface. Down the road, as more mature APIs become available, the OS would enable marketers to “plug in” their mobile ad providers, video DSPs, and bid management tools for search marketing.

Almost everyone agrees that this is the future of the business. A famous media investment banker recently remarked that “there are some very smart companies out there

Are you developing your ad technology for the wrong system?

building a technology stack” to address these very issues, but wondered whether SAP or Oracle will be first to the party. My opinion is that the IBMs and SAPs of the world will let a smaller company fight through the growing pains, and let the preferred standardization technology come to light, before swooping in. The big boys can afford to be patient—and nobody wants to be the guy who backed Betamax. The question now isn’t Betamax or VHS—or even PC vs. Mac. The question is, what will be the operating system of next generation digital media, who will support it, and can an active “ecosystem” be maintained that enables technology companies to develop smart applications for it?

I think the answer is yes—and that the next 12 months will be critical in determining what companies will fit into the increasingly complex landscape and those that fail to meet the task. Not long ago, it was extremely difficult to buy from a variety of networks and exchanges efficiently. In comes AppNexus, and suddenly every Tom, Dick, and Harry has access to over 800 inventory sources, and a great bid management tools to boot. Their OS for real time bidding creates real efficiency for marketers—especially when they go through the pain of integration on your behalf. I know quite a few AppNexus users—but very few who will work with data segments that are not natively available in the platform.  The next great media technologies are going to be built for integration into specific systems, offer APIs that enable “easy” data export and ingestion, and flexible so that others can customize them for specific needs.

Evolution is natural to the technology business. Networks become “platforms”…data providers become “DMPs.” Technology companies will forever try and stick their hand in the middle of the transaction between the demand and the supply side, and shave off a sliver of the pie. But, eventually, evolution becomes “revolution” and the game changes for everyone. We are about to find out who has the capital, talent, and vision to devise the next generation operating system for digital media. That system is going to be the one that every company has to develop an “app” for and support, and that system is going to shape the way digital media is bought and sold for a very long time.

As an ad technology company, it’s time to start figuring out how your technology will fit into the larger puzzle if such an OS becomes standard. Is your technology built for an open system, or does your technology (and, more importantly, business model) only thrive in a closed environment? There are a lot of “platforms” out there, but eventually there will only be one operating system. I think there are a lot of really awesome “apps” out there waiting to be plugged into this new operating system, which would benefit from standardization and an installed base of users.

There’s definitely an “app for that.” We are just waiting for the OS.

*That sentiment was also expressed wonderfully in Doug Weaver’s amazing keynote presentation which he was kind enough to make available this morning on iMedia.

[This post appearred on 5/23/11 in Business Insider]


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The Problem of Ubiquity

Is Your Technology Offering Differentiated Enough to Win in the Digital Media Advertising Landscape?

Media buying desks are so 2009. I mean, who doesn’t have access to 800+ exchange inventory sources and 30 different 3rd party data providers?  In a world where well-heeled demand side customers have all of the tools to buy audience efficiently, how do internet marketers effectively communicate?

At this moment in time, digital display advertisers love the idea of audience buying because it seems unique. The concept of buying an audience, rather than the site it is on, is truly revolutionary and will be a continuing part of the digital media conversation for a long time to come. However, many technology companies are being funded, started, and run on the foolish misconception that audience buying vs. site-specific buying is a binary choice. It is not. Large holding company shops are trying to migrate client budgets over to their media buying desks, demand side platforms are trying to displace ad networks, and ad “platforms” are attempting to skim the media cream on all real time transactions by promising better performance through centralization. All of these tactics are doomed to fail.

Context

Unless you are going cheap and deep by buying remnant inventory at under $0.50 CPMs—or going data-heavy and spending upwards of $5.00 CPMs using segmentation to find highly specific premium audience—you are going to need context. In the former case (running wild with sub-$0.50 bids across exchanges) you face the issue of low CTR and the accompanying issue of low brand safety. Your ad is getting out there, but God knows where it’s serving. Then again, at $0.50, why not “spray and pray?” With machine learning, you can easily optimize against a conversion pixel, and let your bidding technology find all the performance that a cheap CPM can yield.

On the other end of the spectrum (using expensive V12 or Bizo segments, for example), you have a highly targeted audience—but a problem achieving scale against such specific targeting goals. Also, while you may be hitting your desired segment, you may be hitting them at the wrong time. As a frequent traveler, I have been frequently targeted with exactly the right ad (Cheap JetBlue flight to SFO) at exactly the wrong time (during my Yahoo! fantasy baseball draft).  Context does matter. Reaching premium surfers when they are engaged in consuming premium content is still relevant. That’s why people pay what they do for full page ads on the Wall Street Journal and that’s why WebMD will never accept “3rd party” advertising. Context matters, intent matters, and a user’s mindframe matters. When I am reading an article about Carmelo Anthony on ESPN.com, and I am in the market for basketball sneakers, I am simply more likely to buy them…because I am in a basketball mindset. Catch me with the same sneaker ad when I am replying to my friend on Hotmail, and it’s highly unlikely that I will break task and respond.

Engagement Methodology

Almost as important as context, is the way that an ad is served.  The majority of online audiences visit about three sites a day—and one of them is Facebook. It’s kind of tough to get into the media mix for the average site. There are two approaches the modern digital publisher can take can deal with this reality. The first is to SEO the hell out of their site, and drop enough tags to ensure an automatic, steady flow of exchange and network advertising. Another method is to firewall their exclusive content and only serve guaranteed advertising. Hybrid models are the norm, but publishers must manage the inevitable channel conflict and data leakage that come from opening up premium ad slots to networks and exchanges. Getting this blend right for websites is step one.

Modern publishers also have to go beyond the website. Today’s publishers are not only offering a blended approach to solving these marketing needs in modern RFPs—they are going beyond the typical RFP response to craft unique digital offerings that reach users that are engaged with digital content on multiple screens. You can’t effectively target pure audience yet on iPads, iPhones, or Android devices. Buy that’s where a lot of content consumption is rapidly shifting, Companies like Phluant (adapting online rich media ads of mobile browsing) are on the forefront of adapting display advertising to the new, mobile environment where they will be seen.

If your development plans do not include interoperability with the multiscreen media world we live in currently, then you are already becoming irrelevant. In the near future, there will be no such thing as “mobile networks” and “in-app” advertising. There will be platform solutions which enable cross-platform messaging (and accompanying analytics) in real time.

Price

A lot of the biggest mistakes modern media buyers make can be attributed to pricing. Todays’ digital media options do not lend themselves to a single RFP, with a static pricing range. The typical marketer looking to find high-income middle-age men who are “auto-intenders” may top out at $12 CPM. This is ridiculous. Marketers (especially old school direct mail marketers), know the value of finding their exact audience may be in the $100 CPM range (if they know they are reaching that exact, qualified customer), or it may be in the $1.00 CPM range (if they simply want to blanket my message to “men” in certain geotargeted area). Audiences are variable—but buying methodologies are not. In the near future, media buying will become programmatic, enabling marketers to populate a more robust RFP template with data—and receive systematic buying templates that span both buying methodologies (guaranteed and real-time) and pricing methodologies as well (CPM, CPC, CPA).

Choice

Today’s world is about choice. The modern digital marketer doesn’t have to face the straw man argument between choosing guaranteed vs. real-time audience buying; neither should he make the false choice of deciding between rich media and standard banners, when both can be deployed seamlessly across a single campaign. Moreover, it is now simple to leverage broadcast creative digitally, and run video advertising units on television, on the web, and on mobile devices simultaneously. As technology rapidly enables interplatform operability, marketers will be able to focus more upon the (all important) creative, than the delivery methodology itself.

As digital delivery systems evolve, marketers will live or die by the power of their creative to captivate. When technology companies finally enable marketers to broadcast their advertising across multiple digital channels at once (online display, video, mobile, DOOH, and cable set-top), the challenge will once again turn to creativity. In a technology-driven media world that enables marketers to produce and stream an advertising message seamlessly into the ether—it’s all about the ad, rather than where it is seen.

Up until now, the conversation in the space has been about delivering ads (by “DSPs” and RTB systems). As digital advertising delivery systems evolve, and every marketer has near ubiquitous access to platforms that enable scale and cross-platform delivery, the conversation is going to shift back to who is producing the best creative.

That’s a conversation I am looking forward to.

[This post originally appeared on 5/12/11 in eMarketing & Commerce]

Ecosystemopoly

LUMA Partners amusing “Adtechopoly” game

DIGIDAY: Target, New York, 5 May 2011 – If you work for one of the companies within the famed Kawaja logo vomit map, the only place to be today is at DigiDay Target. The event, in which every single presentation referenced or displayed the famous slide in question, is the nexus point for ad technology executives, publishers, advertisers, and investors looking to understand—and profit from—an increasingly volatile industry.

“The Ecosystem Map is a DR game” – Terence Kawaja, LUMA Partners

From the top down, the digital display advertising ecosystem map may actually look like a Chinese menu from which large, SaaS model companies can select best-of-breed players to consume. Over the coming months and years, most of the companies within the map will either become profitable or (better yet for the acquirer) battered down in valuation, and subject to an exit scenario. The slightly profitable ones will become features of larger platforms. The fun new twist on the LUMA map is the recently unveiled “Adtechopoly,” in which companies appear as Monopoly board game properties, and the players traversing the board are Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, IBM, and Adobe.

Most properties will leverage themselves and go bankrupt (do not pass go, do not collect $200M exit). Many will be acquired, and few will exist as independent businesses. So, what is the prognosis? Here is what I heard this morning:

—  Bubble: What bubble? Just because VCs are pouring lots of risk capital into questionable businesses, doesn’t mean we have a bubble. After all, a VC has to have a fairly low success rate to return value to investors. Unfortunately, according to Kawaja, “over half of the 35 deals in the last year didn’t produce a return on capital.” Kawaja expects that number to increase over time. But bubble? Not really. According to Kawaja, based on 2007 levels, multiples are not nearly where they were, so “it doesn’t feel like a bubble” to him. Unfortunately, it may feel that way for many of the ad technology folks in the room.

—  Who’s going to Take Over: The general consensus has been that Google is going to own most of the decent technology powering the advertising ecosystem, but Kawaja admits to “spending lots of time with IBM, SAP, Adobe, and Oracle.” For big SaaS companies, advertising is just one more industry to power with technology. That being said, “there are some really cool companies trying to piece together a stack” that will aggregate and organize the disparate technologies in the space.

—  Agencies: The holding companies on the new Ad Monopoly map cleverly appear as the railroads. Big, entrenched, and monopolistic, holding companies continue to command the lion’s share of advertiser budgets, but struggle to continue to be relevant to their clients. Agency trading desks were somewhat derided for having nothing more than “pretty logos,” instead of pure play technologies. Clients are looking to their agencies to be system integrators, and evaluate and deploy new technologies on their behalf but…they are agencies. In other words, agencies are not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “systems integration.” Companies like SAP are. When the SAPs of the world are in the game, and having “big company to big company” process discussions with advertisers, do you think Omnicom will not be in the room? Me neither. As Kawaja correctly notes, “inertia is the agencies’ friend” but things are moving pretty quickly.

—  Remarketing: As for this highly popular and effective part of the ecosystem, “these companies only work because of failure.” In other words, according to Kawaja, remarketing to consumers only has to occur because advertiser sites are so non-engaging that the marketer has to pay (again) to bring that consumer back to the site. As advertisers work with their technology and agency partners to build more compelling online experiences, this need will shrink. For me, these companies suggest more of a feature, than a business onto themselves.

—  Where’s the Beef? For Kawaja, “the meat in the sandwich is the intelligence layer.” If we believe that advertising will continue to be more science than art going forward, the companies that win will be those that build the engines that decide “if this, then that” and create performance. Right now, the technologies in the industry are focused on direct response advertising, which provides a hyper intense proving ground for the technologies that purport to inject performance into campaigns, and get data insight out of them. The future, however, will depend on how those technologies adapt to the premium brand advertiser.

—  Creative: There’s been a lot of talk about the need to transfer the rich experience of magazine reading (beautiful photos and design) to cluttered online pages, filled with flashing, annoying, interruptive ads. Project Devil is leading the way in bringing an “engaging, beautiful” experience online, so look for more entrants who can migrate truly interactive (rich media and video) experiences online at scale.

I will have more to come on a very exciting and high quality seminar…including what seems like some virulent industry backlash on 3rd party data and RTB players.  For now, industry players should spruce their properties up as the players warm the dice in their hands, and get ready to traverse the board. The moves your ad technology company makes in the next few months may make the difference between being located at Boardwalk…or Baltic Avenue.

[This post was referenced on the 5/10/11 edition of AdExchanger and published in  Business Insider]

PS: Does anyone else find it hilarious that AOL is the dog?