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]

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