Digiday:Daily Interview (Repost)

The right exit?

During the past year, the number of tech companies has exploded. There are some 245 logos on the (in)famous Luma Partners slide. Some of those have been acquired, but many have not and, in the eyes of several observers, are more features of products than standalone companies. In an economic downturn, with its focus on wringing efficiency, how many will be able to argue for a small slice of ad buys?

“People are all talking about the Luma slide,” said Tom Deierlein, managing director of Tagman, an ad technologies firm. “And they all want to pat themselves on the back and say, ‘Yeah, we made the Luma slide!’ If you go back to the original presentation of the slide, the point is that the industry is too cluttered. Too many people have their hands out, and there are not enough dollars to support all of the companies, and all of the tollbooths being put up. There is not enough money to support the ad ecosystem.”

Deierlein’s sentiments are echoed by analysts within and outside of the ad technology industry. The ad technology herd will “absolutely” be thinned, according to Erin Hunter, evp of media at Comscore. The proliferation of ad technology companies, some offering little or no transparency on their operations, won’t continue in an economy where brands want results, not simply assurances, according to Hunter.

“Brands want to know that there is a human on the other side of that impression,” said Hunter. She believes that advertisers will soon start to demand a system of “checks and balances” that will make ad technologies back up their product stack with verifiable results. Those firms not able to illustrate their value with transparency will eventually implode. At the end of the day, with the dizzying array of ad technologies, from DSPs to DMPs to SSPs to AMPs, there is still the question of what value each player is bringing to the table.

“When everyone has access to the same tools, there tends to be little differentiation and, consequently, value in an industry,” said Chris O’Hara, svp of marketing for Traffiq, an ad technologies firm. “Ad tech provides a highly robust example of this. Take DSPs and agency trading desks, for example. Everyone buys the same exact inventory from Google, Right Media, Microsoft, OpenX, PubMatic, Admeld and Rubicon, for example, and uses data that spring from the same sources such as IXI, Experian, Acxiom, etc. It’s extremely simple to get access to technology that enables you to leverage those things. So, what makes the companies that do real-time bidding valuable? They don’t own the inventory or the data. Many of them use the same machine-learning algorithms licensed by IPonWeb to drive optimization, and most deploy a roomful of smart account managers to help their clients manage and optimize their campaigns. As an investor, what value do you ascribe to those companies?”

And then there’s the simple fact of M&A: that there aren’t enough chairs to go around. There’s clearly the need for consolidation — Google’s vp of display advertising Neal Mohan regularly stresses this — but it’s hard to find a home for all those logos on the Luma chart.“Is there an explosion in the number of ad tech companies? Yes. Is that going to continue? No,” said venture capitalist Mark Suster in a recent Digiday interview. “In a bull market the number of startups in a category multiplies by as much as ten, and then when the markets collapse then they consolidate or shut down, and that is normal.”

The problem isn’t simply a general me-too mentality among startups, according to Deierlein. It’s that many companies bring nothing new to the table, often because they aren’t expected to. Companies are forgetting the history of the technology markets, Deierlein believes, and so many companies are simply plunging headlong into a complicated market without assessing whether or not their business model is an improvement on what is commonly offered in the “already cluttered ecosystem.”

“The clutter has come from the amount of money to be made in the ad technologies industry,” said Josh Kraft, marketing director for data analytics firm InfiniteGraph. “Eventually we will see companies being pruned, in a sense. Companies will have to back up their claims with actual client references. It requires a significant capabilities with data to compete, survive and thrive now.”

[This post appeared in DigiDay:Daily on 8/16/2011]

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