Know these Five AdTech Memes for 2014

UnicornMeatWell, at least it’s not the “year of mobile” again. Or, maybe it is. After several days of media investment banking conferences (Gridley and JEGI), I can reliably report that 2014 will be “the year” of many uber-trends ,some of which will enrich the M&A bankers who have a focus on the increasingly frothy ad technology and marketing space. Here are five memes to consider:

“Mobile First”

If you were to believe every ad tech panelist, you might be inclined to throw your laptop in the East River. Apparently—despite desktop only slightly starting to lose overall time-spent share to mobile on a year-over-year basis—nobody is developing ad tech solutions for the desktop anymore. Everyone is “mobile first,” meaning that they are writing code for tablet and mobile phone browsers and apps before developing solutions for the poor laptop or desktop computer. Of course, mobile devices are showing explosive growth, and clearly where the majority of consumers’ time will be found (as evidenced by the 8 of 10 people at my conference table multitasking during the eMarketer presentation which laid out the mobile data). This might be only a slight exaggeration when it comes to mobile eCommerce, which is trending to dominate the vast majority of online sales transactions in just a short time. Also, in case you missed this, it is now passé to call “mobile” “mobile.” Companies are so hip to the growth in portable digital devices that they just talk about “reach” rather than distinguishing between “tablets” and “smartphones.” You know it’s really the “year of mobile” when it’s too lame to talk about.

“No Cookie, No Problem”

Guess what? Nobody is worried that cookies are going away. Again, if you spend all of your time in conference ballrooms listening to panelists, you naturally understand that cookies are a thing of the ancient past, rather than the data currency without which 80% of Lumascape companies could not credibly operate. In fact, if the cookie disappeared tomorrow, ad tech players would simply go with a “statistical ID” or another cool sounding identification technology that is being invented somewhere. I am really glad that no one is particularly worried but—hearing this meme several times over the past week—I would be interested in how many platforms and ad networks have developed and deployed data technologies that enable them to do audience targeting at scale without cookies. What I think the reality of the situation might be is that cookie technology is replaceable, but if legislation changes suddenly or Google Chrome decides to switch things up, there could be huge trouble in Luma land. So much value destruction in so short a period is just something not fun to talk about at M&A conferences.

“Stack”

The idea of the “technology stack” is not new for 2014, but what has changed is that tons of point solutions that were funded in 2008 are still unprofitable, their VCs are at the end of their fund lifespans, and it’s time to find an exit. That means someone unprofitable point solution can either become a part of another’s “stack” or everyone can take their toys and go home. The problem with everyone wanting you to have a “stack” is that they are expensive to build and also expensive to license via SaaS. Small players cannot afford a “stack” and the big players already have them. That dynamic is going to create a ton of M&A activity in 2014, as vulnerable point-solution providers, some with excellent technology, succumb to larger integrators. As repeatedly pointed out, the biggest players in the marketing space (IBM, Adobe, Salesforce, etc.) represent the vast majority of M&A dollar volume, all of which has gone towards augmenting “stacks”—and it doesn’t look like they are going to be done anytime soon. There are a lot of good engineers that aren’t going to exit big at their point solution company, and may be ready for a comparatively cushy work life in the bosom of corporate behemoths that offer unlimited Mountain Dew and Skittles in the company snack room. Look for lots more M&A, and much of it “aquihire” focused.

The Funnel is Dead…It’s Now the “Customer Journey”

Everyone now has to have an “omnichannel-capable programmatic offering.” That’s the one parked right next to my Unicorn. Not that the instinct is incorrect—the proliferation of screens means that marketers have to reach people along their “consumer journey.” It’s no longer a trip down the sales funnel, but a twisting landscape where the consumer pushes you information through various social interactions. The smart marketer has to be ready at the drop of a hat to deliver perfect, personalized messages into the consumer’s smartphone at the “moment of truth” before a purchase—and, at the very least, be prepared for various “Oreo” social media moments that can create “earned” media at scale. Sounds like marketers may actually start to miss the old “AIDA” funnel!

“Sutton Pivot”

One of 2013’s memes was the notion the “Sutton Pivot,” or running where the display money is—namely, the 70% of digital dollars that get transacted through the RFP channel. That’s where we get to complain endlessly about funding the “23 year old media planner” with “sneaker parties.” David Moore remarked at the recent JEGI conference that “50% of the cost of a campaign” went into the complexity of planning and delivering it. That sounds like a lot, but might be only a slight exaggeration. Everyone wants everything more programmatically, but the problem is that publishers haven’t quite given up yet. They are still keeping the premium inventory to themselves and out of the exchanges. “Programmatic everywhere” may become a reality…in five or six years. But old habits (and buying methodologies) die hard. In the meantime, everyone with a “platform” is going to try and figure out how to automate the inefficient buying process and try and get some of that 70% flowing through a system that creates a nice “percentage of spend” platform fee. 2014 will see this trend accelerate.

Happy New Year!

Every one of these memes will produce a ton of innovation, lots of M&A, a good deal of mid- to senior- level hiring, and plenty of bankers fees, so don’t worry! 2014 looks like a great year for ad technology!

[Originally published in AdExchanger on 1.23.2014]

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The Transactional RFP Business is Dying

Image“80 percent of the publishers getting an RFP don’t even stand a chance.” – Doug Weaver, Upstream Group

Direct mail is an amazing thing. It costs something like $750 CPM to put a glossy catalogue in the mail, but somehow direct marketers make those numbers work. Mailing lists are constantly optimized to make sure they hit the right houses, fresh lists acquired to create new demand, and non-performing lists ruthlessly culled if they don’t meet certain KPIs. Direct marketers actually can tell just how much money a mailing will produce in sales.

Contrast that with a banner campaign, in which “good” performance means a 0.05% click-through rate, 40% non-viewable inventory, and fairly dim transparency. Some of the greatest companies in the space, newly public and boasting hundreds of millions in run rates, are still challenged to justify spending to their marketing clients. Thankfully, last click attribution hasn’t gone anywhere. I recently overheard a marketer at a conference saying that 70% of clicks on her last campaign with a big, popular “platform” came from Yahoo Mail subdomains. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the marketer’s e-mail program was creating sales, but the fancy platform’s banners were making sure they were “last viewed” before the purchase.

So, how to get display advertising more like direct mail?

It must start with procurement. Marketers should be able to tell how much the media costs, who will view it, and who to buy it from. Unfortunately, unlike almost every other form of media on the planet, that doesn’t exist today for the digital marketer. Marketers can name their price in the programmatic RTB channel, but if they want access to directly sold inventory (making up as much of 70% of all digital media spend today), they need to purchase via the “transactional RFP” process.

I don’t know whose fault it was, but publishers didn’t help themselves when they decided to hide pricing information from agencies. With an endless supply of inventory (some 5 trillion impressions per month, according to Eric Picard), banner sales has always been a bit more art than science. Buy 1,000,000 homepage impressions at $20 CPM, and I’ll throw in 5,000,000 “ROS” impressions. Presto! You get a reasonable eCPM of just over three bucks. Everybody’s happy….except for publishers. In the long run, such practices devalue their inventory.

Media prices are still opaque in the transactional RFP channel, and agencies like it that way. In order to get basic pricing and availability information, they send out “requests for proposals,” which send publisher sales teams scrambling. According to recent research by Digiday and Adslot, publishers spend an average of 1,600 man hours a month on RFPs, and 18% of their revenue churning through RFPs that have an average “stick rate” of about 25% (campaigns that will deliver the contracted amount).  Ouch! A lot can happen in 1,600 hours.

Peter Naylor, the IAB’s Publisher in Residence, speaking to publishers at a recent conference summed it up nicely when he said, “Agencies take the information they receive in RFP’s to get a view of the market.”  In other words, agencies get access to all the pricing information, and publishers are left to wonder who they are competing with—and at what price.

Despite this, agencies would also like to see this procurement methodology perish also. They want to buy impressions at scale, control the price they pay, and be able to “out-clause” on demand. Programmatic RTB offers all of the above—but only on lower classes of inventory. New programmatic direct technologies seem to be the answer to the problem of transactional RFPs. Whether they leverage existing RTB pipes (private deals) or are API-driven solutions connected to the publisher’s ad server, more and more higher-class inventory is starting to find its way to programmatic channels. That’s a good thing. Sure, there will still be RFPs for sponsorships, but sooner or later, all commoditized banner inventory (including “mobile” and video) will likely be purchased programmatically.

The question for publishers is whether or not they are going to take a part in deciding what the next stage of digital media procurement looks like. Will it still be driven by the demand side, or can publishers have a bigger seat at the table, and help build the process by which they expose and sell their “premium” inventory?

The RFP is dying, and publishers may applaud the last breaths of an over complex and inefficient process. But they should be careful of what may take its place.

[Originally publisher in AdExchanger on 1.2.14]