Q&A: Salesforce’s Chris O’Hara Wants Marketers to Capitalize on the Data Revolution

datadrivenIf you want to learn about data, Chris O’Hara is the right person to ask. O’Hara, who leads global product marketing for Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s suite of data and audience products, is a big believer in the data revolution—but first, marketers need to take stock of what data they actually have.

“Some marketers think they have way more data than they actually have, and others think they don’t have a lot of data but actually do,” O’Hara said.

Before joining Salesforce, O’Hara was at Krux, the data management platform that Salesforce acquired in 2016, working on data marketing. In October, O’Hara, along with Krux alums Tom Chavez and Vivek Vaidya, released a book, “Data Driven,” which dives into how marketers should think about using data to overhaul customer engagement and experience.

Before the book’s release, Adweek talked with O’Hara about the book and about how marketers can leverage the data they have while keeping data privacy and consumer trust in mind. A portion of that conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Adweek: A lot of marketers have talked about the importance of getting better at explaining to consumers what exactly is being collected and how exactly data is being used. Do you think it’s the responsibility of tech and advertising companies to explain that to the public?

Chris O’Hara: Marketing is better when you have the permission of consumers. Consumers are entitled to know exactly how their data is being used, and consumers are absolutely entitled to have control over their own data. As you talk about the opportunities to get more personalized with customers, you’re allowed to deliver great personalization if the customer has opted in for you to do that on their behalf. If you do that without their consent, it feels creepy and wrong, right?  It’s common sense. We’re always going to lead with the idea that trust comes first and that marketing is better with consent. Period.

You write in your book that the biggest risks of harnessing data are centered around privacy, security and trust. As concerns about data privacy grow, and as data breaches continue to occur, how does the industry best rebuild trust with the public? Where does the industry start with reestablishing trust and maintaining trust with consumers?

It’s all based on permission and an opted-in consumer. I like getting advertising messages that are relevant. When I am shopping for a car and I give Cars.com permission to introduce me to new models and send me an email every week, I appreciate it because I’ve asked for it. When I engage with certain sites on the web, like The Wall Street Journal, where I pay for content, I trust them with a certain amount of my data so they can make my reading experience better. That’s the way it should have been, always. Unfortunately, there are some companies in the space that have taken advantage of little oversight to do otherwise. But what we’ve seen in the market is that companies that are not leading with trust are not being valued as highly or perceived as more valuable than companies that do put trust at the center of their relationship with customers.

What’s the biggest misconception marketers have with data?

Something we write about in the book is that some marketers think they have way more data than they actually have, and others think they don’t have a lot of data but actually do. One of Pandora’s svps, Dave Smith, came to us and said, ‘I have one of the biggest mobile data assets in the world. Everyone who uses Pandora is logged in, so we know so much about our customers: what kind of cellphone they have, what kind of music they like, perhaps the ages of the kids in their home, when they listen.’ That’s a lot of data. Pandora probably has one of the largest data assets in the entire world. But Pandora doesn’t know when people are going to buy a car or people’s incomes, necessarily. They don’t know when you’re planning on taking a family vacation. So they turned to second- and third-party data to enrich their understanding of consumers.

Why We’re all Thinking Big Data (Jump Magazine Q+A)

Interview by Heather Taylor

One trend that is dominating conversation across marketing and wider business practices, is big data. How we measure it, how we store it and how we use it to inform the work that we do. We spoke to Chris O’Hara, domain expert on platform technology to find out about big data, why it’s important and how it is changing the marketing world.

Q Why is big data such a big deal and how did it get that way?

A: I think the term “Big Data” is getting thrown around a lot lately. There’s “data” that’s maybe too big for some companies to handle, and then there is truly “BIG DATA,” like you would find in the human genome, or Google search. The simple fact is that data has gotten a lot cheaper to store, and infinitely easier to access.

Big data is a big deal because people are leveraging technology to get insights from data they have never been able to get without spending more than those insights are worth. In short, understanding data makes money for those smart enough to leverage it, whether you are a digital agency, CPG marketer, or hedge fund. As the recent McKinsey report points out, “The volume of data that businesses collect is exploding: in 15 of the US economy’s 17 sectors, for example, companies with upward of 1,000 employees store, on average, more information than the Library of Congress does. New academic research suggests that companies using this kind of “big data” and business analytics to guide their decisions are more productive and have higher returns on equity than competitors that do not.”

Q: Why and how is big data moving us toward a more integrated marketing approach?

A: The largest change is not that data is being used to drive advertising creative and placement; it is that the data is available immediately, and that creates the opportunity for optimization. I think we are still in the early days, though. Most marketers and publishers are content to use off-the shelf 3rd-party segments to define and target audiences, rather than plumbing the (infinitely more valuable) depths of their own, first party datasets. Take large CPG companies who maintain databases all over the world. In one large company, you might have as many as 200 large databases, across dozens of operating companies all over the world. It is likely that those datasets have never been directly connected, and certainly it is highly unlikely that this data has never been stitched together and plumbed for insights.

The data equation in marketing is quite simple: the more an advertiser knows about you, the better you can be targeted. The real question is whether or not the effort and expense of such targeting is worth the incremental yield that targeting produces. As data gets cheaper and the cost of accessing diminishes, it is obvious that data starts to create real value for marketers.

Q: How is the era of big data changing the practice of digital marketing?

A: One of he biggest ways that data can help is in terms of avoiding waste. Before large amounts of data could be processed easily, there was no easy way to find out, as an example, what an advertisers’ unduplicated reach was across channels that include mobile, video, game consoles, and the Web.

The so-called “sciencification of marketing” is real. If you look at Terence Kawaja’s famous logo vomit slide of the digital display advertising landscape, it is clear that it is 100% driven by data. The underlying data is mostly audience-based, but there is also ad performance data, search data, engagement data, longitudinal data, and attitudinal data driving digital marketing these days.

On the direct marketing side, the transition from using mailing address data and surveys to target households to using IXI financial data to target online audience members via a cookie is not so different. Direct marketers can judge performance in real time with conversion data, and now brand marketers can leverage real-time engagement metrics to measure success.

Q: What are some examples of big data in integrated marketing?

A: The applications to use data in marketing are virtually unlimited. We are moving into a world where everything is interconnected, and we are surrounded by devices that transmit and store data constantly. These days, your supermarket partners with a brand to start a campaign on television, and that drives you to their website, to download a mobile coupon code that goes to your phone, and is used at the checkout line. Your purchase data is then stored, churned, and used to inform the next campaign. A better example of a big data approach to marketing (well, integrated digital marketing) is Google. Ingesting your search habits, video preferences, e-mail content, social network, mobile activity, and internet browsing habits takes a lot of expensive data storage, but it seems to be paying off for Google!

Q Which companies are jumping into the big data business and how will this help (and hinder) us?

A:  In the digital marketing space, you are going to see almost every progressive network, exchange, and data provider stake their claim to helping advertisers and publishers leverage their data. Some of them will be bigger than others. When it comes to managing truly huge amounts of audience data, there are very few companies that have managed to do it outside of the “big five” (AOL, Yahoo, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft). If a company truly has big data (petabytes, terabytes, or exabytes) then you need database software that can scale infinitely, and be able to query massive tables of data and return a result quickly. In marketing, that is starting to mean “real time,” which is not only a software challenge, but a hardware and logistical challenge as well. Marketers should look for a DMP that has actual experience working with massive data sets specifically for marketing applications.

Q What implications will digital marketers face with this big data trend?

A: Just because the data is there, doesn’t make it meaningful. These days it is possible to get a near real-time view of your audience at the creative level for digital display campaigns, but how many marketers can take advantage of the overwhelming amount of data that they receive every day beyond enabling a DSP to “auto-optimize a campaign, based on a single metric, such as conversion rate? Marketing insights that are driven by churning huge amounts of data are only as useful as the marketer’s ability to react to execute against them. That is why you are going to see the technology platforms that specialize in advertising execution team up with data platforms to try and get advertisers a true 360-degree view of the consumer that can be acted upon.

Q How can marketers leverage big data without being overwhelmed by it?

A: Try and learn what data is valuable and what is not. Even though I bought a new car 18 months ago, I am still bombarded with Volkswagen ads every time I check my email. Whoever is buying my “auto intender” cookie isn’t really getting their money’s worth, are they? My advice would be to perform a “data appraisal” that focuses on your own first-party data and see what you have. Even if your daily data is measured in gigabytes rather than petabytes, there is always something to leverage.

This appears in the current edition of eConsultancy’s Jump Magazine, which you can download here.

Best Practices in Digital Display Media (Interview)

Digital display is remarkably complex. Standard campaigns can involve multiple vendors of different technologies and types of media.

Today, eConsultancy launches Best Practices in Digital Display Advertising, a comprehensive look at how to efficiently manage online advertising. We asked the author, Chris O’Hara, about the report and work that went into it.

Why did you write Best Practices in Digital Display Media?

In my last job, a good part of my assignment was traveling around the country visiting with about 500 regional advertising agencies and marketers, large and small, over three years. I was selling ad technology. Most advertisers seemed extremely engaged and interested to find out about new tools and technology that could help them bring efficiency to their business and, more importantly, results to their clients. The problem was that they didn’t have time to evaluate the 250+ vendors in the space, and certainly didn’t have the resources (financial or time) to really evaluate their options and get a sense of what’s working and what isn’t.

First and foremost, I wanted the report to be a good, comprehensive primer to what’s out there for digital marketers including digital ad agencies. That way, someone looking at engaging with data vendors, say, could get an idea of whether they needed one big relationship (with an aggregator), no data relationships, or needed very specific deals with key data providers. The guide can help set the basis for those evaluations. Marketers have been basically forced to license their own “technology stack” to be proficient at buying banner ads. I hope the Guide will be a map through that process.

What was the methodology you used to put it together?

I essentially looked at the digital display ecosystem through the lens of a marketer trying to take a campaign from initial concept through to billing, and making sure I covered the keys parts of the workflow chain. What technologies do you employ to find the right media, to buy it, and ultimately to measure it? Are all of these technologies leading to the promised land of efficiency and performance? Will they eventually? I used those questions as the basis of my approach, and leveraged the many vendor relationships and available data to try and answer some of those questions.

What’s the biggest thing to take away from the report?

I think the one thing that really runs through the entire report is the importance of data. I think the World Economic Forum originally said the “data is the new oil” [actually, the earliest citation we can find is from Michael Palmer in 2006, quoting Clive Humby] and many others have since parroted that sentiment. If you think about the 250-odd technology companies that populate the “ecosystem,” most are part of the trend towards audience buying, which is another way of saying “data-driven marketing.” Data runs through everything the digital marketer does, from research through to performance reporting and attribution. In a sense, the Guide is about the various technologies and methodologies for getting a grip on marketing data—and leveraging it to maximum effect.

There’s an explosion of three letter acronyms these days (DSP, DMP, SSP, AMP, etc) that marketers are still trying to sort out. Do we need all of them? Is there another one around the corner?

I am not really sure what the next big acronym will be, but you can be certain there will be several more categories to come, as technology changes (along with many updates to Guides such as these). That being said, I think the meta-trends you will see involve a certain “compression” by both ends of the spectrum, where the demand side and supply side players look to build more of their own data-driven capabilities. Publishers obviously want to use more of their own data to layer targeting on top of site traffic and get incremental CPM lift on every marketable impression. By the same token, advertisers are finding the costs of storing data remarkably cheap, and want to leverage that data for targeting, so they are building their own capabilities to do that. That means the whole space thrives on disintermediation. Whereas before, the tech companies were able to eat away at the margins, you will see the real players in the space build, license, or buy technology that puts them back in the driver’s seat. TheBest Practices in Digital Display Advertising Guide is kind of the “program” for this interesting game.

To learn more about the Best Practices in Digital Display Advertising Guidedownload the report here.

Know Your Audience

Using Audience Measurement Data to Optimize Digital Display Campaigns

These days, advertising and data platforms are giving marketers a wealth of information that can be used to validate their strategies, and optimize their digital campaigns for better performance. There is a lot of data to sort through—some more useful than others. Sometimes, good campaign optimization comes down to the basics: Understanding who your audience is, and why they are doing what they are doing.

Let’s look at a real life example of a digital display campaign, run through the digital ad agency of a popular mattress retailer. The agency wanted to test new inventory sources for the campaign by running broadly on general interest sites, evaluating the demography of audiences that showed purchase intent, and optimize over the course of the campaign to maximize impact.

A theory being tested was that older audiences, who report more difficulty sleeping than younger demographic groups, would respond more favorably to the retailer’s online display ads. Campaigns were initially skewed to sites that over-indexed against audience composed of 50 and older.

Figure 1: Age of Ad Viewer, by Impressions.

As Figure 1 shows, a bulk of impressions during the discovery portion of the campaign were delivered to visitors aged 46-65 years of age, which was the desired demographic. After analysis of those who viewed or clicked on a display ad, and then went on to purchase, the audience composition was remarkably different. As shown in Figure 2, the bulk of conversions came from those aged 18-45.

Figure 2: Age of Mattress Purchaser (Conversions).

The agency adjusted the ad buy to heavy up on sites that over-indexed for a younger audience, and opted out of buys tailored to the older demographic. As wasted impressions were trimmed down in the overall plan, conversion rates increased dramatically. Testing and validating your instincts with data on an ongoing basis is the key to success in digital display advertising. The mattress retailer, who experienced better sales from older store visitors (offline), found a more responsive younger audience online. Although it seems obvious, having the initial data means being able to smartly allocate marketing capital, and having access to ongoing data means not having to rely on old insights in a changing marketplace.

Another offline theory the mattress retailer sought to validate was the mattress life cycle. After collecting brick and mortar sales data for years, the retailer knew that the average life of a mattress was approximately 7 years, and that the single greatest life event influencing the purchase of a new mattress was moving. Therefore, it made sense to target audiences based on length of residence (>7 years), and target content around buying or renting a new home.

Inventory was bought from a wide range of home-specific and moving sites, and measured using Aperture audience measurement populated with data sets from Experian, IXI financial, V12 demographic, and Nielsen PRIZM data.

 

Figure 3: Length of Residence, by Impressions.

Figure 4: Length of Residence, by Click.


As Figures 3 and 4 amply demonstrate, the mattress retailer was targeting the bulk of impressions towards individuals reporting over seven years residence in a single location, and clicks among that group indexed the highest in aggregate. That data validated the approach of buying into sites with a strong audience of self-reported homeowners. However, a deeper look into audience data revealed a strong distinction between renters and buyers.

Fig 5Comparing Impressions and Conversions by home ownership status.

As noted in Figure 5, although the bulk of impressions in the campaign were served to homeowners, renters were the ones buying the most mattresses. This learning did more than any other data point to drive campaign optimization.

Naturally, the next step in the campaign optimization process was to focus inventory delivery to sites that promised a concentrated audience of home renters. Sites such as ForRent.com, ApartmentGuide.com, and Renters.com were added to the optimization plan.

More insights came as the Aperture data was collected. Despite purporting to have a heavy concentration of renters, two of the more popular sites actually index much higher among homeowners, as shown in Figure 6. It looked as though homeowners that were looking into renting made up the majority audience—a fact that helped the retailer tailor specific messaging to them.

Figure 6: In this example, a media site aimed at renters, over-indexes against current homeowners.

Figure 6: In this example, a media site aimed at renters, over-indexes against current homeowners.

For this particular campaign, the ability for the retailer to validate certain audience assumptions using real demographic data was critical, as well as the ability to leverage the distinction between two types of potential customers: home owners, and renters. Additionally, getting real audience metrics beyond a publisher’s media kit or self-declared audience information enabled the retailer to craft its creative and messaging in a highly specific way that increased conversions.

When it comes to audience validation and campaign optimization, here are three keys:

  • Know Your Data: In today’s technology-driven marketing world, knowing how to leverage the data available to you is critical to both understanding and targeting your audience. Make sure your marketing investment decisions are driven through the analysis and usage of 1st party data, including registration data for demographic modeling; 2nd party data, such as ad server and search data for behavioral modeling; and 3rd party data, such as available audience segments from providers like Nielsen and Datalogix, for audience validation, matching, and lookalike modeling. Data is not just about buying audience segments for targeting; it’s about trying to get a 360-degree view of your ideal customer.
  • Choose the Right DMP: There are DMPs for every marketer, so be careful to choose the right one. Big Data needs call for pure play DMPs that can stitch together highly disparate data sets that include all data types, and make both insights, audience segments, and lookalike modeling available in real-time. Marketers looking to buy from a variety of 3rd party audience segment providers should choose a data marketplace such as Exelate, or be willing to access a more limited number of data sources inside a DSP such as AppNexus.
  • Leverage Audience Measurement: Finally, there is a lot that audience segments can bring to the table in terms of audience insights. Understanding the audience composition of who saw, clicked on, and converted after seeing your campaign gives you the ability to learn about your target customers, their online behaviors, and (most importantly) find more of them. Your DMP should have the ability to marry audience and campaign data to give you a highly granular level view of your best (and worst) performing audience types—down to the creative level.

Learnings from this case study, and other valuable information, can be found in my upcoming “Best Practices in Digital Display Media,” coming in January 2012 from eConsultancy.com.

[This article originally appeared in ClickZ on 1/4/2012]

 

Down and Dirty Platform Guide

What’s powering your agency’s black box?

Currently, Donovan Data Systems and MediaBank own the advertising platform space, with more than 80% market share among agencies, which use the platforms extensively for buying offline media, and use their systems to bill digital media campaigns. Neither have a very sophisticated digital offering, which may be why the two companies teamed up to create MediaOcean (a merger currently pending approval from the government). They will have the best shot at aggregating all the workflow for media planning, buying, and billing—across all media types. Ultimately, their ability to succeed will depend upon their willingness to build the type of “ecosystem-like” platform described below—and the appetite of ad agencies to work with one, dominant provider. Many agencies continue to leverage their legacy platform for offline media, and are looking at new solutions for managing digital media.

Quite a few start-ups have arisen to try and answer the digital media gap left by MediaOcean. Advertisers and agencies are currently using a mix of various resources to meet campaign needs. They can be broken down into the following categories:

Workflow Platforms: Workflow platforms aim to consolidate the process of discovering, buying, serving, and reporting on digital display campaigns in one interface. By leveraging this technology, agencies can eliminate some of the rote planning processes (collating Excel spreadsheets, faxing insertion orders, and compiling ad serving reports) and take action against data they see in the dashboard, enabling faster optimization. Platforms like TRAFFIQ also include robust planning data, appended by third party demographic data from Nielsen, as well as the ability to access audience measurement data (from PulsePoint’s Aperture tool). Centro’s Transis offering is more of a lightweight management tool, while Facilitate Digital provides a big agency approach that marries ad serving with global currency and language support, and sophisticated tools for generating insertion orders and bills. As mentioned previously, MediaOcean will try and build a next generation digital platform that enables all of that functionality—and tie it to their widely adopted offline media management tools. This is really the future of digital media planning. You should be testing multiple workflow platforms and making sure that you are letting systems perform the menial tasks in digital media management, rather than expensive account and media personnel.

—  Trading Desks: Large holding companies have all universally created teams that handle real time audience buying. In an effort to distintermediate ad networks, and thus recapture lost media margins, agency “trading desks” have popped up to handle reach and performance campaigns for their clients. Many leverage existing DSP technology, such as Turn or MediaMath (see below), and all of them are focused on leveraging their media buying volume to capture audience data at scale. WPP’s Xaxis, launched in June 2011, is an example of how holding companies are aggregating their technology assets to do this:

In forming Xaxis, WPP brings together a broad portfolio of audience buying capabilities that have been independently developed and optimized in various parts of GroupM and WPP Digital over the past three years in businesses including B3, targ.ad, GoldNetwork, GroupM DSP and the GroupM Marketplace.  In 2010 alone, the businesses that have combined to form Xaxis executed approximately 4,000 campaigns for more than 400 GroupM clients. Xaxis will be led by CEO Brian Lesser, who previously served as global general manager of the Media Innovation Group (MIG), WPP’s digital marketing technology company.

Undoubtedly, they will seek to leverage other data insights from Kantar and SEM technologies to deliver performance marketing across multiple digital channels at scale. Other holding company Trading desks include Accuen (Omnicom), VivaKi (Publicis), and Cadreon (IPG). Smaller media groups also have their own desks, including Adnetik (Grupo ISP) and Varick Media Management (MDC Partners).

Obviously, if you are part of an agency holding company with access to the technology tools and services offered by a trading desk, you have the potential to leverage these assets, but must weight them against the (often high) costs. All of the trading desks execute buys on a managed service basis, rather than exposing a user interface, which does not enable individual agency planners/buyers to get real-time buying expertise. Additionally, many of the services the holding company trading desk offers are available directly through DSPs and their managed service teams.

The inherent conflict of interest in agency trading desks must also be taken into account when deciding the best approach to audience buying for your agency. As Mike Shields recently wrote in Digiday in his article entitled, “The Trouble with Trading Desks”:

According to multiple industry sources, some prominent brands are growing increasingly uncomfortable with their digital agencies funneling money to sister company trading desks (the holding company divisions that purchase ad inventory on exchanges). They are asking questions about how these trading desks earn revenue and whether clients are being charged more than once for executing the same media plan. The shift to programmatic audience-based ad buys through exchanges is undeniably an important advance to the online ad model, but agency holding companies have also taken it as an opportunity to update their own outdated business models in ways that are likely to leave some procurement chiefs scratching their heads.

The questions are murkier when it comes to the issue of “mandates.” There has long been talk that orders have come from the highest levels of agency holding companies for its agencies to redirect spot ad buys through the in-house trading desk rather than ad networks. Holding company and agency reps rebuff questions on this, but their words don’t always match up with reality. In some cases, holding companies are incentivizing their individual agencies’ media planning teams through revenue goals and even bonuses, according to several sources.

For example, Digiday was shown an email from a planner at a top Publicis agency stating that her team was not allowed to work with any networks and exchanges. “We are not authorized to buy networks and exchanges,” read the email from a buyer at a major media agency. “We are required to use [Publicis trading desk] Audience on Demand.” One prominent agency executive explained that over the past year her planning team was given quarterly goals to allocate more client budgets to exchanges, which she ignored. Other agencies compensate their teams for shifting more spending to trading desks; it’s actually in some planners’ contacts, she said. This is causing major friction in some cases between planning agencies and their trading desk partners, said a source.              

 —  Demand Side Platforms: An increasingly common part of the modern digital marketer’s toolset is the DSP, or demand side platform. Obviously, if you are working within one of the holding companies, you would be encouraged to deploy your audience-targeted media through the preferred Trading Desk, all of which leverage one or more independent DSPs. The top DSPs in the space at this time are Invite Media (acquired by Google), Turn, MediaMath, DataXu, X+1, and Triggit. Invite recently raised their minimum pricing to reportedly $50,000 per brand, per month, putting their services out of reach for the typical mid-sized agency. Among the rest, MediaMath has a reputation for having the most proprietary trading strategy, and unique optimization algorithms, with Turn not far behind. Most DSPs provide a blended service approach to trading, offering a mix of self-service tools and managed service support. Almost all of them utilize similar algorithms—and all of them have access to a wide variety of data providers for audience targeting. In considering your business’ approach to leveraging currently available DSP technology, the best strategy is to test as many as possible alongside each other. Most offer trial periods with discounted monthly minimums.

Choosing the right DSP partner has a lot to do with the amount of display volume you anticipate running on an annual basis. Larger providers can charge anywhere between $2,500 and $10,000 per month in minimum fees. Triggit and XA.net offer more competitive pricing for small and mid-sized agencies. For those agencies and advertisers that plan on having trading expertise in-house, and just want to leverage DSP technology, AppNexus is a great choice. Appnexus has built a fully-featured self-service platform (called the “AppNexus” Console, formerly called “DisplayWords”) on top of a broad ecosystem of exchange inventory and data, to create a veritable Sam’s Club for real time buyers. With over 800+ inventory sources available (Google, MSN, OpenX, Admeld, PubMatic, Rubicon) and a good amount of embedded data providers (eXelate, TargusInfo, Datonics, Bizo, Proximic, Peer39, etc.), AppNexus aims to be a one-stop shop for demand side customers looking for their own DSP solution. In addition, they make APIs available to prospective partners interested in building their own media UI on top of their bidding and ad serving technologies. AppNexus has great product support, but is designed for the customer that wants to have total control. For those who want AppNexus capabilities with a managed service layer, Accordant Media would be a great place to start.

Many agencies and advertisers are still struggling with whether or not they should deploy DSP technology to drive display media buying—and with their choice of provider. I think that Nat Turner, Invite Media’s CEO probably summed it up best in his 2010 AdExchanger article, which offered a list of key characteristics that define a “true DSP:”

  • The DSP must provide a fully self-service interface.  Clients should be able to have complete control via the interface and build an expertise around its use.
  • If the DSP provides managed services help to the agency, the DSP should be using the same interface that the agency would be using.  The technology should not require any manual work behind the scenes to activate or “set live” a change or a campaign.
  • The DSP must remain neutral and have zero allegiances to any publishers, exchanges, data providers or other vendors.  A true DSP should embody the word “platform” and not just be conduit or pretty interface to a pre-existing business.
  • The DSP must be fully transparent, starting with pricing and fees.  All fees that the DSP earns should be exposed in the interface, and every penny that the DSP makes should be known and visible to the agency.
  • The DSP should not mark-up media cost without the agency knowing.
  • The DSP should not mark-up data cost without the agency knowing.
  • If the DSP works with a publisher directly, it should be in an effort to make that publisher’s inventory “biddable.”  The DSP should not earn any additional margin from revenue sharing with the publisher or arbitraging the inventory.
  • The DSP must allow the agency to use its own exchange seats.  This allows the agency to always have visibility into the exact cost of media to ensure the DSP is not taking any additional margin.
  • Just like media, the DSP must allow the agency to buy or negotiate data cost directly, but flow through a common integration.  Data should be treated like media, it’s another part of the “supply side” that is purchased by the agency and thus should be transparent in cost.
  • The DSP should not, under any circumstances, own or operate an ad network.  This is in direct conflict with the neutrality aspect.
  • The DSP’s goal should be to expose any feature or tool that a supply source provides (either ad exchange or data provider) and not to try and obfuscate/hide or re-brand certain components (ex. “DSP Auto Segment #1”, with no transparency into what that means).  If a supply source provides it, the DSP should expose it for the agency self-service and let the agency decide whether to use it or not.
  • The DSP should not “bulk buy” media in order to re-sell to its clients.  This could either be a function of another way to make margin, a lacking of technology, or a combination of the two.
  • Related to the above, the DSP should not take on media risk.  Every impression should be purchased on behalf of a platform user at that time based on an active campaign that that platform user has created targeting that impression.

These DSP “principles” have not changed since 2010, and continue to be a great set of guidelines for choosing your real-time bidding technology provider. Ultimately, you want to be able to have total control over your bids, insights into the type of traffic available in the platform, and expect complete transparency with regard to your vendor’s pricing model. The right DSP relationship should reduce your dependence upon ad networks, lowering your overall media costs, and increasing campaign performance.

[This is an excerpt from the upcoming “Best Practices in Digital Display” whitepaper, available soon from eConsultancy]

MediaOcean: So wrong, yet so right…

MediaOcean: So Wrong, yet So Right!

A “platform” is a system that can be programmed and therefore customized by outside developers — users — and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform’s original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate.  – Marc Andreessen, 2007

Last week’s news of the merger between DDS and MediaBank was certainly exciting. In digital media management terms, it’s kind of akin to rooting for the Yankees; only their fans want to see them grow more powerful, because it sure ain’t good for baseball. These two behemoths have been fighting over agency budgets for the last four years, and have managed to steal a bit of market share from one another, while advancing the cross-media efficiency agenda slightly. The stated hope for this merger is that the corporate combination will give them enough firepower to finish the golf swing and solve the insanely complicated digital media puzzle, making cross media management possible in a real way.

Is this merger good for the digital media ecosystem? Maybe. Here are the three factors that will determine whether MediaOcean will become the digital media industry’s defacto system:

Standards are good: First off, it helps when everybody is reading from the same sheet of music, and there isn’t an industry that hasn’t benefitted from a common, accepted set of standards. The IAB has done a great job in terms of helping standardize ad sizes and out clauses, and some of the systems and procedures that help oil digital business transactions. An argument could be made that having 80% of agency dollar volume running through the same system brings efficiencies to the entire media buying landscape, but I’m not sure anyone in the industry would say that this was the case when DDS had larger market share.

For digital marketers, a significant hassle has been bill/pay and reconciliation, and that has been an area of focus for DDS and MediaBank across digital and traditional media. There is no doubt they can help standardize the process by which advertisers and publishers reconcile delivery even just by being the largest player – they can bring a de facto standard to bear, but how quickly can they really react to a rapidly evolving space with myriad nuances in ideal workflows for almost every customer? If they can change their DNA, they will be a force to be contended with.

— Platforms are good:  Secondly (and most importantly),  the right approach to solving this problem is an open platform approach. But none of the leaders in this space have shown any predisposition for opening things up.  This is in large part because the technology landscape has evolved so fast that the legacy companies haven’t been able to adapt their systems to keep up.  The market needs an open, extensible platform approach to solve its numerous problems, the question is can any of the existing leaders in the space, including MediaOcean, provide that?

My colleague, Eric Picard, learned about the power of platform effects while working at Microsoft over the last several years. He recently educated me on the varieties of platform approaches that could be taken in our space, and has offered to let me publish that here:

Systems vs. Platforms: The first thing to discuss is that most companies in our space have built systems – not platforms (despite everyone using the word platform for everything.)  A system simply exists on its own, is proprietary and closed – it doesn’t allow third parties to build on top of it.  This describes almost all the offerings in our industry today.

 

Simple Platforms – or Mashups: Most of us have experienced a ‘mashup’ in one shape or another by now. This is where a tool or web site is built that calls to numerous remote services (APIs or Web Services) to build one cohesive interface.   In this case, the platform is really all the multiple different systems used ‘behind the scenes’ to create one simple application that you could use.  Many web sites use this technique, using various content management systems, ad servers, etc… A lot of the SEMs and DSPs use this approach, building their own interface that hits each of the Paid Search providers or Ad Exchanges via API.

 

Consumable Back-End Platforms: Lots of companies now offer API access to their systems.  This kind of ‘back-end’ access is then used by third parties to ‘mash-up’ the functionality with either their own or other third party functionality.  AppNexus, Right Media Exchange, Atlas, DoubleClick, and numerous others provided this kind of back-end access by API.  Some of the more sophisticated providers, like AppNexus and RMX even enable third parties to extend their functionality to some degree – but they don’t make that extension generically consumable.

 

Ecosystem-like Platforms: A great example of this is Salesforce.com – which has built out a platform that really begins to live up to the market opportunity that the industry should be looking for.  Salesforce enables numerous services that can be consumed, like the platforms and mashups we discussed above.  But they also let third party vendors come in and extend the functionality of the core Salesforce platform.  They even provide an App marketplace, similar to iTunes, that allows third party vendors to distribute their applications to existing Salesforce customers.  This is a powerful approach, but requires a whole new set of skills that most companies in the ad technology space are not quite able to pull off.

 

Within this overall context of platforms verses systems, you can see the variety of approaches being taken by the various parties in the ad ecosystem:

Google offers third parties APIs to write against, but keeps the vendors playing in the search ecosystem on their toes by frequently changing the APIs, and it’s fairly clear that their goal is to be both the platform and the applications that run the advertising ecosystem.  They support third parties, but only as it furthers their end-game. 

The ad servers understand that their value is in the engine, much more-so than their workflow.  And they’ve opened up APIs to let other workflows plug in and become mashups that ultimately are powered by the smarts of the ad servers behind the scenes.   

Donovan Data Systems has brought one mashup workflow to market, their iDesk product.  It interfaces with DDS’s other applications fairly well, and can integrate with the dominant ad servers.  MediaBank has done somewhat similar things with their application suites, but has taken a more “Google-like” approach when it comes to their business – investing in their own DSP and automated media buying systems. This investment in products that compete directly with the very vendors that would need to integrate into the combined system causes me to pause a bit.

At the end of the day – it’s hard to understand who might have the right DNA among these constituents to actually roll out the right platform to solve the industry’s needs.

–Creativity is good: Finally, I think a development like this is excellent, if it actually creates an environment that transforms where digital media people spend their time. Right now, digital agencies spend most of their time and effort trying to wrangle an “ecosystem” of nearly 300 technology, data, and media providers. They spend the bulk of their time trying to execute media plans, rather than coming up with creative strategies to engage consumers. The mess of systems, lack of standards, multiple log-ins, and unmanageable hoards of data that each system throws off has created the ultimate irony: digital media is becoming the least creative, least profitable, and least measurable channel for marketers. If the merger brings us one step closer to making the digital execution piece easier, and gets the conversation back to creative, than I think it’s a step in the right direction.

After being out in the field, and talking to over 400 agencies about their digital media needs, I know that a standardized platform is what everybody wants. Whether or not MediaOcean is going to be nimble and creative enough to deliver a system that meets the needs of our growing ecosystem is very much in question. Technology has always thrived on choice, flexibility, and open standards. I believe that the company that can deliver on all three will end up winning.

[This commentary appeared in Adotas on 9/29/11]


Digital Marketing Questions in Search of Answers

Over the course of the past year, my colleagues and I have gone around the country speaking to more than 400 agencies about their digital advertising businesses. These agencies represent the lifeblood of American business: They are the regional shops that market the local hospital chains, regional tourism, restaurants, and retailers. Whether they are in Anchorage, Miami, Sioux City, or New York City, they are all facing similar digital media challenges.

The 300,000-channel world of digital marketing is exponentially more complicated than the not-so-distant past when radio, broadcast, and out-of-home advertising were the only games in town. “Most clients expect some level of digital services from their agency,” according to Tammy Harris, the media director of Neathawk Dubuque & Packett, a leading healthcare marketing firm based in Richmond, Va.

This makes it much harder for agencies to deliver impeccable plans, provide great analytics, and continually ensure better rates and performance. Plus, clients want to use analytics to uncover how their products are selling in a new, connected age. The old black box of television offered a model that worked for a long, long time; if you had enough money to feed it, the television produced an audience broad enough to justify the marketing expense. Agencies fed the beast with commercials and earned market share. Now, with an audience splintered into hundreds of cable and satellite channels, and with 25 percent of the audience fast-forwarding through the commercials with their DVRs, that model is broken. Radio is better off, but even that is being corroded by pay-to-play models. Besides, it has always been hard to build a brand verbally.

So, agencies are faced with the need to build client brands online through websites and Facebook pages. They have to get customers to those pages via search marketing and display ads. Is it that hard to figure out where the digital audience for a product lives? Of course not. Agencies that want to reach young men can find themselves on ESPN or Break.com’s media kit within the space of 60 seconds. Want to reach people with hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating)? There’s a whole section of WebMD dedicated to it, and the site would be delighted to sell you a sponsorship. Want to build a Facebook page and stock it full of fans you can constantly tweet to? A few recent college graduates can have that up and running and packed full of content in a week or two.

The problem isn’t executing a digital marketing strategy or finding an audience. The problem for agencies is that is really hard to do it at scale — and even more difficult to make any money doing it. A recent study by AAAA cited that the cost of servicing digital campaigns averages 30 percent of an agency’s media cost, as opposed to 2 percent for television buys. That sounds hard to believe, but not when you think about the back-end an agency needs to be truly successful in the digital space.

As Harris puts it, “The bulk of the time required to plan and place traditional media happens up-front, while digital media requires attention throughout the run. The ability to track, optimize, and report so many metrics requires many hours, and because digital media often costs less than traditional, it means agencies are doing more work for less money.”

Even if you are just a media shop, you need some serious tools to get the job done. First off, you need to be able to build and maintain cutting-edge websites, and that capability encompasses a lot of expensive, technical personnel. Researching sites with any credibility means having access to expensive Nielsen or comScore subscriptions. Doing SEO and SEM? You better have a young employee to head up your search and analytics practice, and these folks aren’t cheap. If you want to serve ads with any volume, and have access to your own data, you will need your own ad server. How about tracking website activity? Enter Omniture, or other analytics software. What about optimizing campaigns, tracking conversions, putting up and taking down ad tags? Get ready to hire and maintain a serious ad operations team. And it doesn’t end with the campaign.

After all of this, in even the most successful online marketing effort, the billing and reconciliation game is just beginning. A client might ask, “My server says you served 100,000 impressions, and you are charging me for 125,000?” To which the agency might respond, “Who pays, based on whose numbers, and when am I getting paid anyway?” It goes on and on. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine how agencies make any money on digital advertising at all.

For Marci De Vries, former head of media of Baltimore-based IMRE, and now a small-agency owner herself (MDV Interactive), digital marketing can quickly become a zero-sum game. “If the developer of these tools can make money on expensive tools, then good for them,” she says. “What I’ve seen lately is that those expensive tools are bought by 10 percent or less of their market, and then are underutilized because only a few license seats are purchased. The overall value to an agency of expensive software is close to zero. Meanwhile, the web community is copying the functionality, databases, and ability to provide meaningful information and distributing it for free or almost free. The overall value to agencies is very high, although it also levels the playing field between small shops and big shops. The web community likes to level the playing field.”

Kent Kirschner, the owner of The Media Maquiladora, a Latin American specialty agency with offices in Sarasota and Mexico City, says the problem is starting to get even more pronounced as multicultural agencies begin to come to the digital party. “Margin compression is a phenomenon affecting all aspects of the industry,” he says. “The rise of CPC, CPA, and other performance-based pricing has compelled all marketers to think that our profession now should be held to a different measure. Our creative and strategic work is now almost inevitably met with skepticism if there isn’t some direct and easily identifiable performance metric attached to it. So clients value what we do less and drive us to wring more and more out of our media partners and our teams. In many cases, they don’t pull their own weight in developing appropriate data measurement systems to identify the impact of our work.”

It’s not only measurement that impacts an agency’s margin and daily workflow. Real in-house innovation must continue to be what differentiates agencies from each other — and the host of widely available tools on the market. “The internet continues to drive the price point for traditional agency materials down to zero every day,” De Vries says. “There is a community on the web that is in favor of sharing repeatable work so that more money can be spent on real innovation. To help eliminate what they consider mundane tasks, they offer free design templates, CMS platforms with extreme performance, and in some cases even free logo work.”

Peter Gerritsen, well-known ad man and now Transworld Advertising Agency Network (TAAN) head, feels the same way. “The squeeze of economic conditions on the advertising community, and on marketing budgets, has created an environment of cost-control at any price, even to the detriment of quality,” he says. “While this is short-sighted, it has become the lead in negotiating compensation. In many areas, it has become not about the value of doing it best, but how little it will take to just get it done. The advertising industry has commoditized many of the steps required to produce communications. A commodity is measured by cost, not by quality. Expertise is measured on outcomes and value. The experts command premiums for their work. Agencies need to position themselves as experts in defined businesses. Deep expertise is better than commoditized capabilities.”

Agencies are now forced to do what they always do when it comes to margin compression: share the pain with their publishing partners. The good shops send out a brief to 20 sites, collect creative ideas from them, and collate the best five into a plan that fits from the standpoint of budget and practicality. Usually, the largest sites get on those plans simply because the agency wants to create the least amount of friction when closing a deal. Want to reach young men? Look no further than ESPN.com.

Agencies that are charged with performance simply go to networks, which find them the cheapest “targeted” inventory they can. Agencies don’t know where their clients’ ads are running, but how else do you get geo-targeted, contextually targeted, user-targeted, and re-targeted inventory for less than a $10 CPM? But what have the agencies really done? They don’t know how they got the performance, or how to find it again. They don’t own any part of the value chain of that process: the sites, the targeting, the data, or the analytics. Scary. Sounds like something the client can get directly — for 15 percent less.

Gerritsen values the media mix more on performance than delivery. “The value is in the insights and the delivery of successful outcomes,” he says. “How this is delivered may not be through internal resources, but as a trusted method of information exchange between media, agent, and marketer. It’s not necessarily about who owns the data, but rather, about the creative use of the information to produce success. I don’t like the term ‘aggregator.’ It doesn’t demonstrate any value, just the ability to cobble together a pile of stuff. The value of the best networks and exchanges is the shared responsibility to balance costs and benefits to all participants.”

For agency owners like Kirschner, there is no question about maintaining control of publisher relationships. “Despite the fact that there is such a proliferation of options in the digital space today, it has never been more important for agencies to maintain direct relationships with publishers,” he says. “While networks and exchanges offer convenience and supposedly compelling pricing, the reality is that the publisher at the end of the loop ultimately wants to see a campaign succeed, and he or she has the direct experience and audience knowledge to ensure that happens. There are many tools available that allow these personal relationships to scale within a large media department, so the appeal of networks and exchanges diminishes.”

I currently work for a company that is trying to help small to mid-sized agencies tackle some of the technology aspects of buying and selling digital media. In most sales jobs, it takes a while to get a meeting with a decision-maker. Frankly, I was surprised at how quickly CEOs, CFOs, and digital media VPs agreed to meet with our company at first. Sure, we have a captivating sales pitch, but the reason we get so much uptake is that there is real pain out there on the agency side.

The online media industry is far from being sorted out. Until a standard set of practices and tools gets established (which might never happen), agencies are going to need reliable, trusted partners to help them profitably navigate the digital landscape. Agencies will forever be evaluating new platforms, networks, exchanges, ad servers, data providers, and myriad other tools and services. But, for the agencies we talk to every day, it’s not the tools that make the agency — it’s how the tools are used that ultimately makes the agency successful.

As De Vries says, “Agencies that were built on a manufacturing model (paying inexperienced employees to send mailers all day long) now need to focus on innovation instead because that’s where the money is now. It’s hard to innovate every day in an agency.”