We’ve Got it all Backwards (Guest Post)

IntendersDigital Display Can Create Customers, Not Just Close Them

The large majority of marketers put a ton of money into traditional marketing channels, using “branding media” to drive interest in their products. Later, they allocate digital budget for “scooping them up” with retargeting and other cookie-based targeting tactics. After all, “intenders” have already raised their hand digitally, making them easy to find. They already have expressed an interest in the marketers product by visiting the website, leaving something in a shopping cart, or just “looking like” the typical customer. In the classic “AIDA” funnel, the “Awareness” budget at the very top of the funnel rarely gets any digital allocation.

Maybe this is 100% backwards.

Television advertising is about creating enough buzz to drive customers towards Interest, Desire, and Action. TV, radio, and print do this fairly well at scale. Media is easy to buy, has mass reach, and relatively standard creative formats, which lower the cost of broadscale market penetration. But that is changing. Traditonal media is losing people’s attention, which is becoming increasingly divided between mobile, tablet, and desktop screens. Folks are using the DVR and Netflix to avoid marketing altogether, and forget about the kids. You have to basically trick them with “native” ads or actually produce a buzzworthy YouTube video to get their attention. That’s impossible to scale.

What about digital approaches to branding? Can you actually create customers in digital, rather than just scooping them up with retargeting and other lower-funnel tactics? The answer is yes…with the right way to measure. Cookie-based measurement will always fail to give the progressive marketer the right answers. Common issues (deletion, do-not-track, multiple-device, etc.) mean we can only see 30% of online conversions from a particular campaign—never mind the offline sales digital receives 0% attribution for.

What if we used the right metrics, which could reveal the real impact digital branding has on new customer creation? One of those metrics is profit optimization: the concept of understanding what a products optimal sales should be in one geo-targeted area. In other words, understanding how many ACME widgets are selling in Huntington, New York—and how many it should be selling, based on its profit potential. If you understand those numbers, even at a basic level, you can actually start to measure digital success and uncover the “invisible” digital customers you might have. They are the people you can’t see online—because they don’t actually exist (as cookies) yet.

It’s a pretty simple equation: more and more time is spent online. But more sales occur offline. Looking at the graphic above, the concept is to try and pull the digital line backward, and engage the customers you can’t see online, leveraging digital media tactics for branding. By taking a pure digital approach in discrete markets, and measuring by nothing but profit optimization, you will be able to quickly see the hidden power of digital branding—and start creating more customers with digital, rather than marketing to those who have already expressed interest in your products.

[This guest post was authored by christopher Skinner, and appeared on Econsultancy on 11.25.13]

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Every Marketer Needs to See this Napkin

Recently, I had a cup of coffee and a macaroon with a guy named Christopher Skinner. Christopher has spent the last dozen years or so running a company called MakeBuzz after selling his old company, Performics, to Doubleclick. Lately, he has been keynoting some of Google’s “Think” conferences. Google likes what his company does for them—after using his software, marketers start to spend a lot more money on branded display. In other words, instead of just loading up on keywords and obvious AdSense display inventory, marketers are leveraging data that says digital display works to build a brand’s customer base. Without getting too specific, the software offers geo-targeted media recommendations that aim to optimize profits in specific areas—helping a company go from selling 100 widgets a month in Poughkeepsie to 150.

When I asked what the secret sauce was, I was surprised at the answer. Christopher drew me something on a napkin that looked like this:

Napkin

The problem, he told me was that marketers weren’t striking the right balance between branding and direct response, and focusing too much on capturing customers they already had. In other words, if your business was like a lawn, and the profits were grass clippings, most folks were spending too much time cutting and not enough time fertilizing. To get the grass to grow, you want to fertilize it (branding) and get plenty of new blades to pop up as often as possible. When you cut it (direct response), you want to do so in a way that ensures it won’t get burnt, and lose its ability to sustain itself. It’s a delicate balance between growing demand through branding, and harvesting those efforts through direct response.

Looking at his crudely drawn chart, the line represents reach, going from a single user to the entire population. Most marketers stop 20% of the way through, and put all of their focus on their customer base through search and programmatic RTB display efforts—using data to ensure they are reaching the right “intenders,” but missing the opportunity to create new ones through branding. On the far right (dotted line), you have all the potential customers that are addressable; these users are still “targeted,” but so widely that hitting them with messaging is fraught with waste. This is the digital equivalent of advertising to “the demo” on television. Sure, it creates demand for BMWs, but only a certain portion of the audience has enough dough to afford a 5-series.

The simple message that many marketers continue to miss—either by focusing way too much on DR, or over indexing on untargeted branded efforts—is that a balance is critically important in the digital marketing mix. While it sounds simple to find the right balance, it actually requires a strong base of knowledge to execute properly. This is what I mean:

  • Measure Differently:  Before you can understand the mix you need to achieve between branding and DR, you need to agree on a meaningful metric. Far too many digital campaigns are judged by three-letter performance acronyms that are proxies for success. Great CTR and CPA are positive signs—that you are doing all the right things to reach the audience you have already earned. They are poor indicators of your success in building new customers. Thinking holistically about your marketing efforts yields new benchmarks: If your company typically sell 200 widgets in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, why shouldn’t you be able to sell the same amount in San Francisco’s Nob Hill? In other words, how about using “profit optimization” as the primary metric? This requires a relationship with the advertiser that goes beyond the agency, and plenty of first-party data, which is why such simple yet effective metrics are not used frequently.
  • Spend More on Branding: Sometimes, what holds good marketing back is a reliance on known metrics. In another year, the banner ad with be 20 years old. While the banner ad ushered in an era of “measurability,” it also took marketers on a path to thinking that anything and everything could have its own success metric, and we went from a dependence on soft, panel-based, attitudinal metrics to today’s puzzling array of digital KPIs. Did Absolut vodka worry about CTR on its way to becoming the dominant liquor brand of the last quarter century? Or did they just design great packaging and put big beautiful ads on every magazine back cover they could find? At the end of the day, TBWA made a decent vodka into a great brand, and the only metric anyone ever worried about was case sales. They did it by spending LOTS of money on branding.
  • Find the Sweet Spot: Spending more on branding is obviously important for “growing the grass,” but not every product is one everyone can afford. While it made sense for Absolut to advertise to the broader population of adults in magazine, most marketers have a more limited audience and budget. Finding the sweet spot between branding and DR has a lot to do with knowing your potential customer and how they make purchase decisions. If you believe (as I do) that word-of-mouth is the most powerful medium, then it makes sense to apply as much granular targeting to a campaign—without restricting it with too much targeting data. Neighbors talk to and influence each other—and the Smiths and Joneses tend to chat on the soccer field about cars, vacations, and even the latest medical procedures. Your sweet spot is where you can faithfully blanket ads in a neighborhood or larger area that has a built-in predilection to purchase. It’s not a broad as city targeting, which wastes messaging on customers that can’t afford your products, and not so targeted as “intender” targeting, which limits your addressable audience to people who already love your brand.

Today, it seems like digital marketers are limiting their reach to their existing customers—spending lots of lower-funnel effort dragging “intenders” across the finish line, so they can attribute lower acquisition costs to their campaigns. Although the real customer growth is grown through branding efforts, most marketers are scared to open up the spigot and deliver large amount of impressions, and especially hesitant to migrate marketing to cookie-less mobile devices and tablets which are harder to target. But to grow customers, you need to introduce them to your brand—and find them where they live. When you water the lawn religiously, there is always plenty to cut.

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 10/7/2013]

The Great Time Suck

Nearly 70% of the $9 billion display media market still occurs in the “transactional RFP” channel. Source: Arkose Consulting

Nearly 70% of the $9 billion display media market still occurs in the “transactional RFP” channel. Source: Arkose Consulting

Why Publishers Hate the Transactional RFP Business 

I have been thinking about, and trying to solve, agency digital workflow problems since 2008.

Given the complexity of digital media, the variety of creative sizes, millions of ad-supported sites, and dozens of ad servers, analytics platforms, order management and billing tools, it goes without saying that the digital marketing stack has been hard for any agency to put together.

Recent research has tracked the immense level of complexity involved in digital media planning (more than 40 steps) and the tremendous expense involved in creating the actual plan (up to 12% of the media spend). It all adds up to a lot of manual work for which agencies are not willing to pay top dollar, along with frustrated agency employees, overbilled clients and a sea of technology “solution providers” that only seem to add to the complexity.

Media planning on the agency side is a big time suck. Yet some agencies are still getting paid for it, so it’s a problem that is going to get solved when the pressure from agency clients increases to the point of action, which I think we’re just now hitting in 2013.

But who is thinking about the publishers? Despite dozens of amazing supply-side technologies for optimizing programmatic RTB yield, there are only a few providers focused on optimizing the 70% of media dollars that flow through publishers’ transactional RFP channels.

DigiDay and programmatic direct software provider AdSlot and recently studied the transactional costs of RFPs. The sheer numbers stunned me. Here’s what one person can spend on a single RFP:

  • 5.3 hours on pre-planning
  • 4.2 hours on campaign planning
  • 4.0 hours on flighting
  • 5.3 hours on maintenance
  • 3.3 hours post-campaign

That’s more than 22 hours – half a business week – spent creating a single proposal and starting a campaign, which, according to the study, has a less than 35% chance of getting bought and a staggering 25% chance of getting canceled for performance reasons after the campaign begins. The result is a 25% net average win rate. That’s a lot of work, especially when you consider how easy it is for agencies to lob RFP requests over the transom at publishers. On average, publishers spend 18% of revenue just responding to RFPs, which translates to 1,600 man-hours per month, according to the study.

So, we have a situation in which agencies, which are firmly in control of the inventory procurement process, are not only wasting their own time planning media, they are also sustaining a system in which their vendors are wasting numerous hours comporting with it. In short, agencies spray RFPs everywhere, and hungry publishers respond to most. The same six publishers make the plan every year, and a lot of publishers’ emails go unanswered. What a nightmare.

 A Less-Than-Perfect Solution

To combat this absurdity, many publishers have placed large swaths of their mid-premium inventory in exchanges where they realize 10% of their value but avoid paying for 1,600 hours of work. The math isn’t hard if you know how agencies value your inventory. Publishers aren’t stupid. Inventory is their business, and most work very hard creating content to create those impressions. These days, every eyeball has a value. Biddable media has made price discovery somewhat transparent for most[CO1]  inventories. Programmatic RTB is great, but not all publisher inventories[TH2]  are created equal. A small, but highly valuable percentage will never find its way into an SSP.

Publishers will always want to control their premium inventories as long as they receive a greater margin after transactional RFP labor costs. Publishers who actually have strong category positioning, contextual relevance, high-value audience segments and a brand strong enough to offer advertisers a “halo” have to manage their transactional business so they can maintain control over who advertises and what they pay. This looks the year that demand- and supply-side software solutions may finally come together to solve the problem of “transactional RFP” workflow.

A couple of new developments:

Demand-Side Procurement Systems Are Evolving: Facing significant pushback from clients and seeing new and accessible self-service media buying platforms gain share, agencies are looking hard at tools to gain efficiency. Incumbent software systems like Strata and MediaOcean are modernizing, while new, Web-based tools are gaining adoption among the middle market. Suddenly workflow efficiency is all the rage and agencies that spend 70% of their money in the transactional RFP space want a 100% solution.

Supply-Side Direct Sales Systems Are Available: A few years ago, there were lots of networks and marketplaces for publishers to put inventory before going directly into exchanges. Many were more generous than today’s exchanges, but still offered low-digit CPMs and not much control over inventory. Now there are a variety of systems that plug directly into DFP and enable publisher sales teams to have real programmatic control over premium inventory. AdSlot, ShinyAds and iSocket are rapidly gaining adoption from publishers that want another premium channel to leverage, without giving up pricing control. To succeed, these publishers’ systems must be connected to the platforms that manage demand.

Who Put Peanut Butter Into My Chocolate? What is slowly happening, and will continue in a huge way in 2014, is that demand- and supply-side workflow solutions will come together. What does that mean from a practical standpoint? Planning systems will be able to communicate with ad servers, eliminating double entry work; ad servers will be able to communicate with order management and billing systems, eliminating even more duplicative work; and the entire demand side system will be able to communicate orders directly into the publisher workflow systems and ad server.

Simply put: Agencies will be able to create a line item in a media plan, electronically transmit an order to a publisher, which the publisher will electronically accept, and the placement data will be transmitted into the publisher’s ad server. A line item will be planned, and it will begin running on the start date. Wow.

That’s what we are starting to call programmatic direct. It’s a world with a lot less Excel and email, with thousands of hours that won’t get wasted on transactional RFP workflow for agencies and publishers.

What kinds of amazing things can do with all that extra time?


[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 11.14.13]

Complexity is the Digital Agency’s Best Friend

Agencies are afraid of change, but change always happens. Is your manual workflow a "red stapler?"

Agencies are afraid of change, but change always happens. Is your manual workflow a “red stapler?”

But Solving the Right Problems are the Key to the Future

I once heard Terence Kawaja remark that “complexity is the agency’s best friend.” It’s hard to argue with that. Early digital agencies were necessary because doing things like running e-mail campaigns, building websites, and buying banner ads were really complicated. You needed nerdy guys who knew how to write HTML and understood what “Atlas” did. Companies like Operative grew admirable services businesses that took advantage of the fact that trafficking banner ads really sucked, and large publishers couldn’t be bothered to build those capabilities internally. The early days were great times for digital agencies. They were solving real problems.

Fast forward 13 years. Digital agencies are still thriving, mostly by unpacking other types of complexity. “Social media experts” were created to consult marketers on the new social marketing channel, “trading desks” launched to leverage the explosion of incomprehensible RTB systems, and terms like “paid, owned, and earned” were coined to complexify digital options. It’s hard being a marketer. So much easier to hand the digital keys over to an agency, and have them figure it all out.

Some of that complexity is dying, though.

Have you ever done any advertising on Google? It’s not that hard. You can get pretty good at search engine marketing quickly, and it doesn’t take anything more than common sense, an internet connection, and a credit card to start. Facebook advertising? Also dead easy. Facebook’s self-service platform is so intuitive that even the most hopeless Luddite can target to levels of granularity so minute that you can use it to reach a single individual. Today’s platforms leverage data and offer great user interfaces and user experience mechanisms to make the complex simple.

This has created the OpenTable effect. Remember when you had to call 8 different restaurants to get a Valentine’s Day reservation? What a pain in the ass. I used to always get to it late, and usually spend a few hours getting rejected before finding a table somewhere. Today, I log into OpenTable, type in “11743” and see all the available 8:30 reservations for two in Huntington. A few clicks, and I am locked in. Would I ever go back to doing it the old way? Sure, why not? Call my beeper if you need me. Please “911” me if it’s important.

So, with all of this innovation making the complex simple, and all of these platforms democratizing access to advertising inventory, analytics, and reporting, why are digital agencies still making a living off of the lowly banner ad? Is there a good business left in planning and buying digital display media?

Programmatic RTB is coming on strong, now representing the way almost a quarter of banner inventory is purchased. That’s a good thing. Platforms like Rubicon Project and Appnexus are making it easy to build great businesses on top of their complicated infrastructure. Marketers can hire an agency to trade for them, or maybe just build their own little team of smart people who can leverage technology. That seems to be happening more and more, making managing RTB either a specialist’s game, or not an option for the independent agency.

Really complicated, multi-channel, tentpole campaigns and sponsorships can never be automated. They represent about 5% of overall display spend, and that’s really where a digital agency’s firepower can be leveraged: the intersection of creativity and technology. That sector of digital involves a lot of what’s being called “native” today. Working with content owners and marketers to build great, branded experiences across the Web is where the smartest agencies should be right now.

How about the rest of the money spend on digital display—the 70% of money that goes through the transactional RFP space? A lot of agencies are still making their money buying reserved media, trafficking ad tags, and doing the dreaded billing and reconciliation. Marketers who pay on a cost-plus basis are starting to wonder whether spending money to have expensive agency personnel create and compare spreadsheets all day long is a good use of their money. Agencies that do not get paid for such work are seeing their margins shrink considerably, as they grind away money paying for low value tasks like ad operations. Clients don’t care how long it took you to get the click tag working on their 728×90. Just saying.

A lot of this viscosity within the guaranteed space is being solved by great “programmatic direct” technologies. Right now, you can use web-based systems to plan complex campaigns without using Excel or e-mail, and you can leverage web-based tools to buy premium inventory directly from great publishers—the kind of stuff not found inside RTB systems. Protocols and standards are being written that will, in a few short months, make the electronic IO a reality. Systems are being built with APIs that can enable trafficking to go away completely. Yes, you heard me. People should not have to ever touch JavaScript tags. That’s work for machines.

This future (“programmatic direct”) has been coming for a long time, but it is still met with resistance by agencies, some of whom are continue to benefit from complexity—and others who are (rightfully) scared of change and what it means for their business. Looking at legacy workflow systems, you wonder why they are so hesitant to leave them, but the cost of switching to new systems is high in terms of emotion and workplace disruption—and previous attempts to “simplify” agencies’ lives didn’t really work out that way.

So, how can digital agencies start to change, and embrace the new world of programmatic direct tools, so they can turn their energy to strategy and client care, rather than be an “expert” in processes that will eventually die?

Part of that is learning to recognize if you have a “wizard” on staff. The Wizard is the guy that has truly embraced complexity within the agency. He is the “systems guy” who knows how to pull complicated reports out of legacy workflow platforms. He probably knows who to write the occasional SQL query, and he knows where all the bodies (spreadsheets) are buried. When a web-based technology salesperson comes calling on the agency, and shows the CEO or VP of Media what web-based programmatic direct buying looks like, they are showing an agency a world where a lot of complexity is suddenly made simple. That demo shows the future of digital media buying: a directory-driven, centralized, web-based method of planning, buying, and serving inventory. Just like search! C-level agency executives and media people want it. They want their employees focused on strategy and analytics…not ad trafficking. But to get it, they invariably tell you to go see the Wizard. “Fred is our ‘systems guy.’ He’ll know whether this can work for us from a technical standpoint.”

That’s when innovation dies. Fred, the Wizard of the legacy systems, will shut down any innovation that comes his way. Complexity is Fred’s best friend. When you are the only guy that can pull a SQL query from your data warehouse, or reconcile numbers between SAP and your agency’s order management system, then you are a God. Fred is God…and he doesn’t want a downgrade. Complexity is the reason great digital agencies were built, and continue to thrive. Tomorrow’s big challenges are going to come from complexities in cross-channel delivery and attribution, and keeping up with new platforms that are delivering amazing native marketing opportunities, not being the next at reconciling ad delivery numbers from servers.

When innovation comes knocking on your door, don’t let Fred answer it.

[This post was originally published in AdExchanger on 6.3.13]

Leveraging the Influence of Neighbors

Neighbors-family-guy-15674073-638-483Christopher Skinner sold a search marketing company called Performics to Google as part of its Doubleclick acquisition. He now runs a software company called MakeBuzz that is on track to spend almost $100 million in media this year. Clients include Google, Target, and Oreck.

Its premise is simple: People buy the stuff their neighbors buy. By starting wide with media that builds a brand halo and then, optimizing into specific geographic areas where buyers are found, MakeBuzz optimizes against profit only.

Most marketers are obsessed with reaching individuals, but Skinner’s concept is almost contrarian: Spend more media up front, target by neighborhood and city, and be completely media-agnostic. The MakeBuzz code guides the optimization process until profitability KPIs are met. I recently sat down with Skinner to learn more.

The CMO Site: What’s the big idea here?

Christopher Skinner: Most people online today can measure a brand, but they can’t grow it. The methods to measure are not the same as those used to grow. You need a different framework and nobody is talking about that online.

Digital media agencies today are being handed money — money from traditional budgets — and asked to perform and hit the business targets but they don’t know how because they’ve lived inside the efficiency world for so long. It relates to neo-classic economic thinking: What you can’t measure, just ignore it.

On average we increase media spend by six times or more because we install a framework and technology that justifies the complete customer journey. We tie marketing to the economics of the business.

The CMO Site: Is profit optimization real, or are you just adding some process to what should be the CMO’s primary KPI?

Skinner: Both. It’s real and it is a formalized process. The software shows you how to tip the scales in favor of revenue by spending the right amount on media directed to the right group of customers. It helps you achieve maximum profitability on a market-by-market basis.

The CMO Site: You take a rather contrarian view. Most folks are buying audience by the impression, but you carpet-bomb geo-targeted areas with impressions. Which method is right? Can they be used together?

Skinner: Hyper-audience targeting based on cookies will deliver incredibly efficient sales, but you’re not going to see massive volume from this. You’re not going to move the needle on the business. I wouldn’t call what we do “carpet-bombing.” We’re delivering a large volume of impressions to areas that have a reasonable volume and high density of the target customer. We are looking at real social circles and matching media to these audiences, down to small pockets when needed. This is going to get you a little less efficiency but a lot more sales — a lot more profit volume. And isn’t that what matters?

The CMO Site: So, if I find the right neighborhood for a certain type of vehicle, I should just buy lookalike neighborhoods. How does that scale?

Skinner: Instead of drawing circles around virtual groups online, we draw the circle around concentrated groups of people that we know are likely to be interested in what we help market. And the fact that they are influenced by each other — they see what their neighbors wear and drive and what kinds of phones they use — means they are more likely to be influenced by media that reinforces and re-suggests those choices.

Scalability is about testing your way in. Identifying high-value areas, testing media to discover your profitability, then scaling to similar areas.

The CMO Site: What kind of media works best? It would seem that the more granular the geo-target, the better the performance.

Skinner: You need media that addresses the entire customer journey, from early awareness branding media to direct response purchase phase media. Most businesses are fine with the direct response online media, but they are missing brand-creating media. Our methods do a really good job of justifying media that helps drive direct response. The earlier phase media tends be display, mobile, and video, but can also be search (SEM).

As far as geo-targeting granularity, as long as the density of our target segment is good in each area and we’re hitting them with the right media plan, it works great. Think of each step as a filter: 1) Choose the right segment, filtering out all the less valuable potential customers; 2) Choose an area they live in high in density and volume, filtering out the neighborhoods they don’t live in; and 3) Pick the media they’re likely to be engaged with, filtering out wasted impressions. You can’t pull this off without a platform and it will not work unless the manager has a fast and simple way to buy in.

[This post was originally publisher in The CMO Site, on 4/11/13]

Stealing Some Of Microsoft’s 76% Ad Tech Market Share

downloadWhen you think of advertising technology in the display space, the first names you’re likely to think of are Google, PubMatic, Adobe, and AppNexus. But Microsoft? Not really top of mind, unless you are thinking of its disastrous aQuantive acquisition in 2007. Sure, every now and then MSFT will pick up the odd Rapt or Yammer, but is it really having a huge impact in the ad tech space? Even if you’re a regular AdExchanger reader, you’d be justified in thinking it’s not.

But you’d be 100% wrong.

Microsoft has been quietly running the inner ad-technology workings of digital display since the first banner ad was purchased in 1995. According to some recent research, the company’s ad-planning software boasts an amazing 76% market share among agency media planners. MediaVisor ranks a distant second with a measly 9.7 Almost nine in 10 planners who use Excel spend more than an hour a day using its software, while almost 35% use it for more than four hours per day[CO1] . [l2]

That software is called Microsoft Excel.

Released in 1985 (originally for Macintosh), Excel is nearly three decades old and has been powering digital-media planning since its inception. Combined with Outlook, Word, and PowerPoint in the Office suite of products, Microsoft tools have been central to the digital-media planning process for a long time. Planners plan in Excel, publishers pitch in Excel and PowerPoint, contracts are made in Word, and everything is communicated via Outlook. And then there are the billing and reconciliation tasks that occur inside spreadsheets. Nobody ever seems to wonder why more than $6 billion in digital display media transactions (representing nearly 70% of all ads sold) use Microsoft tools and the occasional fax machine.

While innovative companies have challenged the dominance of these systems in the past, early efforts fizzled. The complexities of modern digital-media planning, combined with the reluctance of agency planners to change their behavior, have hindered innovation. Looking at past and current “systems of record” for media buying, it’s no wonder planners are scared of change. If you have ever seen legacy agency operating systems, you wonder if a single dollar was ever spent on user experience or user interface design.

Why Programmatic-Direct Planners Use Excel

As an ad technology “evangelist” of sorts, it is my job to show agencies the future of digital-media planning. This is starting to be called programmatic buying, a term which encompasses both “programmatic direct” buying, which targets the transactional RFP business that accounts for the bulk – 70% – of digital display ads, and “programmatic RTB,” which accounts for the impression-by-impression purchases that represent another $2.4 billion, or 25[CO3] % of the pie.

Companies like MediaMath and AppNexus have made the latter category wildly efficient. Buyers don’t use Excel to create an audience-buying campaign across exchange inventory. Instead, they log into a web-based RTB platform.

For automating guaranteed display buys, though, Excel has become the default for media planners, even though if it doesn’t have the features of many web-based systems available. For example, Excel doesn’t track your changes. When planners change something, multiple files are created, and it’s easy for two people to work on a plan at the same time, duplicating work and botching it up. Excel isn’t Sarbanes-Oxley compliant, either. Agencies end up with thousands of Excel sheets on hard drives and servers, and a complicated file versioning and access system that makes replicating and tracking plans really difficult. Excel doesn’t integrate easily with other systems. At the file level, Excel is great. You can import and export Excel files into almost anything. But Excel can’t send out an RFP, or accept an order. Excel can’t automatically set an ad placement inside an ad server like DFA or MediaMind, or get Comscore updates. Excel is amazingly flexible, but it wasn’t built for media planning.

Today, the average digital-media plan costs nearly $40,000 to produce and takes as many as 42 steps to complete. That’s why, according to a recent Digiday survey, more than two thirds of agency employees will leave their jobs within the next two years. Digital-media planning should be fun and innovative, and young, smart people should want to be spending their time influencing how major brands leverage new technologies and media outlets to sell their products.

The reality is that young media planners are finding their days are filled with reconciling monthly invoices and ad delivery numbers. Have you noticed media planners’ eyes glazing over during your latest “lunch and learn?” That’s today’s young agency employees’ way of calling bullshit on ad tech. Our technology has been making their lives harder and their hours longer, rather than ushering in a new era of efficiency and performance.

How We Can Finally Beat Excel

I believe that dynamic is rapidly changing now. Buy-side technologies from innovative software companies, combined with offerings from sell-side players that are plugging into publisher ad servers are creating a programmatic future by building web-based, easy to use, and extensible platforms.Here are a few reasons these types of systems will start to get adoption:

  • Pushback on agency pricing models: Big agencies have been getting paid by the hour for years, but their clients are starting to push back on cost-plus pricing schemes. After exposure to self-service platforms and programmatic buying, they are getting used to seeing a larger percentage of their money applied to the media, and that trend is only likely to continue. Brand advertisers are demanding more efficiency in direct-to-publisher buys, and that means agencies must start to embrace programmatic direct technologies.
  • User interfaces and user experiences are improving: Young people plan media. They are used to really cool web-based technologies, such as Snapchat and Twitter. Today’s platforms not only centralize workflow and data, but increasingly come with something even more critical to gaining user adoption: a nice interface. When we start building tools that people want to use and a user experience that maps to the tasks being performed online, adoption will quickly increase.
  • Prevalence of APIs: Today’s platforms are being built in an open, extensible way that enables linkage with other systems. Since there are so many phases in modern digital media planning (research, planning, buying, ad serving, reporting, billing) it makes sense for platforms to be able to talk to one another. While some legacy APIs are not the best, they are getting better. Servers-to-server integrations make a lot more sense than 23-year-old planners updating spreadsheets. As David Kenny, CEO of The Weather Company, once remarked, “If you are using people to do the work of machines, you are already irrelevant .”

Because of these factors, I expect 2013 will be the year that programmatic direct buying changes from a fun concept for a planners’ “lunch and learn” to a reality. It’s time for us to finally get cracking on stealing some of Microsoft’s ad technology market share.

[This post was originally pushed in AdExchanger on 4-23-13]

Going Native

GoingNativeTalk of ghost publishers and robot traffic has digital brand advertisers questioning some long-held beliefs. They’re wondering whether the promise of efficiency in media is outweighed by the prospect of buying ads that only machines will ever “see.”

As Mike Shields pointed out in an excellent AdWeek article the other day, brand advertisers have found themselves at the mercy of phantom publishers who live to exploit the programmatic technology systems that deliver banner ads. It’s a problem that until recently has largely been ignored, even as gullible advertisers shell out millions of dollars only to receive fake clicks and “views” in return. Writes Shields:

Increasingly, digital agencies and buy-side technology firms are seeing massive traffic and audience spikes from groups of Web publishers few people have ever heard of. These sites — billed as legitimate media properties — are built to look authentic on the surface, with generic, non-alarm sounding content. But after digging deeper, it becomes evident that very little of these sites’ audiences are real people.

Among the money-sucking ghosts that Shields names are an outfit called Precision Media, running some 25 content sites like Toothbrushing.net; Alphabird, running 80 sites; and DigiMogul, operating something called Directorslive.com that has reported a rather unlikely 326 million monthly page views. These and other such scammers, the AdWeek man reports, are less than forthcoming about their operations or owners.

All of which is driving more interest in native advertising, or what we are now calling sponsored content, or “advertorials,” as they were called once upon a time. The idea behind native advertising is a simple and well-proven one: Tailor ad messages to the format of the media. A tweet becomes an ad when it’s a “sponsored tweet” and a Facebook message can become a “sponsored post.”

Companies like BuzzFeed have worked with brands like Old Navy to populate the web with pictures of squirrels in Christmas sweaters to grab mindshare and thus bring their irreverent style to millions of consumers where they are used to consuming content.

Today’s web-based platforms are enabling marketers to be publishers, and engage with their audiences in real-time. Brands brave enough to produce content, or that have a unique point of view — take Red Bull, as an example — are finding that making investments in content and aiming marketing into other content platforms with native advertising efforts are paying dividends that go beyond traditional marketing efforts.

Suit to fit
Your company website may have a blog, but it is meant to broadcast, not listen to, consumers. Native advertising and sponsored content give consumers the ability to extend messages through social sharing, commenting, and mingling user-generated content with content that has been created by brands.

For Scott Roen, vice president of digital for American Express, whose Open Forum is the leading small business website, the idea of tailoring advertising to the format of the content is an obvious advantage. “Where can we be part of a conversation where people want us? It’s getting back to the roots… [native advertising] is not a fad.”

Is native advertising better than the banner ad? “It’s certainly better than what we had before. Anything that makes the user feel the advertising is more seamless is good,” said Mary Gail Pezzimenti, vice president of content strategy for Federated Media. “The brands that have taken the time to establish thought leadership and provide high quality content have permission to engage in those conversations.”

So, is the native advertising trend just a retread from the past, or is it a legitimate new advertising tactic, brought about by platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr? For Benjamin Palmer, CEO of the digital creative shop Barbarian Group, who works with huge global brands like GE, “Native ads will be around as long as the platforms that support it are.”

[This post originally appeared on 3/26/13 in The CMO Site]