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.

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.”

TRAFFIQ Talks Private Marketplaces and Other Platform Enhancements

ADOTAS – Demand-side digital media management platform TRAFFIQ expands its offerings so much that it’s hard to keep up. Fortunately, we were able to hit Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing  (and regular Adotas contributor) Chris O’Hara with questions regarding the platform’s latest upgrades (including customized and private publisher portfolios and enhanced financial management tools) as well as the many partnerships the company has formed since the beginning of the year.

ADOTAS: Terence Kawaja’s infamous display ecosystem landscape places TRAFFIQ in “media management systems” with companies like Centro — closer to the supply side than DSPs. Do you think this is a fair placement and why?

 

O’HARA: I don’t think we should put too much emphasis on placement in the landscape chart. Many companies belong in one or more buckets—and some of the logos should appear much larger than others, based on overall impact within the landscape itself. TRAFFIQ, for example, could appear in many of the categories (DSP and Ad Serving being two of them), but I believe there is a revenue threshold to be met before LUMA will place you in multiple buckets.

That being said, I think TRAFFIQ is in the right category. Eventually, the notion is that TRAFFIQ would appear as an overlay to multiple sections of the map, providing dashboard level access to an advertiser’s entire vendor toolset.

How does a media management system differ from a DSP? Confused agency people want to know.

Mostly, it’s nomenclature. I think the term “demand-side platform” is a great term for a technology tool that helps advertisers manage their media. The reality is that now “DSP” means “technology tool for real time managing exchange buying.” Agencies have every right to be confused, as companies within the landscape are changing from network to “platform” and from data provider to “DMP.”

The difference is simply that a “management system” should provide tools that cover inventory discovery, vendor negotiation, offer management, contracts, ad serving, analytics, and billing; DSPs handle a sliver of the overall media buy. For example, TRAFFIQ customers will be able to manage several DSPs within our platform at once.

It seems like the new Private Marketplaces tool allows advertisers to customize publisher and exchange lists — fair assessment, or is there more, so much more?

Right now, TRAFFIQ private marketplaces enables advertisers to buy outside of our curated list of 3,000 guaranteed inventory sources, which is especially important in terms of giving agencies the control they need over media. Publishers increasingly want the convenience and efficiency of exchange buying…without exposing their quality inventory to the world.

Demand side customers like the reach and price efficiency they can achieve with exchange-buying—but still struggle with brand safety and transparency. Our next-generation system will offer both sides a lot more control over who they work with, and that is sorely needed in our business right now.

Can this tool also offer hookups into the increasingly popular private exchanges, such as The Weather Channel’s Category 5 and Quadrant One?

Yes, as long as the demand-side partner has a business relationship in place with the inventory supplier, TRAFFIQ will be able to enable the connection.

Why are agencies going gaga over your new finance management tools?

If agency CFOs could actually go “gaga,” they may be doing so over our new tool for the simple reason that most digital platforms don’t take the vagaries of agency pricing into account. At TRAFFIQ, we have to manage several different pricing scenarios at once.

What is the agency’s margin, and how do they want that margin reflected in the pricing (baked into the media cost, or shown transparently)? How about data and technology fees? Those can be added to the gross media cost, or shown separately as well. Also, handling net and gross costs with publishers has always been challenging.

Smart systems should recognize these fundamental business needs, and expose the correct pricing to everyone within the system, eliminating confusion and duplicative work.

Can you explain how the multiple user permissions work? Why is this important for your agency clients and how can they best be deployed?

For the demand side, multiple user permissions means giving access to a subset of clients for an individual account team. On the supply side, it means having the ability to put the right publisher rep with the right demand side customer.

For example, an individual agency account team may buy from Fred at ESPN for one client, and Joe at ESPN for another. It is also necessary for agencies to be able to manage which of their end-clients gets to view certain reports. Multiple user permissions adds the layer of flexibility that enables TRAFFIQ users to expose the right data to the right set of customers.

What kind of agencies are you working with these days and what kind do you hope to add to your client base? Are you working with brands directly as well?

For the past several years, our focus has been getting total product adoption from the small to mid-sized agency market. Some are the types of shops that have a thriving traditional media practice, but not necessarily the right tools to tackle digital media. Still others are strong in digital, but are struggling with multiple tools, and having a hard time putting all of the pieces together efficiently.

We partnered with some of the great agency groups like TAAN, Magnet Global, AMIN and Worldwide Partners to reach these shops, and have been quite successful. We have also done some work with the holding companies, but mostly on a campaign-by-campaign basis, rather than getting the large shops to adopt our solution fully.

The product features we are working on now will actually enable big agencies to adopt TRAFFIQ by enabling API connections to their existing systems (ad serving, billing, etc). You can’t walk into an agency and ask them to drop all of their vendor relationships at once… You have to be able to work seamlessly with what they have.

What sets apart your attribution services from your media management peers as well as other attribution providers? What kind of extra insight do you provide?

Right now, a lot of our customers are working with our embedded Aperture audience measurement reports. Unlike other platforms, we make it fairly easy to take those demographic campaign  learnings and take action against them. So, it’s not just click- or view-based data; it’s using third-party data to understand who is seeing your campaign, clicking on it, and ultimately converting against it.

We are the only platform that can help marketers react to that data through guaranteed buying—and RTB. In the near future, we will be able to show how our efforts in initial media budget allocation and optimization are driving performance. We also see a great opportunity to get some key attribution metrics out of search and display, once out customers are doing both types of media in the platform at scale.

How does TRAFFIQ integrate first-party and third-party data into audience buying efforts?

Right now we have over 15 data segmentation partners. Some of them work directly with our Trading Desk (we apply those segments to exchange buys), and some of our partners provide both targeting and media execution. We see our role as a platform as provisioning our advertising clients with the right best-of-breed partners, no matter what the targeting need.

That means Proximic and Peer39 for semantic; AlmondNet (now Datonic) for search keyword retargeting; Media6Degrees and 33Across for social targeting; Nielsen, Lotame and eXelate for demo targeting, etc. We also have the ability to match any first-party data with available audience within our real-time bidding system, and find that audience as well.

Do you foresee more mobile partnerships in TRAFFIQ’s future or is Phulant your one and only?

TRAFFIQ is an open platform, and that means we must be willing to integrate partners based on our clients’ needs. We see Phluant as a key TRAFFIQ partner for mobile ad serving, and have plans to work closely with them to define and grow our mobile capabilities. We want to see more standardization around mobile workflow, and that means making it easier for marketers to allocate budgets across different media types (social, search, mobile, video, and display) in one system.

Phluant has developed amazing technology to help marketers take rich media for display  and bring it to mobile devices. That’s a great starting point… and something that can be leveraged across multiple mobile inventory vendors.

Regarding your partnership with Bizo, what kind of opportunities lie in the realm of targeted B2B display?

Bizo is doing an amazing job of bringing the power of B2B to display advertising. Until recently, B2B marketers stayed away from display advertising (or struggled to get online reach with smaller, niche business publishers). Now, they can take the success that they are used to having with targeted direct mail in B2B, and apply that in real time display.

We believe that there are some real opportunities to make both B2B and local display digital advertising more manageable, scalable, and accountable.

Besides its “interesting” name, what about Oggifinogi (recently acquired by Collective Media) attracted TRAFFIQ to make it your video and rich media network partner?

Our customers use Pointroll, Mediamind, Spongecell, and all kinds of third-party rich media vendors, but we needed a reliable “go-to” partner that could help our registered demand-side client base tackle rich media and video more easily. We saw that “Oggi” had a strong commitment to both technology and customer service, and we felt that we could work with their team well. I think Collective media validated what a great partner choice we made there!

TRAFFIQ appears to have spread itself out pretty well across digital marketing channels, so what area is next on the agenda? Social?

The first big channel we are going to tackle after display is search. In a few months, TRAFFIQ will feature bid management tools for search engine marketing right in the platform—along with access to the Facebook self-service ad inventory. This means that, for the first time, guaranteed display, real-time display, search, and social can be managed within the same “media management system.”

It’s going to be exciting, but the real challenge will be making it seamless for marketers—and getting some great insights out of all the data that such an integrated platform will produce. That’s what we’ll be working on over the next several months.

[This interview appeared on 7/2711 in Adotas]

Epic FAIL

This is why agencies buy direct.

Much has been written about the notorious “logo vomit” map of famed internet banker Terence Kawaja. I reference his handy charts on my blog, and often his “Display LUMAscape” as a reference point for thinking about the digital display business, and what will happen to it. Many have tried to navigate through the various categories and dissect what may be “happening” in the space, which is a favorite pastime of company executives trying to raise money for many of the identified advertising technology outfits referenced within. Nobody ever really tries to explain the whole thing, though. It’s just too complicated, I guess. Allow me to try:

 “A few years ago, people started to figure out that you could use technology to target advertising to people on the Web. Ever since then, 250 companies have placed themselves in the middle of the transaction between the advertiser and the inventory, confusing everyone. Now, most of them are running out of money and will sell cheap, get acquired, or go out of business.”

Perhaps that oversimplifies things slightly, but the reality is that there are many companies in the space that are primed for one of those three scenarios. Unfortunately, most of them will sell for less than their investment, or go out of business. Here are the three big reasons we have gotten here:

It was a Bad Idea

The whole point of most of the companies on the Kawaja map is to help advertisers use data to find exactly the right audience at the right time, serve them the right ad, and maybe find something out about them that helps drive branding or sales. In the past, most advertisers used to do that contextually (putting ads for shoes in Vogue, for example) and it seemed to work pretty well. When that Internet thing came along, publishers could get something nearing their print CPMs for “site sponsorships” and premium banner advertising alongside good content. Sooner or later, however, publishers decided to put banners ads on all of their pages, creating the advertising largest inventory glut known to man. That created a big problem.

All of that banner space needed to be monetized somehow, and publishers were quickly discovering that it was hard to make money on the trillions of monthly advertising impressions they had created. But nobody wanted to buy $10 CPM banner ads on message board pages, and the “contact us” page. So, in order to “solve” this problem, exchanges popped up and allowed publishers to “monetize” this space by having various parties bid on the inventory. Things got even better when data companies came in, and were able to layer some demographic data atop those impressions, making audience buying possible for the first time. The venture money flowed, as smart young technologists created fast-moving software companies to help marketers exploit this trend as they sought a way to help reduce industry average CPMs from $20 to $2.

Mission accomplished! In the last 10 years, average CPMs have been drastically reduced, 100% of a publishers inventory is being “monetized” (often by 10 or more companies), and you can target an ad down to one’s shoe size.  So, what’s the problem? Hasn’t turning advertising from an art into a science worked?

The answer is: Yes, but not for all of the companies on that map. People visit three sites a day, and one of them is Facebook. If you want audience targeting, why not just find exactly what you want from a social network? They are the ones with the real audience data. They are also the ones with the audience scale, having about 5 times as many “profiles” as the next largest data company. The problem with all the companies trying to sell you audience targeting and ad technology is that it only works when you have audience scale (they don’t) and deep audience data (they don’t have that either).

Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn (and the next company that people are willing to share their private information with) are going to win the audience targeting game. When you are talking about audience buying at scale, social media IS digital media.

It’s Still about Art

If you believe that the average web user visits only two sites a day besides Facebook, then you better find them on those sites—and give them a really amazing experience with your banner ad. That thing should play video, games, talk to you, and almost pay you to look at it. Since only three out of every 10,000 people will click on it, you had better make sure the creative really tells a terrific story and gets your brand message across too.

That means standard sized banners that work with exchange-based buying are pretty much irrelevant, since they have a hard time doing any of the above. It also means that context has to accompany placement. It is not enough to reach a “35 year old woman in-market for shoes.” You have to reach her when she is on her favorite fashion site, or otherwise psychologically engaged in shoe consideration. The ad should be in a brand-safe environment that engenders trust—and compliments the creative in question. That sounds suspiciously like premium display advertising…the stuff that was being sold 10 years ago!

In a certain sense, we have almost come back full-circle to guaranteed, premium advertising. And that means an emphasis on the creative itself. If you look at the map, it’s clear that creative isn’t a part of the picture…but it might be the most important thing driving the future of the digital display advertising business.

It’s Confusing

Even if agencies and advertisers wanted to take advantage of a few of the of companies cluttering the “landscape,” they would need to log into and learn multiple systems. As a marketer looking to reach women, am I really going to log into Blue Kai and bid on demographic “stamps” from Nielsen, log into AppNexus and apply those to a real-time exchange buy, constantly log into my DART account to check ad pacing and performance, periodically log into my Aperture account to download audience data, and then log into my Advantage account every month to bill my clients? Maybe—but that’s exactly the reason why digital media agencies are making 3% margins lately. Most of these technologies are really great on their own, but string together too many of them and you start to get lost in the data, and are unable to react to it.

For digital marketing to be effective, a set of standards need to be created that enables systems to work together and share information. Basic B-school dogma teaches you that effectiveness starts to break down when a manager has more than 5 direct reports. If you believe that, then it’s not hard to imagine the effectiveness of a 22-year old media planner managing 5 logins on behalf of his agency.  It’s not just confusing, but impossible.

We have built an industry ripe for aggregation, and the Googles, Adobes, and IBMs of the world will not disappoint us! So, what companies will succeed in this ecosystem?

— Social Scalers: If you agree that all reach advertising targeting audiences will eventually be on social networks, then you should look to work with companies that are making social advertising scale effectively. Doing Facebook advertising is incredibly easy—but doing it right is hard. Doing it properly requires extreme multivariate creative optimization and, more importantly, knowing what to do with the mounds of truly actionable audience data that Facebook and other social networks will hand you. Companies like XA.net that are doing this are EPIC WIN.

 — Creative enablers: Since the conversation is coming back to the creative, how can technology help make great creative even better—and help advertisers understand how that creative is being engaged with?  The click is a dead metric to most seasoned advertisers, who are spending more time with branding measurement tools (Vizu) and creative ad analytics startups (Moat) that are well positioned to “science-ify” the truly important part of advertising: the creative itself. Companies doing that well are also going to be EPIC WIN.

 — Standard Bearers: With all of the logins out there, it is inevitable that one company is going to try and create the technology stack for next generation media buying that puts all the pieces together seamlessly. There are a number of companies trying to do this right now (full disclosure: I work for one of them), and I believe there will be a lot of advertisers and agencies relieved to log into a single platform, and be able to access all of their vendor relationships in one dashboard.  This will take some time, but the companies that enable standardization across technology providers will also WIN big.

[This post originally appeared 7/20/11 on eConsultancy blog]

Beyond Bidding

Why Real Time Bidding is More Important than you Think

Last week, I wrote that companies that depend on what we think of as “RTB” are in danger of missing larger opportunities. I argued that RTB technology is important, but that advertisers still need inventory quality, contextual relevance, and scale—something that today’s real time platforms are struggling with. If the game is truly about utilizing data to target audiences, companies are also burdened by an uncertain legislative environment—and the fact that big players like Facebook have an impossible data advantage. My point was not to dismiss the technology itself, only that RTB is only a single piece of the larger digital media puzzle. Getting RTB right is also the key to success for many of the companies in the digital media ecosystem. Here are the trends to look for over the next 18 months:

Moving Upscale

Let’s face it: agencies want to buy what they want, when they want. It doesn’t matter how cheap the prices are. The problem isn’t that agencies don’t understand that some inventory is better delivered through RTB. The problem is that their clients want their ads seen in certain places, and they want to know exactly where those ads will appear, and when they will appear. Clients also tend to want their ads to appear on sites that they have heard of, not necessarily “OpenX  Longtail” or “PubMatic Default” no matter how great the performance is. Human nature is all about exerting control over those things we can control, and it’s no different with advertising. The desire for control in real time bidding leads naturally to demand side domain grouping, in which advertisers carve out limited tranches of pre-approved inventory into which to bid, and forego many of the pure remnant options.

Now that publishers have spent some time exposing their inventory to DSPs, they now have more experience working the systems, and a better sense of what floor prices to set for certain inventory types. I recently had lunch with a large vertical publisher who told me that he recently discovered that a small amount of his inventory was consistently being won at a $1,700 CPM (it appears as though some DSPs do not offer a pricing cap for automatic bids)! At one time, technology companies understood how to monetize inventory better than publishers, but that dynamic is rapidly evolving—and for the better. After a few years of premium and remnant monetization, most publishers have a sense for where their inventory sells and performs best, and they are quickly realizing the benefit of putting more premium inventory up for bid to a trusted pool of advertisers. Watch over the next several months as more publishers take the lessons of exchange-based inventory selling, and start turning $5.00 CPM inventory into $10.00 CPM inventory by leveraging RTB technology to create small, private exchanges for their best inventory.

Private Exchanges

Will building private exchanges be the way ad tech companies score big with their demand and supply side customers?

These private exchanges are more than just a way for publishers to create increased competition for their premium impressions for an installed demand base. Private exchanges are an important piece of the entire monetization puzzle for publishers. Salespeople are motivated by commission plans, not necessarily corporate strategy, and they are also expensive. Reducing the cost of sales—while insuring that every premium impression is monetized properly, and at full value—is top of mind for all publishers right now. They got beat on remnant inventory technology, and you better believe that they won’t get fooled twice with their premium supply. They are going to figure out a way to let technology help them control and monetize it, and they are going to keep the lion’s share of the revenue for themselves. Innovative companies like aiMatch are helping to revolutionize this effort.

Private exchanges are going to enable publishers to place their entire premium inventory into biddable buckets, and let their advertisers have “seats” that enable them to get access. Ultimately, certain publishers will have upfront markets, in which the most premium inventory is sold for holiday times—and an active “spot market” in which the remainder of their premium inventory is sold at prices that exceed variable floor prices. Publishers will employ trading desk operatives that control the inventory they place in all exchanges (remnant and private), and employ fewer salespeople to hold the biggest clients’ hands. RTB is simply not about making cheap inventory better anymore. It’s about creating new market dynamics that raise the cost of the valuable inventory—and lessen the cost of sales.

Beyond Display

So much energy in the Kawaja logo vomit map has been created by companies in the real time display space that I believe we, as an industry, are somewhat blind to the opportunities happening in real time elsewhere. Digital media marketing is about marrying best practices in display, search, affiliate marketing, mobile, and video to get results. As branding becomes more measurable (thanks to Vizu, Aperture, and other technologies), more and more brand money is going to the digital pie. It’s quite simple: brand money goes to where the eyeballs congregate, and they happen to be cast upon computer screens, mobile phones, and tablets as much as television and newspapers these days. However, putting all of that together is not easy for the modern digital marketer. Real time can help.

Real time buying systems are slowly migrating from pure display into multi-channel media management systems that can find cost efficiencies across display, search, and mobile. AppNexus recently released Windows Mobile inventory into its exchange, and Android browser inventory is sure to follow. Now, you can bid for eyeballs seamlessly in the same platform, without regard to where they may be focused on. Enter programmatic buying technologies that can allocate spend across differing mediums (search display), buying methodologies (guaranteed, real-time), and pricing methodologies (CPM, CPC, CPA)—and suddenly you have real time systems that aren’t about “RTB” if you follow me. They are about getting all of the combinatorial values of an effective media plan correct, using campaign attribute data—and historical performance and pricing data. The bottom line is that the machines are going to be making the allocation calls in the future, and we are going from real time bidding, to real-time media decisioning. That’s a big change.

Immediacy

Another interesting aspect (and perhaps the most important) of RTB is immediacy. Real time bidding systems are collapsing the time window between having a great marketing message, and your ability to distribute it quickly. Twitter’s sponsored posts are one great example, Facebook’s self-serve ad interface gives instant satisfaction, and companies like DashBid are helping advertisers put their ads directly into the “hottest” video content, using bidding systems. Now that content is being curated by end users even more than by publishers, marketers need the ability to access audiences quickly, as they follow the latest meme, news trend, or fashion. Systems that offer the ability to go from idea to execution quickly, and are easily adaptable will win in this new RTB-driven ecosystem.

[This post originally appeared in eConsultancy on 6/30/11]

Fish Don’t Know He’s Wet

If Your Company Depends on RTB, Put Your Helmet On.

The 5 Reasons RTB is less important than you think

All the hype in the display advertising industry has been around real time bidding for the last several years, and rightly so. Finding audiences with precision (cheaply) is marketing nirvana and, with all of the startup companies willing to work their tails off to make their “platforms” work for advertisers, the promise of media, layered with great technology, and tons of free service was hard to resist. Conference after conference, our industry leadership (well, actually I think it’s just the 30-odd people that speak at every conference) prognosticates on the latest data-driven success story, and ponders the meaning of the famed Kawaja logo vomit map, hoping that their flavor of audience technology gets acquired. But, like the old George Clinton lyric goes, the fish don’t know they are wet. After drinking the RTB Kool-Aid for so long, the real time practitioners may not realize that this fundamental driver of the display advertising ecosystem may not be as important as we all think. Here are five reasons to hedge your bets with RTB:

Quality Matters: Sorry, exchanges, but inventory quality still matters—a lot. The notion that you can splash a little bit of data on top of $0.25 CPM banner inventory and turn it into $5.00 gold was never really real in the first place. The great thing about RTB isn’t the enormous amounts of data you can apply to a media buy—it’s the enormous scale and price advantage that exchange buying brings. In a CPA-driven world, the most important metric is the cost of media. Today’s bidders give advertisers the ability to scour 800+ exchange inventory sources and buy cheaply and deeply into remnant inventory like never before. But, when you look at the reporting coming back, the clicks and conversions tend to happen where quality content appears. I’ve seen it time and time again: An RTB advertiser lucks into a bit of Tier I or Tier II inventory and finds performance. Unless publishers start changing their habits and stop putting banner code on every single web page they publish, there will continue to be a dearth of quality placements available in real time, and average real-time CTRs will not eclipse their .03% average.

Cookies Don’t Scale: This is the dirty little secret of the display media industry, and something that Datran’s Aperture team is out actively pushing. Anyone who has used a DSP can tell you that even a little bit of segmentation data applied to a media buy drops impression availability by a large factor. Cookie-based targeting is enormously complicated, and getting all the gears to turn in the same direction is not easy. How many people are in the market for a BMW are there in any given 30 day period, anyway? Well, according to AppNexus, I can find about 81,689 unique users that fit that description, and access up to 1.3M impressions if I win every single bid I place. Let’s go crazy and say that I am prepared to pay $30 CPM for every single one of them (I can probably win them at $8, though). That means, this month there is the potential of $40,000 of inventory to be sold for “BMW intenders.” Add in “Connecticut” and “Men” as additional segments, and you might as well call each potential buyer on the phone, or rent a plane and drop pamphlets on their house. But wait—you could probably mail them something really nice and reach them that way. Now that sounds like a business!

Legislative Tsunami: Many fish don’t understand what “Do Not Track” and other legislation is going to do to real-time bidding. Even if you take the most conservative reckoning, you would have to admit that some sort of consumer protections need to be built into our industry. I can’t tell you how many people are fascinated—and sort of bummed out—when I introduce them to www.bluekai.com/registry Personally, I have no problem being targeted (except for the relentless onslaught of industry-specific ads I seem to be targeted with). No matter how our industry tries to spin it, the fact that I just looked at flights for North Carolina, and am being targeted by travel ads two seconds later as an “in market travel intender” makes almost everyone uncomfortable, and it’s not a winning long term strategy. We need to turn over choice to consumers, rather than convince them that we are “protecting” their data. Watch out for companies that don’t run without the fuel of 3rd party data. Conversely, bet big on companies that collect tons of 1st party (volunteered) data like Facebook…at least until the government has a problem with that too.

Premium on the Rise: Call me a Project Devil fan. With people visiting an average of 3 sites a day (one of them being Facebook), it’s kind of hard to argue with the

It's Time to Break out of Pure RTB Business Models

fact that advertising needs to be engaging on the page. Whether it’s video, over-sized RM banners, in-app ads, or sponsored apps, advertisers are looking to engage users directly, rather than drive them to a site. These opportunities are the opposite of commodity-based exchange buying. You can’t standardize them…and you can’t buy these engaging units cheaply. Advertisers are starting to rebel against the low quality of exchange-based media, and publishers are really starting to rebel against the returns they are seeing on exchanges. They want technology that helps them understand and sell their own audiences, rather than technology that disintermediates them and sells their valuable audiences for them. Maybe we finally jumped the shark with the Admeld acquisition. Wouldn’t it be nice if technology helped advertisers find the right audiences where they wanted to be found, and publishers sell their audiences for more than $0.50? Was there ever an industry that sustained itself by crushing their main suppliers down on price?

Big Guys Have More Data than You: I don’t care how many cookies you have out there on the Web. Is it 150 million? 200 million? It doesn’t really matter. How many Facebook subscribers are there? How many Google Gmail users? We have given the biggest publishers absolutely every single piece of information about ourselves (including, for some Congressmen, too much information), and shared it with our friends, and shared our friends’ data with everyone too. Where cookie-based targeting doesn’t scale, first party data targeting on sites like Facebook scales plenty. You would think the ability to reach users with such specificity would be expensive, but no. Facebook ads are the best deal in town. I have never paid more than $0.50 CPM for my audience, no matter how many “segments” I want to apply. I can’t remember winning many display media bids in for that price. If you consider that Google is just starting to get into display—and Facebook is just starting to look at display, doesn’t that make you want to change your data strategy a little bit? If your business depends on the sheer amount of your data, you may need to get a longer ruler and think about just how much scale you really have.

There are a lot of ad technology fish swimming in the RTB sea right now, and every single one of them is wet. My advice to them is to break the surface of the water for a second, and see what else is around. RTB will be a part of advertising for a long time, but it will not displace premium, guaranteed advertising. It will also look nothing like today’s RTB in a few years. The advent of private marketplaces, higher value audiences exposed in real time environments, and the emergence of smarter branding metrics (via Vizu and others) is going to turn the conversation back to premium quickly. Jump in…the water is going to be fine.

[This post appeared on 6/23/11 in AdMonsters]

Ecosystemopoly

LUMA Partners amusing “Adtechopoly” game

DIGIDAY: Target, New York, 5 May 2011 – If you work for one of the companies within the famed Kawaja logo vomit map, the only place to be today is at DigiDay Target. The event, in which every single presentation referenced or displayed the famous slide in question, is the nexus point for ad technology executives, publishers, advertisers, and investors looking to understand—and profit from—an increasingly volatile industry.

“The Ecosystem Map is a DR game” – Terence Kawaja, LUMA Partners

From the top down, the digital display advertising ecosystem map may actually look like a Chinese menu from which large, SaaS model companies can select best-of-breed players to consume. Over the coming months and years, most of the companies within the map will either become profitable or (better yet for the acquirer) battered down in valuation, and subject to an exit scenario. The slightly profitable ones will become features of larger platforms. The fun new twist on the LUMA map is the recently unveiled “Adtechopoly,” in which companies appear as Monopoly board game properties, and the players traversing the board are Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, IBM, and Adobe.

Most properties will leverage themselves and go bankrupt (do not pass go, do not collect $200M exit). Many will be acquired, and few will exist as independent businesses. So, what is the prognosis? Here is what I heard this morning:

—  Bubble: What bubble? Just because VCs are pouring lots of risk capital into questionable businesses, doesn’t mean we have a bubble. After all, a VC has to have a fairly low success rate to return value to investors. Unfortunately, according to Kawaja, “over half of the 35 deals in the last year didn’t produce a return on capital.” Kawaja expects that number to increase over time. But bubble? Not really. According to Kawaja, based on 2007 levels, multiples are not nearly where they were, so “it doesn’t feel like a bubble” to him. Unfortunately, it may feel that way for many of the ad technology folks in the room.

—  Who’s going to Take Over: The general consensus has been that Google is going to own most of the decent technology powering the advertising ecosystem, but Kawaja admits to “spending lots of time with IBM, SAP, Adobe, and Oracle.” For big SaaS companies, advertising is just one more industry to power with technology. That being said, “there are some really cool companies trying to piece together a stack” that will aggregate and organize the disparate technologies in the space.

—  Agencies: The holding companies on the new Ad Monopoly map cleverly appear as the railroads. Big, entrenched, and monopolistic, holding companies continue to command the lion’s share of advertiser budgets, but struggle to continue to be relevant to their clients. Agency trading desks were somewhat derided for having nothing more than “pretty logos,” instead of pure play technologies. Clients are looking to their agencies to be system integrators, and evaluate and deploy new technologies on their behalf but…they are agencies. In other words, agencies are not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “systems integration.” Companies like SAP are. When the SAPs of the world are in the game, and having “big company to big company” process discussions with advertisers, do you think Omnicom will not be in the room? Me neither. As Kawaja correctly notes, “inertia is the agencies’ friend” but things are moving pretty quickly.

—  Remarketing: As for this highly popular and effective part of the ecosystem, “these companies only work because of failure.” In other words, according to Kawaja, remarketing to consumers only has to occur because advertiser sites are so non-engaging that the marketer has to pay (again) to bring that consumer back to the site. As advertisers work with their technology and agency partners to build more compelling online experiences, this need will shrink. For me, these companies suggest more of a feature, than a business onto themselves.

—  Where’s the Beef? For Kawaja, “the meat in the sandwich is the intelligence layer.” If we believe that advertising will continue to be more science than art going forward, the companies that win will be those that build the engines that decide “if this, then that” and create performance. Right now, the technologies in the industry are focused on direct response advertising, which provides a hyper intense proving ground for the technologies that purport to inject performance into campaigns, and get data insight out of them. The future, however, will depend on how those technologies adapt to the premium brand advertiser.

—  Creative: There’s been a lot of talk about the need to transfer the rich experience of magazine reading (beautiful photos and design) to cluttered online pages, filled with flashing, annoying, interruptive ads. Project Devil is leading the way in bringing an “engaging, beautiful” experience online, so look for more entrants who can migrate truly interactive (rich media and video) experiences online at scale.

I will have more to come on a very exciting and high quality seminar…including what seems like some virulent industry backlash on 3rd party data and RTB players.  For now, industry players should spruce their properties up as the players warm the dice in their hands, and get ready to traverse the board. The moves your ad technology company makes in the next few months may make the difference between being located at Boardwalk…or Baltic Avenue.

[This post was referenced on the 5/10/11 edition of AdExchanger and published in  Business Insider]

PS: Does anyone else find it hilarious that AOL is the dog?

Dawn of the Dead

Is Your Ad Technology Company Disruptive, or Just Another Zombie?

AdTech 2011, San Francisco CA – Every year, San Francisco is abuzz with hope and opportunity as thousands of ad technology executives pour into a  few square blocks around the Moscone Center to try and turn technology dreams into riches. On the inside of the convention center, an odd assortment of e-mail and affiliate marketing tools vie for the jaded eyes of direct marketers. On the outside, more seasoned media technology executives find themselves in and out of luncheons and panel discussions, mostly trying to figure out the real time landscape, and the data surrounding it.

There is a lot of high risk venture capital fueling the ad technology business, as a very crowded LUMA map can attest. The Kawaja logo vomit slide never seems to shrink, although the dotted red lines indicating acquisitions appear from time to time. Burst Media is probably getting updated on the map as we speak.  Its recent acquisition by Blinkx at a 1-time gross revenue valuation is a stinging reminder that not all dreams (even those with scale) turn to gold. Despite reaching some 61% of the US Population, Burst lost $3M in its last year as an independent operation.

At the recent AdWeb 3.0 conference, venture investors Josh Stein of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (Glam, Skype, Targetcast, Cafe Mom) and Jon Soberg of Blumberg Capital (Legolas, HootSuite, DoubleVerify) talked about what is getting VCs excited in the space…and those companies that are not. Obviously, mobile is seeing an influx of early stage capital as next generation media technology application development progesses. For Stein, “the engagement in mobile is extreme—you may only be getting 3 minutes [of a consumer’s attention], but it is full engagement.” Video is also an area that will see significant investment capital as more and more video content finds its way onto computer, mobile, and tablet screens. YouTube’s recent moves with “Next” around original content creation were cited as positive developments in the space. Also mentioned was the growing area of social curation of video content (using social media technology to make sense of the potentially thousands of “channels” in the ether).

On the other side, Stein questioned the “long term economics” of Groupon and its many clones and also threw cold water on Foursquare by wondering aloud whether  “checking in” is a “long-term, sustainable” business model.  An audience member inquired whether we are currently “in a bubble” in terms of media technology, but the question was quickly dismissed. Unlike real financial bubbles that sweep up pension funds and real estate, “this bubble will likely pop on VCs…not consumers.” I suppose that is refreshing enough for the average consumer, but it is likely that many of the technology executives at AdTech have the fear of being popped along with their overinflated companies.

Lumascape

The recently updated "Display Lumascape" (as of 6.7.2011)

That leads me to the heart of the conversation: what our venture capital friends think of the crowded ad technology landscape, and their assessment of the companies within it. Jon Soberg seems to think that there are a lot of “walking dead” companies on the LUMA map: those companies that “can get quickly acquired by Google for $10 or $20 million, but don’t move the needle for venture investors.” Looking at the LUMA map, I think it is hard to argue with Jon. There are a lot of hands in the middle of the transaction between advertiser and publisher, and many of the companies therein aren’t adding as much value as they are taking out. The difference between truly valuable and exciting companies can easily be summed up by one word: disruption.  In other words, is your company’s technology doing something completely different and revolutionary, or is your company merely adding another incremental improvement or technology layer on an existing process?

It seems like most companies in the middle of the map are the type of companies that are walking dead. “Nice to have” technology rather than “must have” technology that will drive our business forward. So, what advice does the investment company have for the current companies in the space—and those that are looking to raise capital and jump into the crowded ad technology pool?

  • Disruption: As Soberg points out, “it’s not about shaving at the margins, it’s about disruption.” For Soberg, the value of facilitating real time media trading is interesting, but is being “squished out,” making it entirely possible for companies to “arbitrage themselves out of existence.” For me, this simply means that being a bolt-on technology for media trading is not the path to riches, only the path to a low-value exit. Your technology must create value with your data, rather than simply creating more of it.
  • Publishing: How can technology add value to the media transaction to publishers? This is an area ripe for investment and plenty of high value exit potential. In a world of highly commoditized inventory, where publishers have (foolishly) undervalued and overexposed their inventory, technology has a chance to fix things. How can the recent “app” revolution (where people actually pay for content) “reset” online publishing, and start to create higher value inventory? Glam and Tremor were cited as two companies that “add value in the middle of the transaction.”  Technology that enables publishers to “figure out” mobile and video (rather than just helping them sell more remnant inventory) are going to win.
  • Creative: One quote that struck me was Josh Steins’ excellent observation that “the Madmen [advertising] model wasn’t efficient…but it was profitable.” In other words, much of the magic and creativity in advertising has been replaced by technology, but technology isn’t what makes advertising effective. It’s ideas. Absolut bottles represented in every way possible…subservient chickens…the things which get and keep our attention. Maybe technology will standardize a good part of the transactional process of advertising, but the real winners in the ad tech space will be those technologies that help agencies put their focus back on creativity, rather than figuring out month-end billing and reconciliation.

It’s a crowded landscape out there, and there are many more red dotted lines to be added to the LUMA map. The ones that offer disruptive technology ideas that start returning value back to the advertisers and publishers, and away from the murky middle, will be the ones that avoid death…or “walking death.”\

[This article appeared on 4/28/11 in Business Insider]

The Great Publisher Disruption

ADOTAS – Remember when you used to really depend on your local paper? For finding jobs, houses, getting the local weather forecast, selling that boat in your yard, and getting last night’s sports scores? I still do…but barely.

Most of what your local paper offers can be found in greater abundance (and at higher quality) elsewhere and, now that everyone is glued to their iPhone, rather than flipping newsprint on their commute, most of that content is only a click (or, more likely, a finger touch) away.

Jobs Section –> Monster.com
Real Estate Section –> MLS, Zillow
Business News –> WSJ.com
Weather Report –> Weather.com
Classified Sales –>Craigslist
Sports –> ESPN.com
Travel Section –>TripAdvisor.com
National News –> WSJ.com
Gossip –> PerezHilton.com

As the above demonstrates, the only area of superior content the local news website has left is local news, and even that has suffered as papers reduce reporting staff and rely more upon outside content providers to fill pages. Although local papers came to the online party rather late, they managed to quickly build reliable websites and leverage their most valuable content effectively.

Monetizing that content has fallen far short of revenue expectations for the most part. The AAAA’s recent report that ad agencies lose up to a third of their media cost servicing digital media buys (as opposed to only 2% with television) was eye opening, but probably nothing compared to what publishers feel.

Back when I was running sales for a Nielsen group, we were struggling with the fact that the same $100,000 once earned by selling a small schedule of print ads was now taking an enormous effort to create.

With print, you are simply selling space. The advertiser provided the content (a PDF) and you put it inside a magazine or newspaper, alongside compelling editorial. Publishers focused on producing the content they wanted and advertisers produced brand ads that appealed to a like audience.

Then, all of the sudden, advertisers started to lose interest in print advertising alone. Sure, maybe they still ran a small print schedule, but now they wanted some content to go along with it: maybe a “microsite” or a custom series of events, or perhaps an advertorial.

Then publishers found themselves allocating resources to writers, designers, and photographers—and acting like a small agency on behalf of their clients. Kind of cool, but the problem was that the advertiser had the same $100,000 to spend. They were all over you, and they wanted stuff like “ROI.” Publishers’ margins were compressed, resources (once dedicated mostly to producing their own content) were misallocated, and their employees were getting burnt out.

Let’s take this to 2007, and the emergence of social media. Now advertisers didn’t even need publishers to develop their content, because they could create their own blogs from scratch (Blogger) and start building online communities (Facebook). Enter Twitter and now every employee in the building has their own mini PR platform which could be leveraged for the company.

Talk about disruption. With thousands of really smart writers, photographers, and designers willing to work cheaply, from home — and with access to free, web-based tools equal or more powerful than any in-house software a publishing company could provide, now publishers were losing the only edge they had: the ability to produce content at scale.

The Googles of the world will always argue that they “need” content providers like The New York Times to continue to provide thought leadership, but web-based content marketplaces like Associated Content and others have only validated the concept that traditional publishers (no matter how big their websites are) are losing their power positions when it comes to content. (Except WSJ, which produces content so exceptional that people are willing to pay for it, but that’s for another article).

So, in this new reality, the publisher is left trying to protect his last tangible asset: his online advertising inventory. He can’t sell subscriptions, he can’t pay to have leadership in any other category besides local news, and now huge sites can geotarget ads to create larger audiences than he has. Spot quiz: who has more unique users in the Anchorage, Alaska DMA: Yahoo or the Anchorage Daily News? I don’t know either, but this is part of the problem.

When the starting point for most computers is search, local media misses the boat on what used to be their wheelhouse. Search for “Anchorage restaurants” on Google, and Fodors, Yahoo, and the local visitor’s bureau sites come up before ADN.com.

In response to this atmosphere of ever-increasing margin compression, competition, customer dilution, and constant need to understand and embrace new technologies, local publishers turned to the experts in online revenue monetization: networks, exchanges, and aggregators. Now (with networks and exchanges), as simple as placing a few ad tags throughout their pages, newspapers could monetize the 70% of inventory they couldn’t sell directly.

Establishing a daisy-chain of ad calls to backfill their unsold inventory was easy, and at least there was some visibility into revenue (amount of impressions available, divided by 1,000, times 65 cents). Despite the ease of use, the rates continue to be painfully cheap, and you never can really tell what the tolerance level of your audience is for an endless stream of teeth whitening, tanning, diet, or Acai berry offers will be.

Aggregators like Centro, LION New Media, Quadrant One, or Cox Cross Media offer a much better solution: real advertisers that need and respect real local inventory. These aggregators provide a great one-stop shop for advertisers and agencies that may not have the depth of knowledge (or personnel) to negotiate and service a multitude of small buys on dozens of local media sites.

As a result these aggregators earn the money they arbitrage by providing the expertise to buy local media at scale. Smarter companies like Centro are leveraging the in-house systems they have developed over the years to navigate this process and making it available to agencies directly (Transis).

However, when it comes to selling premium inventory, specialized sponsorships, or anything beyond standard inventory, the aggregators can’t really play in that space at scale; advertisers still need to partner with local media to make those deals happen.

Ultimately, I see local websites winning by being able to offer more than just inventory. For them, hustling uniques and impressions is a zero sum game. They will never compete against the networks and (with 65-cent CPMs on their remnant space) the networks and exchanges aren’t exactly their best allies.

What agencies need is for technology to help them scale the way they reach advertisers, in an open and transparent way—and systems that give them the ability to do more than place an ad tag on their pages and pray for a good campaign to hit the transom.

We feel the future for publishers is an open marketplace that enables good local media sites to package their premium inventory to advertisers who truly value the local audience: the regional ad agencies across the country who service the local hospitals, schools, banks, and businesses that need local content aimed at local customers.

Ultimately, publishers need systems that can give them placement level control over their inventory, total pricing and deal point control, and access to both agencies and direct advertisers in the same environment. There should be a place between getting a 75-cent Acai berry ad on your homepage and running a $50 CPM rich media expandable.

Publishers need to be able to negotiate both types of deals, and do them at scale, with total control. An open and transparent marketplace that enables publishers to market their entire inventory—not just remnant—is where the future is headed.

[first published in Adotas, 4/1/2010]

Changing the Game

The Evolution of Real Time Bidding Means Better Inventory, and Higher Bids

For years, publishers have devalued their inventory by letting a daisy chain of remnant inventory networks and exchanges leverage their audience. Because every publisher was willing to place ads on every single page, sheer scale created the opportunity for 3rd parties to extract value by adding the splash of data that changed CPMs from pennies into dollars. As third party data shrinks, the opportunity for publishers to profit from partnering with technology and data companies also shrinks—but the near ubiquity of real time bidding also creates many new and exciting opportunities for publishers to package and sell their higher value inventory and audiences. Here are three tactics critical for succeeding in post-legislation era:

1)      Change the Bids: Although real time bidding has gone from obscure, future-facing media theory to being part of the ongoing media conversation, demand-side players still put RTB in the same bucket as remnant networks. When inventory is being traded in a true exchange that is agnostic with regard to pricing, it is assumed that some inventory will be priced high, and some low. Today, the preponderance of inventory available in both private and public exchanges is composed of the same low-value impressions most networks offer. This will change. Once supply side players start selling their high-value inventory inside exchanges, the game changes. Look for private, exchange-based marketplaces to crop up that connect prime demand side customers with the best inventory available on the planet. This is the future of RTB.

2)      Own the Data: Given the coming legislative tsunami, the common wisdom is that there will be severe shrinkage in the cookie pool, leading to a decline in targetable audience. Consumers will have to opt into targeting—or have much easier access to browser-based tools that enable them to opt out more easily. Either way, it seems apparent that cookie-addressable audiences will decline. For publishers, this may be the greatest thing that ever happened. At what point did publishers decide to let 3rd party technology companies know more about their audiences than they did? While that is somewhat of an exaggeration, I think the successful modern publisher must have a strategy for targeting their own inventory using first-party data.

3) Stop the Madness: Many publishers realize they have a inventory management problem. Like addicts, they know exactly what their problem is doing to their lives but, when confronted by the source of their addiction, easily crumble. For digital publishers, the crack pipe is called remnant inventory and monthly checks from network and exchange enablers keep the ads flowing.  Back in the old days of print publishing, we understood that ads didn’t have to appear on every single page. The expensive ones were in the front, and the cheap ones (classified) were all crammed in the back. Not a bad strategy. I wonder who decided that every single page on the internet had to have 3 standard IAB-sized ads on it. Maybe the time has come to end “value-added” impressions, and cut back the number of remnant ads available on your site. That day won’t come for a while, which is why companies like Rubicon and AdMeld, and PubMatic exist.

As the real time universe becomes more ubiquitous, more than just remnant inventory will be bought and sold on a bidded basis. For publishers, the challenge will not only be how to squeeze every penny out of the cheapest inventory with remnant optimizers, and managing the declining availability of targetable inventory (based on 3rd party data availability). The challenge will be balancing the decline in remnant revenue with the rise in bidded high value inventory. How much of your premium audience will you make available in real time to your existing and new advertisers in open exchanges? Getting that mix correct will make some publishers (and private publisher inventory pools) extremely profitable, and kill other publishers altogether.

[This article appeared on 4/18/11 in iMediaConnection]