Down and Dirty Platform Guide

What’s powering your agency’s black box?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise of the Machines

Where do People Fit into a World that Promises Endless Media Automation?

Ever since man tied a rope to an ox, there has been a relentless drive to automate work processes. Like primitive farming, digital media buying is a thankless, low-value task where results (and profits) do not often match the effort involved. Many companies are seeking to alleviate much of the process-heavy, detail-oriented tasks involved in finding, placing, serving, optimizing, tracking, and (most importantly) billing digital media campaigns with various degrees of success.

Let’s take the bleeding edge world of real-time audience buying. Trading desk managers are often working in multiple environments, on multiple screens. On a typical day, he may be logging into his AppNexus account, bidding on AdBrite for inventory, bidding for BlueKai stamps in that UI, looking for segmentation data in AdAdvisor, buying guaranteed audience on Legolas, trafficking ads in Atlas, and probably looking at some deep analytics data as well. If he is smart, he is probably managing that through a master platform, where he can look at performance of guaranteed display and even other media types. How efficient does that sound?

To me, it sounds like six logins too many. Putting aside the obvious fact that an abundance of technology doesn’t lead to efficiency (how’s “multitasking” working out for your 12 year old, by the way?), I wonder we aren’t asking too much of digital as a whole. How many ads have you clicked on lately? If the answer is zero, then you are in a large club. Broken down to its most basic level, we are working in a business that believes a 0.1% “success” rate is reason to celebrate. But the “click is a dead metric” some say. Really? Isn’t the whole point of a banner ad to drive someone to your website? When did that change?

All of this is simply to illustrate the larger point that the display advertising industry, for all of its supposed efficiencies, is really still in its very nascent stages. Navigating the commoditized world of banner advertising is still very much a human task, and the many machines we have created to wrestle the immense Internet into delivering an advertiser the perfect user are still primitive. For a short while longer, digital media is still the game of the agency media buyer…but not for long.

Let’s look at the areas in which smart media people add value to digital campaigns: site discovery, pricing, analytics and optimization, and billing.

Site Discovery

In the past, half the battle was knowing where to go. Which travel sites sold the most airline tickets? Which sites indexed most highly against men of a certain age, looking for their next automobile? What publisher did you call to get to IT professionals who made purchasing decisions on corporate laptops? Agencies had (and still have) plenty of institutional knowledge to help their clients partner with the right media to reach audiences efficiently and—even with the abundance of measurement tools out there—a lot of human guidance was needed. Now, given the ability to purchase that audience exactly using widely available data segments, the trick is simply knowing where to log in. I just found the latter IT professional segment in Bizo in less than 2 minutes. So the question becomes: how are you leveraging data and placement to achieve the desired result, and how efficiently are you doing it?

Pricing

It used to be that the big agencies could gain a huge pricing advantage through buying media in bulk. Holding company shops leveraged their power and muscled down publisher rate card by (sometimes) 80% or more with promised volume commitments, leaving smaller media agencies behind. Then, a funny thing happened: ad exchanges. All of the sudden, nearly all of the inventory in the world was available, and ready to be had in a second-price auction environment. Now, any Tom , Dick, and Harry with a network relationship could access relatively high quality impressions at prices that were guaranteed never to be too high (in a second-price auction, the winning bid is placed at the second highest price, meaning runaway “ceiling” bids are collapsed). Whoops. With their pricing advantage eliminated, large agencies did the next best thing: eliminated the middleman by building their own exchanges, which we have been calling “DSPs.” So, you don’t need human intervention to ensure pricing advantages.

Analytics and Optimization

What about figuring out what all the data means? After all, spreadsheets don’t optimize media campaigns. Don’t you need really smart, analytical media people to draw down click- and view-based data, sift through conversion metrics, and build attribution models? Maybe not. Not only are incredible algorithms taking that data and using machine learning to automatically optimize against clicks or conversions—but programmatic buying is slowly coming to all digital media as well.  In the future, smart technology will enable planners to create dynamic media mixes that span guaranteed and real-time, and apply pricing across multiple methodologies (CPM, CPC, CPA). Much of that work is being done manually right now, but not for long.

Billing

Sadly, much of the digital media business comes down to billing at the end of the day. Media companies struggle tremendously with reconciling numbers across multiple systems, and agency ad servers don’t seem to speak the same language as publisher ones. The bulk of a media company’s time seems to be spend just trying to get paid, and an incredible amount of good salary gets burnt in the details of reconciliation and reporting. This is slowly changing, but the advent of good API development is starting to make the machines talk to each other more clearly. The platforms that can “plug in” ad serving and data APIs most easily have a lot to gain, and the industry as a whole will benefit from interoperability.

So, are people doomed in digital media? Not at all. There are going to be a lot less digital media buyers and planners needed—but what agencies are really going to need are smart media people. Right now, you need 4 people to manage 10 machines. In the near future, you will need 1 smart person to manage 1 platform—and the other three people can focus on something else. Maybe like talking to their clients.

[This article originally appeared in ClickZ on 4/14/11]