The Battle for Workflow Automation: What’s Next for “Programmatic Direct”

ImageEven though programmatic RTB has seen the lion’s share of venture capital funding and an enormous amount of innovation, RTB buying only accounts for 20%-30% of all digital media dollars. The real money still flows through the direct buying process, with agencies spending up to 400 hours and $50,000 to create the typical campaign, and publishers burning through 1,600 hours a month and 18% of their revenue responding to RFPs. What a mess….and an opportunity.

Everybody’s battling for a slice of that direct sales pie, and the game is all about helping buyers and sellers automate the manual processes that drive almost 80% of transactional value.

The Holy Grail for both sides is a web based, connected platform that will enable planners and sellers to thrust aside Excel, and start to transact business in the cloud. Although a number of companies have tried and failed to deliver on the promise of workflow automation, the time seems ripe for true adoption, as agencies are being challenged by their clients to create the same programmatic efficiencies across all media channels that they have embraced with RTB. As we speak, winners and losers are being selected, so let’s look at the landscape.

When you look at all of the companies providing a slice of the end-to-end workflow just in digital media execution, it’s hard to imagine that there can be “one system to rule them all” or a true “OS” for digital media. Yet, the dream is just that: An end-to-end comprehensive “stack” that handles media from research through to billing, and eliminates the many manual tasks and man hours involved in connecting the dots. But what are the realities? Let’s saddle up this unicorn and take a ride:

The End of the End-to-End Stack?

The notion of a single end-to-end “stack” for the digital marketer is a tough vision to execute upon. Build a system that has every little feature that a huge agency needs and you have effectively built something no one else can use. The flip side is building something so standardized that individual organizations find little value in it. The “operating systems” of the future that will win should enable agencies and marketers to leverage a standard operating system, but customize it with their own pricing, performance, and vendor data. This enables the efficiency of standardization while enabling data to provide the “secret sauce” that media shops need to justify their fees.  More importantly, the modern operating system for media must be extensible, to allow for a wide variety of point solutions to integrate seamlessly. The right system will certainly eliminate a few logins, but must not limit the numbers of tools that can be accessed through it. That concept necessitates a highly modern, scalable, API-driven, web-based platform. It will be interesting to see how today’s legacy systems (which are exactly the opposite of what I have described) adapt.

Hegemon Your Bets

Several years ago, I wrote that the merger between Mediabank and Donovan may actually be a good thing—provided it offered more choice, flexibility, and open standards. Looking some three years later, I am not sure agencies have any more of that today. Like any other near monopoly, Mediaocean has a disincentive to open up its ecosystem because it invites competition. So time will tell whether their nascent “Connect” effort will become a way for agencies to quickly consolidate their “stack” around a flexible operating system—or if it’s just an integration tax for vendors (a revenue strategy quickly becoming known as the “Lumascrape”). After an IPO, the company will face enormous quarterly pressure for growth. It will be hard to raise prices on already stretched agencies, so publishers will be in the crosshairs. I smell “marketplace” and some monetization strategies around “programmatic direct” enablement for guaranteed media. And what about open standards? Despite years of work by the IAB, the standards and protocols for creating electronic ordering and invoicing are still very much in flux.

Connecting the Dots

More than anything else, the most exciting thing happening in digital media is seeing real programmatic connections between buyers and sellers for guaranteed media. After so much innovation in programmatic RTB (hundreds of vendors, billions in venture capital), we now have some amazing pipes that impressions can flow through. Unfortunately, this has largely been limited to lower classes of inventory and focused almost exclusively on the DR space. Creating the same programmatic efficiencies for “premium” brand-safe inventory is now starting to happen. Whether it comes from new “programmatic direct” pure play technologies, or happens through the RTB pipes, it will not happen successfully without transparency. That means giving publishers control over their inventory, pricing, and what demand partners can access their marketplaces. Will these connections thrive? Not if vendors charge network-like fees, arbitrage media, or don’t provide transparency. Will the endemic fraud in programmatic RTB push more transactions outside the RTB pipes? I think so, and a lot of publishers (see Yahoo/AOL/Microsoft deal) are betting that there are better ways for buyers to access their inventory.

Time for Real Time

Look at all the RTB players who want a piece of the guaranteed action. Three of them (Rubicon, Appnexus, and Pubmatic) will IPO soon, and be under tremendous pressure to increase revenue, margins, and continue to innovate and find new markets. When international expansion stops providing double-digit growth increases, then it’s time to look toward new streams of demand generation—namely, the 80% of deals not currently flowing through their pipes. Those pipes have been engineered for real-time bidding, but guaranteed deals are neither real-time nor bidded. Can they innovate fast enough to provide real value between buyers and sellers? Can they apply years of innovation in DSP and SSP tech to the more prosaic problem of workflow automation? Probably, but there are still business model issues to work out. Most of these companies have put a stake in the ground for either publishers or marketers, and a transactional platform must be agnostic to sit in the middle. It will be interesting to see how new offerings are received in the marketplace.

As the Chinese curse says, “may you live in interesting times.” Indeed, the past several years of ad tech has been nothing but interesting, but the real action is just starting—and it’s taking place in what was the most uninteresting field of workflow automation.

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 3.12.14]

Programmatic Direct is in the Top of the Second Inning

ScoreboardLately, I have been working on a whitepaper about the “programmatic direct” phenomenon. Part of the research involved surveying a bunch of influential people in the space, and asking them where they thought this new buying methodology was in terms of adoption. Their answers kind of surprised me.

If “programmatic direct” was a baseball game, we are in the top of the second inning.

The game has basically just started, and a few balls have been put into play, but the action is just getting started—and the big sluggers have yet to step up to the plate. If you are a regular AdExchanger reader, you would be justified in thinking that programmatic direct was quickly gaining steam by progressive agencies and publishers. After all, there has been a good deal of hype surrounding the idea of enabling programmatic access to higher classes of inventory, and it seems like almost every ad technology player in the display space is getting into the game.

Sure, some real innovations are happening in programmatic RTB that are enabling private marketplace transactions. Initiation-only auctions and fixed rate deals inside of exchanges are only the tip of the iceberg, though. New web-based technology and advanced ad server APIs are starting to provide real process automation—the tools that will make it easier to buy and sell the 70% of inventory currently procured through the “transactional RFP” process.

However, there are a few major things that need to happen before “programmatic direct” can really take hold:

A Directory: It may sound strange, but one of the biggest failings of digital media has been the lack of a directory for buyers. In direct mail, you can look up how many people get the L.L. Bean mailing list, add all kinds of criteria (males of a certain age that have purchased with a credit card in the past three months), find out exactly what it costs, and who to buy it from. No such thing exists in digital media. Hence, the RFP process, where buyers have to go through hoops just to get a sense of pricing and availability. This simple act of discovery adds time and complexity to every transaction. Today’s programmatic direct systems are being built from the ground up—starting with good information, and also with dynamic pricing and availability information thanks to API connections to DFP and other publisher ad servers.

Standards for Electronic Ordering: Another obvious thing that needs to happen before real process automation can happen in digital is that a set of standards have to be agreed upon. The IAB has known this since 2008, but five years later the “eBusiness Task Force” (now called the “Digital Automation Task Force”) seems no closer to its original mandate. Its stated mission: Updating the XML schema and implementation testing for the electronic delivery of digital advertising business document.” Those documents include Requests for Proposals (RFPs), insertion orders (IOs), and invoices—documents that must be standardized in order for adoption of programmatic direct buying to occur at scale. However, there is urgency like never before to get such standards implemented, and a source close to the action says that “we will see more movement in the next nine months in standards and protocols than has happened in ten years.” Let’s hope so. The wide adoption of a common set of standards and protocols opens up the door to the electronic IO—the key to achieving scale in programmatic direct.

Culture Change: While a directory can be created and standards adopted with lots of hard work, those things are actually easier than the real key to programmatic direct adoption: culture change among agencies and publishers.  Agencies must leverage technology to empower the “23 year old media planner” and give them a reason beyond sneaker parties to go to work. Technology will unleash their creativity and get them focused on solving real problems for clients. Likewise, publishers need to escape the “$200,000 a year salesman,” with his accompanying high T&E and schmoozy selling style. Publishers need data-driven sellers that understand how to drive programmatic adoption, and can sell based on the new “media investment” paradigm happening at agencies—understanding tactically how to spread digital dollars across a broad portfolio of channels. Agencies now they cannot remain stuck with the current cheap labor model. Publishers understand that they cannot keep their higher classes of inventory outside of programmatic channels. Change is hard, but it’s already here.

About a year ago, I said that 2013 would be the year of programmatic direct. It turns out that 2013 has been the year of programmatic direct hype, and a ton of valuable behind-the-scenes work on the technologies that will drive it in the future. But unlike the perennial “year of mobile” programmatic direct will become a reality quickly if some of the above building blocks come together.

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger].

Programmatic Direct isn’t Just about Efficiency

When clients call, speed matters.

When clients call, speed matters.

When you are selling anything, it’s really easy to get caught up in pitching the benefits of your product, and ad technology is no different. Some of today’s new programmatic direct marketing solutions promise to change the very nature of how media buyers and sellers spend their time. Demand side systems are focusing on replacing Excel and e-mail with web-based, centralized systems that take the manual grunt work out of buying. Supply-side systems are tying into publisher ad servers to help create more streamlined access to inventory, without the hassles of secure it via paper insertion orders. While it’s easy to focus on all of the amazing efficiency benefits offered by today’s web-based solutions, it’s also critical to remember to ask your client what’s important to them.

On a recent sales call to a large agency, my old-school sales training kicked in. After showing off all of the neat bells and whistles of my software, I asked the company’s Chief Digital Officer why my ad technology was interesting to his agency. What he said was simple, but illustrative: “Our clients don’t ever come to us and ask what kind of tools we are using to do our jobs. They really couldn’t care less. But they do come to us and ask for huge media recommendations, due within several hours. And they definitely want to know why we are recommending what we are recommending.”

This made a lot of sense. Nobody wants to see the sausage get made, but it had better taste good once it’s cooked. Over the course of our conversation, I took away a few key nuggets that would be valuable for any technology company looking to sell programmatic solutions to marketers and publishers alike.

Clients Care about “Why,” not “How”

This statement is true for both agencies and publishers. An agency’s big client doesn’t care what tools the agency uses to create and execute its media plans (as long as the cost is transparent and within reason), but it does want to understand the overall strategy, rationale behind its vendor choices, and (of course) obtain measureable results. On the publisher side, the clients acquiring the inventory don’t care what kind of tags or datasets produce a targetable audience—they just want the publisher’s “auto intenders” to see ads for their cars.

In both cases, the “how” doesn’t matter—nor should it. Programmatic done right hides the way the sausage is made, and offers simple controls over complex processes. The best companies in the space will be able to turn a sound engineer’s control board (thousands of knobs and switches) into Avid’s Pro Tools. This is particularly important when trying to scale an organization; it is the difference between trying to turn dozens of people into technicians and having a technical system that everyone can use with little training. Companies with the right, scalable technology can grow…and grow fast.

For my agency client, being able to tell his client how he selected the programs on his media recommendation was critical. Using software that could help his planning team make choices based on past performance, alignment with demographic data, or even the client’s first party data was the key. When you have 40 20-something media planners spending millions of dollars, data-driven guidelines are essential, along with the platform to generate them. Likewise, on the publishing side, publishers need to tell their agency clients why certain programs were recommended, and have a systematic way to put together inventory packages that will perform well enough to avoid the dreaded out-clause.

Speed Matters

Another thing the agency CDO told me was how important speed was. They say efficiency doesn’t sell, but when your client is looking for a thoughtful media recommendation in two hours, being able to deliver a plan you can justify means having the tools to move fast, and move smartly. “It’s hilarious to me that our clients ask us for a completely unique, groundbreaking idea—at 6:30 PM—and expect something the next day.” This rolls down the hill to publishers, who are ultimately asked to help contribute to such plans on even shorter notice. Although there’s no cure for overly demanding clients, there is starting to be new programmatic direct solutions that help take some of the viscosity out of the transactional RFP funnel, increasing the speed to which proposals can come to market.

No Data, No Strategic Advantage

“Big Data” is all the rage, but even relatively small data can be the key to success when it comes to digital media buying and selling. “We know that every plan is going to have Facebook, AOL, and Yahoo on it. Access to their inventory and securing it is not the problem,” the agency CDO told me. “The real problem is, how do I know how much to allocate to each? What should my media channel mix be? That’s what we struggle with. Oftentimes, it comes down to gut instinct.”

Right now, data that can help with making those allocations is hidden all over the place: Excel-based media plans and performance reports, ad serving data that’s hard to report on, audience verification data from measurement tools, and in the brains of media supervisors. This structured data, centralized in the right place, can mean the difference between creating accessible insights—or being just another 10 gigabytes sitting on a computer’s hard drive. Agencies should be able to query all of the data available to them programmatically, and offer media choices chosen from algorithms that get smarter every time a campaign is run. Likewise, publishers should be able to systematically recommend inventory packages based on past performance, demographic and contextual relevance—and even whether or not they were re-purchased over time.

Programmatic direct solutions are starting to bring the type of data-driven efficiency once only found in RTB to both advertisers and inventory owners, creating a more “bionic” dynamic, where humans leverage technology to be better, faster, and smarter.

[This article originally appeared in AdExchanger on 10.28.13]