What Marketers want from AdTech

WhatDoYouWant

If you read AdExchanger regularly, you might think that nearly every global marketer has a programmatic trading strategy. They also seem to be leveraging data management technology to get the fabled “360-degree view” of their customers, to whom they are delivering concise one-to-one omnichannel experiences.

The reality is that most marketers are just starting to figure this out. Their experience ranges from asking, “What’s a DMP?” to “Tell me your current thinking on machine-derived segmentation.”

A small, but significant, number of major global marketers are aggressively leaning into data-driven omnichannel marketing, pioneering a trend that is not going anywhere anytime soon. Over the next five years, nearly every global marketer will have a data-management platform (DMP), programmatic strategy and “chief marketing technologist,” a hybrid chief marketing officer/chief information officer that marries marketing and technology. These are exciting times for people in data-driven marketing.

So, what are marketers looking for from technology today? Although these conversations ultimately become technical in nature, you soon discover that marketers want some pretty basic, “table stakes” type of stuff.

Better Segmentation Through First-Party Data 

Marketers spend a lot of time building customer personas. Once a customer is in their customer relationship management (CRM) database and generates some sales data, it’s pretty easy to understand who they are, what they like to buy and where they generally can be found. From a programmatic perspective, these are the equivalent of a car dealer’s “auto intenders,” neatly packaged up by ad networks and data providers to be targeted in exchanges.

That’s still available today, but the amazing amount of robotic traffic, click fraud and media arbitrage has made marketers realize just how loose some segment definitions may be. Data companies have a great deal of incentive to create and sell lots of auto intenders, so marketers are starting to look deeper at how such segments are actually created. It turns out that some auto intenders are people who brushed past a car picture on the web, which lumped them into a $12 cost per mille (CPM) audience segment.

Those days seem to be coming to an abrupt close as marketers increasingly use their own data to curate such segments and premium publishers, which do have auto intenders among their readerships, use data-management tools to make highly granular segments available directly to the demand side. Marketers are now willing to pay premium prices for premium audiences in a dynamic being driven by more transparency into how audiences are created in the first place. Audiences comprised of first- and second-party data will win every time in a transparent ecosystem. 

Less Waste, More Efficiency

Part and parcel of better audience segmentation is less waste and more media efficiency. The old saw, “I know half of my marketing works, I just don’t know which half,” goes away with good data and better attribution.

As an industry, we promised to eliminate waste 20 years ago. The banner ad was supposed to usher in a brave new world of media accountability, but we ended up creating a hell of a mess. Luckily, venture money backed “solutions” to the problems of click fraud, faulty measurement and endless complexity in digital marketing workflow.

Marketers don’t want to buy more technology problems they need to fix. And they don’t want to spend money chasing the same people around the web. They want to limit how much they spend trying to achieve reach. Data-management technology is starting to rein in wasteful spending, via tactics including global frequency management, more precise segmentation, overlap analysis and search suppression.

Marketers want to use data to be more precise. They are starting to leverage systems that help them understand viewability and get a better sense of attribution by moving away from stale last-click models. The days are numbered for marketers with black-box technology that creates a layer between their segmentation strategies and how performance is achieved against it.

One-To-One Communication Via Cross-Device Identity

Maybe the biggest trend and aspiration among marketers is the ability to truly achieve one-to-one marketing. A few years ago, that meant email, telemarketing and direct mail. Today, if you want to have a one-to-one customer relationship, you must be able to associate the “one” person with as many as five or six connected devices.

That is extremely difficult, mostly because we have been highly dependent on the browser-based “cookie” to determine identity. Cookie-based technologies evolved to ensure different cookies match up in different systems, but it’s a new world today.

Really understanding user identity means being able to reconcile different device signals with a universal ID. That means lots of cookies from different browsers, Safari’s unique browser signature, IDFAs, Android device IDs and even signals from devices like Roku, not to mention reliably “onboarding” anonymized offline data, such as CRM records.

Without device mapping, an individual looks like seven different devices to a marketer, making it impossible to deliver the “right message, right place, right time.” Frequency management is tougher, attribution models start to break and sequential messaging is hard to do. Marketers want a reliable way to reconcile user identity across devices so they can adapt their messages to your situation.

Data-Derived Insights 

Marketers inject tons of dollars into the advertising ecosystem and expect detailed performance reports. Each dollar spent is an investment. Some dollars create sales results, but all dollars spent in addressable channels create some kind of data.

Surprisingly, that data is still mostly siloed, with social data signals not connected to display results. Much of it is delivered in the form of weekly spreadsheets put together by an agency account manager. It seems crazy that marketers can’t fully take advantage of all the data produced by their digital marketing, but that is still very much the reality of 2015.

Thankfully, that dynamic is changing quickly. Data technology is rapidly offering a “people layer” of intelligence across all channels. Data coming into a central system can look at campaign performance across many dimensions, but the key is aggregating that data at the people level. How did a segment of “shopping cart abandoners” perform on display vs. video?

Marketers now operate under the new but valid assumption that they will be able to track performance in this way. They are starting to understand that every addressable media investment can create more than just sales – it can produce data that helps them get smarter about their media investments going forward.

It’s a great time to be a data-driven marketer.

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 4.6.15]

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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.”

There’s No App for That

Building the Technology Stack for Next Generation Digital Media Buying and Selling

Last week’s IAB Network and Exchanges conference was full of the usual self-congratulatory “use cases” of byzantine, data-based strategies for squeezing conversions from web-based display banners for direct response campaigns—or, alternatively, helping to drive “branded performance,” based on the listener’s preference. I was sitting next to an attorney from a large media company, tasked with making sense of the ad technology business. “I have to be honest,” she said, “I have been looking at this business for 18 months, and I still don’t understand what you people are talking about half the time…and I’m a smart person.”*

Unfortunately, that is the exact sentiment of many media planners, account managers, and marketing managers confronting the vast array of choices in display advertising. Once they figure out the alphabet soup of DSPs, RTB, and (now) DMPs, they start to wonder if they actually want—or need—the technology in question. Agencies are trying to figure out how to be the gatekeepers, and advise their clients on the best technologies and practices to drive branding and performance, but the work required to string together all of the various options makes earning money difficult. Digital media margins are in the toilet right now, and will remain there until agencies can manage all of these disparate systems with efficiency.

In the ad technology business, there’s an “app” for almost any way one wants to find and buy an audience—and many more applications for getting and understanding performance. Unfortunately, there is no operating system that can host all of these and make them work together seamlessly. The ideal scenario would be a world in which marketers could bring the different media applications they want to use into a single, unified system. Call it a “media dashboard” that would enable an agency to create a campaign, plug in their 3rd party research data, ad server of record, segmentation data licenses, audience measurement/verification providers, and billing system and enjoy access and control from a single interface. Down the road, as more mature APIs become available, the OS would enable marketers to “plug in” their mobile ad providers, video DSPs, and bid management tools for search marketing.

Almost everyone agrees that this is the future of the business. A famous media investment banker recently remarked that “there are some very smart companies out there

Are you developing your ad technology for the wrong system?

building a technology stack” to address these very issues, but wondered whether SAP or Oracle will be first to the party. My opinion is that the IBMs and SAPs of the world will let a smaller company fight through the growing pains, and let the preferred standardization technology come to light, before swooping in. The big boys can afford to be patient—and nobody wants to be the guy who backed Betamax. The question now isn’t Betamax or VHS—or even PC vs. Mac. The question is, what will be the operating system of next generation digital media, who will support it, and can an active “ecosystem” be maintained that enables technology companies to develop smart applications for it?

I think the answer is yes—and that the next 12 months will be critical in determining what companies will fit into the increasingly complex landscape and those that fail to meet the task. Not long ago, it was extremely difficult to buy from a variety of networks and exchanges efficiently. In comes AppNexus, and suddenly every Tom, Dick, and Harry has access to over 800 inventory sources, and a great bid management tools to boot. Their OS for real time bidding creates real efficiency for marketers—especially when they go through the pain of integration on your behalf. I know quite a few AppNexus users—but very few who will work with data segments that are not natively available in the platform.  The next great media technologies are going to be built for integration into specific systems, offer APIs that enable “easy” data export and ingestion, and flexible so that others can customize them for specific needs.

Evolution is natural to the technology business. Networks become “platforms”…data providers become “DMPs.” Technology companies will forever try and stick their hand in the middle of the transaction between the demand and the supply side, and shave off a sliver of the pie. But, eventually, evolution becomes “revolution” and the game changes for everyone. We are about to find out who has the capital, talent, and vision to devise the next generation operating system for digital media. That system is going to be the one that every company has to develop an “app” for and support, and that system is going to shape the way digital media is bought and sold for a very long time.

As an ad technology company, it’s time to start figuring out how your technology will fit into the larger puzzle if such an OS becomes standard. Is your technology built for an open system, or does your technology (and, more importantly, business model) only thrive in a closed environment? There are a lot of “platforms” out there, but eventually there will only be one operating system. I think there are a lot of really awesome “apps” out there waiting to be plugged into this new operating system, which would benefit from standardization and an installed base of users.

There’s definitely an “app for that.” We are just waiting for the OS.

*That sentiment was also expressed wonderfully in Doug Weaver’s amazing keynote presentation which he was kind enough to make available this morning on iMedia.

[This post appearred on 5/23/11 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]

PLATFORM WARS #1: Endangered Ecosystem?

Is the Current “Digital Advertising Ecosystem” Endangered by Overpopulation?

I am looking at an “ecosystem map” by LUMA Partners banker Terence Kawaja.*It is an 11×8.5 Pantone-hued logo vomit of incomprehensible names:  Blue Kai, AdXpose, Yieldex, AppNexus, Dataxu, TRAFFIQ (full disclosure: I work for the latter one, pronounced “Traffic”). From left to right, the landscape depicts the players in the business of digital display advertising, from those that buy the ads (agencies and marketers) to those that sell them (online publishers) and everyone in between. Over the last few years, not only have the players on either side increased but, thanks (or no thanks) to technology, the broad middle ground between the two has exploded.

Now, the advertiser can access a buying platform , buy on an exchange which uses cookie data to target an audience found on multiple websites, whose audience composition are verified by a third party, who are then served an ad by an ad server, with a creative that may be dynamic, and finally reconciled and billed by yet another software provider. And this is just the run of the mill stuff. Even in an industry rife with middlemen, the noise in the marketplace for the average media buyer is epic. What is happening out there, and why is it so confusing?

To the optimist, all of this wonderful technology is helping marketers buy the audience they have always wanted to target. Instead of having to buy ESPN.com at double-digit CPMs, now the advertiser seeking “sneaker intenders” can plug into a million cookie-appended sites and hit users with a dynamically generated running shoe ad that hits the reader as he is accessing jogging content on a favorite long-tail blog, and deliver him a geotargeted ad that shows him coupon on his size Asics from the nearest shoe store. And all for an $8 CPM. So what’s the problem?

For the publisher, the problem is that it’s way too cheap. After years of publishing all of their content for free, and placing a dozen network and exchange ad tags on their sites to monetize remnant inventory, the world is overwhelmed with banner inventory. Publishers—who sell only 30% of their total banner inventory on a good day—are stuck monetizing the large majority of their banners at an industry average $0.75. Yet, the networks and exchanges who have co-opted the publisher’s very audience via cookie data, are making a cozy $5 CPM selling “audience segments” and “behavioral targeting.” Ouch. You wonder when the (decent) publishers of the world will finally wake up and firewall all of that content they’ve paid a fortune to create and distribute.

In addition to the fact that publishers have been caught flatfooted by the broader trend of buying audience vs. buying the place where it is found, they haven’t really learned to leverage the tremendous power they wield: Owning some very nice eyeballs on one of the most important screens in the market today. Are television ad sellers dependant on several dozen third-party intermediaries who skim 90% of their revenue? No. The money that they have lost due to channel explosion, they have found other ways to make up: namely, monetizing their content through different distribution (DVD sales and rental, DVR rental, overseas distribution, and cable licensing).

The introduction of the iPad was another painful reminder of how poorly publishers are doing when it comes to content monetization. Essentially, they have allowed the ultimate 3rd party (Apple) monetize all of their mobile content for them, and they are left begging at Steve Job’s table for scraps. Oh wait—the “ultimate 3rd party” is actually Google, and they have already let them control their site traffic and much of their content monetization through search. Oops.

So, what is my point, anyway?

The point is about control, and who is exercising it in this increasingly complicated landscape. Looking at the publisher’s dilemma, it is clear that they have (for the time being) surrendered control to a variety of 3rd parties with technology expertise in the hopes of staying relevant in a digital advertising economy. In addition, today’s advertising agencies are increasingly becoming irrelevant, as they are increasingly dependent on the dozens of technology companies that control the way ads are created, displayed, measured, and transacted upon. The agency value proposition of publishers (we have the audience) and agencies (we know how to reach them) has eroded, which essentially opened the door to this new horde of technology players.

Yet, I am pretty sure both sides have only started to fight to get some of that control back. On the agency side, we have seen agencies building their own DSPs, so they can control the inventory and targeting capabilities. On the publisher side, smart companies like Glam are building their own ad platform (GlamAdapt) promising to “a 3rd generation ad platform built for emotional digital branding,” whatever that means. Both sides are trying to take control of the value they create by building platforms, which is admirable. But, in doing so, aren’t they building closed systems that, over time, will create their own ecosystems and be unable to quickly adapt to changes in the market? In other words, are they building Windows, rather than leveraging Linux?

This battle for control is going to see many of the ecosystem players in the middle get absorbed by the larger players on either side of the equation, and an explosion of platforms designed to make sense of the large array of choices and ultimately organize the ecosystem as a whole. The real battle will be among those companies that are building open, scalable platforms that enable both agencies and publishers to choose among the various moving parts, based on their need. In tomorrow’s platform, an agency will register, plug in what ad server they use (Atlas), their primary 3rd party data provider (Comscore), their existing publisher relationships, the different data companies they use (BlueKai, etc), and their billing system (Advantage)—and have a single interface to manage their search and display. Publishers will log into the same system and be able to participate in a marketplace where they set their own rates, and are able to leverage in-system data providers to create discrete audience segments and match them with advertiser needs. Tomorrow’s ad platform will also include both guaranteed buying (great for brands) and RTB buying (great for performance).

In the end, for such a system to exist, all players must start by ceding more control back to the buyers and sellers at the end, and the parties in the middle of the ecosystem must develop the APIs and integration paths that make systems interoperable. As a series, “Platform Wars” will look at all the different players in the space, and the ongoing battle for control as digital media technology evolves, and winners and losers are chosen.

*from his excellent May 3rd presentation at IAB’s Networks and Exchanges keynote address,  with the delightful title of “Parsing the Mayhem,” back when he was at GCA Savvian.
[This article originally appeared in iMedia Connection on 7/14/2010]

The Next Printing Press

Today’s Magazine Publishers have to be Sales, Content, and Technology Organizations to Survive

By Chris O’Hara

 

I am sitting at the airport bar in Dallas, trying to get back to 2010. After attending the Dallas Ad League’s Magazine Day event at the Fairmont Hotel, I feel as though I journeyed to 1995 and back again. Not that I have anything against attractive, skirt-suited southwestern sales directors and their handsome, eminently polite male counterparts. Nor do I have contempt for the magazine industry in general, as many “new media” bloggers seem to. I came from a magazine background, and love magazines. But the atmosphere was decidedly 1999: folding tables stuffed with magazines, sharply dressed sales reps talking about “custom opportunities” and “special sections,” and not a computer display in sight. The lunch itself promised a lively panel discussion that would inform the 200+ attendees what the “digital future” of magazines would be, but the forum was a panel discussion, bookended by two gigantic monitors featuring a single, non-interactive PowerPoint title slide for most of the two hours.

A large portion of the day’s panel discussion was dedicated to the new, $90 million “magazines” campaign, designed to make advertisers feel better about spending money in their products (the “interactive” portion of the event featured the “magazines” video where Jann Wenner (the former editor and publisher of Rolling Stone) and Catherine Black (President of Hearst) get all feisty about audience engagement). Did you know that, during the 12-year lifespan of Google, magazine readership increased by 10%? Or, that “ad recall” has increased by 13% over the last five years? Neither did I, which is why this campaign is so important. Despite the bloodletting of the past several years, magazines remain a highly relevant part of the media landscape. “Magazines have enduring values for readers and advertisers that have gotten a little neglected and misunderstood in the era of Internet instant buzz and chatter,” said Jann Wenner, chairman, Wenner Media. “Magazines are beloved and powerful in people’s lives for very good reasons that need to be remembered and reinforced. That’s what this campaign is about.” Although, I am not sure how one can “misunderstand” a magazine, Wenner’s point is well taken.

The panelists (David Carey of Condé Nast, Michael Clinton of Hearst, and Stephanie George of Time) all did an admirable job of toeing the line. That being said, anytime you see those three so buddy-buddy on stage, you better watch out. Obviously, this new industry love-fest has a lot more to do with survival than pure affection. If their consortium can produce more than a print advertising campaign (irony alert! The best concept these guys could come up with to save their industry was a print ad campaign!), they might actually be dangerous.

The takeaway? These companies were training their employees for the digital age (“some are really adapting, and some are struggling with making the transition,” according to George). They are doing oodles of “custom media” for their advertisers—and even acting like agencies for many of their clients (something that I am sure the WPPs and Omnicoms of the world are enjoying), according to Clinton. And all of them are “building apps.” Lots and lots of apps.

Sounds good.

I wondered, however, when these guys all decided they didn’t want anything to do with the platform itself. The “power of the press” was always based on the fact that the average Joe didn’t have much of a voice, because he couldn’t afford a multi-million dollar printing press. Sure, he could shout from the rooftops and rabble-rouse in the local coffee shop, but that was basically it. The major publishers controlled the loudspeaker, and they could decide to what purpose they would drive their message (start a war, make scads of cash, anoint a president, etc.). Sure, print’s voice got diluted with the emergence of radio and television, but print journalism (the real stuff) still drove the message and shaped the conversation. Anyway, there is really no need to dig up this old conversation; we all know how the internet gave everyone their own printing press (blog), television station (YouTube account), and the means to capture “stories” as a “citizen journalist” (mobile phone).

When did the publishers decide to give up their platform? Why aren’t they leveraging everything they have to standardize the content creation business, and building the next great platform? It’s because they were focused on being sales organizations, rather than content organizations, or even technology organizations. At a certain point, a long time ago, things got mighty comfortable in publishing land. The industry that created the ability to print a trillion newspapers every night and get them into America’s driveways by 5AM, got fat and happy on loads of advertising money, and they started building immense sales organizations, and dedicated all of their creativity and emotion to increasing readership, ad pages, and revenue.  In the meantime, the very platform that they were building this organization on top of was thinning out, and starting to teeter, as disruptive technologies ate away at the foundations.

The magazine business is still a very powerful beast, though. Some 300,000,000 magazines were sold last year, and they generated $19.45 billion in advertising revenue, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. As our panelists pointed out, the average newsstand consumer still just about trips over themselves to shell out $4 to read the latest about Lady Gaga and poor, bamboozled Sandra Bullock, so magazines aren’t exactly dead yet. They still control some very powerful content, and they are starting to get themselves in a position to undo some of the damage they inflicted upon themselves (it should be noted that all of the panelists issued very refreshing mea culpas when it came to the ginormous mistake of making all of their online content free, and depending on banner advertising revenue to fill the gap. Needless to say, that gap only grew wider over the last 15 years, creating the monstrous chasm that exists today). To fill it, these magazine publishers are looking at the iPad as the greatest thing since the PDF replaced film in their production departments.

Early iterations of online magazine publishing “solutions” tried to bring the advertiser value by taking that PDF and putting in online, where readers could see full-page ads, and enjoy the beautiful layouts that make print so special. Later iterations—featuring in-page video, ad “hotspots” with enhanced product information, and other interactive features—also failed, due to the nature of the engagement. When a reader goes to the web, he is often looking for “quick bites” of content, not necessarily the longer, more relaxed, engagements that he ordinarily sets aside for a magazine reading session. The iPad and other smart mobile devices promise a reader that wants an interactive experience, but is more engaged and willing to spend time with content. Maybe he is being held captive by a plane, train, car ride, or (dare I say it) boring business luncheon. The iPad user expects interactivity, and something more than just printed content, and he is willing to pay for it.

The last part of that sentence is really what today’s Ad League Luncheon was really all about. Magazines are the king of the opt-in relationship. People pay good money to get magazine subscriptions, and advertisers know that they are reaching people who are truly engaged with that content. That’s the only kind of validation that’s truly important, and it’s so much more reassuring to an advertiser than a Quantcast or ComScore data pull. People have limited time, and limited money. As an advertiser, I know that I will at least have a chance to “have a conversation” with the reader that has plunked down his hard-earned money to spend some quality time with the content my ad is alongside. That translates to the web, when I start being able to charge for subscriptions—and ultimately lifts CPMs (called WSJ.com lately)? And it translates to high CPMs for whatever advertising we will start to find on iPads and other mobile devices where consumers are willing to pay for applications.

For today’s print publishers to truly recapture the ongoing attention of the modern advertiser, and stay relevant in the post-print era of modern advertising, the prescription is obvious, although difficult:

Make it Exclusive: What sets the price for any product is its supply vs. its demand, whether it’s coffee, hotel rooms, or content. New York City Mayor and media tycoon Michael Bloomberg didn’t get rich because he had the best content. He got rich because he has access to proprietary content that no one else had. The successful content organization has to be able to have the research, stories, and data that no one else has—or present that content in a format that nobody else can match. Whether you are the National Enquirer buying off Perkins’ waitresses to get the Tiger Woods scoop, or you are a B2B publisher with a trade magazine that rounds up the day’s prices for pork bellies on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, you have to lead with content that people can’t find anywhere else easily. The nature of the content always defines the value of the audience, and content companies always win when they can charge enough to break even on the content production, and make the advertising the gravy on top.

 

Make it Expensive: It’s funny how people will plunk down good money for a magazine subscription, but hesitate to pay even a few dollars a month for that same content online. A magazine is an object of beauty, with some heft, and (depending on the title), conveying a certain image. Like it or not, reading the New Yorker in an airport lounge says something about you—just as digging into an issue of ESPN Magazine, or the Economist. Magazines are consumer products, and sold like them, their covers designed to spur us to pay a good amount of money to grab them off the shelf. If I am an advertiser, shouldn’t I expect a reader to be willing to pay $30 a year for all the content you produce? Shouldn’t I demand evidence that your publication is more valuable than the thousands of other free content sources available in your vertical? I think some magazine publishers are finding out that their content isn’t quite as valuable or differentiated as they would like to think. Maybe, after underpaying writers, editors, designers, and developers for decades on end, the reason many hot content producers set off on their own is because they see the opportunity to get paid higher prices for their content (or at least, be able to own it outright). The modern magazine publisher has to get back to producing exclusive, expensive content that readers are willing to pay a premium for.

Make it Interactive: About 4 years ago, I was working for Nielsen and getting pitched by a highly progressive interactive company that was taking magazine reading to the next, interactive level. They had an online magazine that blended social media, video, in-page advertising, and a great package of analytics to tie it all together. You could literally look at a typical magazine fashion shoot, mouse over the various products within the photo, and get instant product information, pricing, and find out where to buy the object(s) of desire. Now, add in location-based marketing with mobile devices, and you have a whole new, highly relevant type of interactivity that today’s publisher can leverage. The fact that most magazine websites are still HTML-based and feature standard banner units speaks volumes. The problem wasn’t the concept or pricing of some of the great online magazine ideas. The problem was that AOL (and other online players) defined the platform before the best content producers could. The magazine industry came up with the 468×60 banner (Hotwired.com), but AT&T had to buy into it to create the standard. Now, it seems as though the advertisers have more say in the process of establishing advertising standards than the publishers. Chris Schembri, VP of Media Services from AT&T (the sole advertiser on the panel) made it clear that marketers were looking for leadership from their publishing partners around creating the digital content standards of tomorrow. Advertisers like Schembri need their publishing partners to create new standards that leverage technology to make their advertising more relevant to today’s audiences. Publishers cannot let their advertisers (or online portals, platforms, and ad networks) tell them what they can sell.

Own the Platform: The biggest challenge facing today’s magazine and newspaper publishers is getting back control over the interactive delivery platform itself. Look how the music industry lost control of their delivery system, and the billions of dollars in lost revenue that engendered. Once technology made it possible to remove a song from a CD and share it with hundreds of people for free, the music industry was sunk. Like publishers today, they found themselves looking to Apple to build a modern platform that would once again value their content. They are finding a rough peace with the 99 cents a song deal they got from Steve Jobs. If the iPads, Kindles, and Sony Readers of the world end up creating the standard for published content, the content owners will have once again been commoditized by technology players and lack control of their own destiny. Publishers need to think about designing the next printing press, rather than have Apple do it for them.

All of this hyperbole aside, I don’t think magazine publishers will ever go away. Over the years, printed magazines, newspapers, and books will be a great luxury. People who would rather read a solid copy of Moby Dick, or fold the Wall Street Journal on the train, or flip through Architectural Digest will be afforded the opportunity to do so—at a premium price. The future for these content manufacturers, however, will be around taking back ownership of the delivery mechanism and setting the standards of tomorrow when it comes to content creation, distribution, measurement, and (most importantly) ad formatting and delivery.

That’s a panel discussion I believe would be worth listing to.

[This article originally appeared as a two-part feature in Adotas from 7/13/2010 and 7/14/2010]

Being There

Today’s Marketer Isn’t Choosing Between DSPs, RTB, and Guaranteed Buys. He Wants it All.

The brave new world of digital display advertising seemingly offers it all. Using the latest and greatest platforms, marketers can access technology that enables them to identify their product’s audience, and reach them at the very moment they are ready to make a purchasing decision. With hundreds of already identified cookies floating out on the web, packed full of personal information, I can find a “42 year-old male with a household income greater than $200,000, who is coming off a GM vehicle lease” and sell him financial services by offering up a dynamically generated banner ad at the very moment he is engaged in financial research. Welcome to the world of DSPs (Demand-Side Platforms), real time bidding (RTB), dynamic creative, and all the 3rd party data you can shake a stick at. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s certainly good for advertisers. Since the advent of “ROI” smart marketers have always looked to technology to find better audiences and serve them ads. That has been true since the first direct mail marketing list was produced, and is still true today. It is the reason Google AdWords gets the lion’s share of digital dough, and you can be sure the next huge wave of addressable advertising (location-targeted mobile ads, perhaps?) comes online in a significant way. For the direct marketer that needs to reach an audience of buyers at scale, this will never go away. Yet, I wonder how much this technology which promises to bring us closer to our true audience is truly achieving that goal. For the brand advertiser looking to build affinity with a certain user, is true context being ignored?

Let me explain what I mean by “true context.” Rather than just looking at what kind of text is on the webpage at the of the visit (context in the current, technical, sense), why aren’t we still concerned with user engagement, which includes not only the time a user spends on the content itself (measureable), but the quality of that content, and the user’s affinity for the brand that produces that content? The latter two metrics are hard to measure, but extremely valuable. There is a reason why the Wall Street Journal commands outsized CPMs, and it’s not only the fact that they have a great audience of high income businesspeople. It also has a lot to do with the fact that people simply love the Journal and, more importantly, they trust the Journal’s content implicitly. This is extremely hard to measure, and impossible to buy at scale in the non-guaranteed space.

Maybe Mindset data added to 24/7’s  inventory can help me buy into an audience where “assertive” people are “52% more likely to be an entrepreneur,” but where am I reaching these people, and what might be their mindset at the time I serve them an ad? Back in the days when people still read business magazines you knew that, by placing a 1/3-page vertical for enterprise software alongside the monthly IT procurement column, you were guaranteed that a good Systems Admin decision maker would be spending some quality time on a page that featured your messaging. More importantly, your prospect was reading highly relevant content while he was in a business frame of mind—with a trusted content source that he subscribed to. Many of the demand-side platforms purport to be able to leverage proprietary and third party data to bring you those users in a brand-safe environment, but the promises are currently just that.

Having to choose between guaranteed and continuously-served display inventory is a straw man argument set up by the providers in the space, advocating for their own platforms. In reality, there is room for all types of buying for the modern banner advertiser, and the three main buckets that agencies seem to place buys in are:

–          Deep and Direct: No exchange or network can offer the power and pure branding play that comes with buying a custom sponsorship on a premium web property. Agencies that have quality brands always make room for affinity publishers that are a good match for brands. Advertisers will always find real value in deep engagements with publishers, through homepage takeovers, sweepstakes, sponsored content, “advertorials,” and everything in between. These ad engagements require the one thing technology cannot provide: creativity. It is hard to see a day when brand advertisers will ever give up the practice of buying deep and direct. In this segment, the mutual fund marketer may work with a publisher to build a co-branded “retirement calculator” and offer educational videos related to investment strategy.

–          Premium Mid-Tail: Not many marketers have committed to exploring the middle range of content sites on the web, but this segment is worth exploring. If you are looking to reach investors online, it’s damn easy to call WSJ.com and call it a day, but the smart marketer can do better. Instead of paying sky-high CPMs on “name” sites, why not engage with brand-safe mid-tail sites like RagingBull, SeekingAlpha, or InvestorPlace that deliver the same audience in a highly engaged environment? It’s essentially the difference between a department store and a boutique. The merchandise (audience) may be similar, but your chances of delivering a more impactful brand experience are always better in a less crowded (less uniques) environment. And the pricing and availability is much easier to work with.  In this scenario, the mutual fund advertiser may select the top 10 mid-tier financial sites and use standard Flash banners to engage with the right demographic audience that’s engaged in investment content.

–         Long Tail: Of course there is always the need to go wide and cheap. It always surprises me that there is so much written about Superbowl ad costs. At an average $30 CPM, this is expensive, but how else are you going to reach 90 million people at the same time? Plus, compared to some newspaper rates, the Superbowl looks cheap. Today’s web marketer is much luckier. With the variety of networks and exchanges out there, you can go extremely wide for a lot less money. Decent reach plays start at $.50 CPMs, and reach with all the bells and whistles (behavioral, geotargeted, contextual, re-targeted) rarely exceeds $10. This type of advertising has been around forever, and will never go away. Technology will continue to drive down the cost of identifying and reaching audience segments, and this is something positive for the industry. In this scenario, a marketer leverages the power of real-time ad serving and third party data, to deliver a targeted, dynamic ad to an “investment intender” based on his cookie profile and the page context.

Guess what? None of the three scenarios are going away—and most agency marketers are interested in taking advantage of all three types of banner buying. That being said, both the “deep and direct” and the “mid-tail” plays offer the modern advertiser a way to engage with readers in a way that respects both their frame of mind when reading—and the quality of the content itself. While the automated ad platforms hint at the ability to reach users in the right place, there is no way to ensure that the user will be found in both trusted content where he is truly engaged.

I think the platforms of the future will provide open architecture that enables the smart marketer to take advantage of all three display buying tactics (and eventually be able to plug into mobile ad platforms, where the future lies). Publishers with focused content that engages their readership in a trusted environment will always be able to command premium rates. Large publishers will always be challenged by mid-tail players with more niche audiences (whether regional, or by specialty). That’s great for the business, as it means more choice for the reader, and more outlets for advertisers seeking greater granularity in content and, therefore, audience. Finally, the emerging class of reach players that can combine data and tools to make audience targeting better and more affordable (on a ROI basis) will always be a great option for the savvy advertiser.  By the time the platform wars are over, using a “DSP” (or whatever they will eventually be called) to reach audiences tactically at scale will be as easy as logging on to your Gmail account.

Agencies and direct advertisers should insist that all three buying tactics be part of the future of digital display, and make sure that the platforms they are adopting are the ones that leave as many options on the table as possible.

[This article appeared in Adotas, 5/28/10]