Every Marketer Needs to See this Napkin

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

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

Napkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LookSmart Adds Display

This is the first in a series of exciting additions to the LOOK portfolio. Stay tuned!

LookSmart Announces Display Capabilities 

Search Marketing Network Adds Display to Product Suite

SAN FRANCISCO, July 17, 2012 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Today LookSmart (Nasdaq:LOOK) announced the addition of display advertising capabilities to its roster of performance-based search marketing offerings. By leveraging performance data from its  search network, LookSmart’s display offering will enable advertisers to extend the reach of their performance campaigns, and achieve higher ROI than typical display campaigns that do not benefit from deep conversion data. Advertisers can buy display advertising on a CPM or CPC basis, and leverage the full power of LookSmart’s managed services team to manage real-time bidding, and deep campaign optimization. Existing search network advertisers will benefit from having historical campaign performance data, which will enable LookSmart campaign managers to quickly optimize display campaigns towards performance goals. Advertisers can also buy display only, and benefit from LookSmart’s historical platform data to get
rapid results.

“We are truly excited about adding display to our advertising solutions,” stated LookSmart CEO Jean-Yves Dexmier. “Most of our advertisers rely on display advertising to influence search behavior, generate more queries, and get ROI lift. Now, our delivery team can run display and search campaigns simultaneously, which has the added benefit of starting with rich conversion data to create a higher probability that KPI goals are achieved more quickly.”

LookSmart’s plans on introducing its display capabilities to its existing advertising base, who can immediately take advantage of  historical data to target audiences with a high probability of conversion. With access to the majority of exchange inventory, extensive first party data, and a broad range of third party audience segments, LookSmart’s campaign optimization team will model its proprietary search performance data to achieve performance quickly.

“Adding display capabilities is the first of many exciting initiatives we have planned for the company,” added Dexmier. “With our robust performance platform, access to billions of daily search queries, and exceptional account and campaign management teams, we are well positioned to deliver performance at scale for direct response advertisers.”

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 Problem of Ubiquity

Is Your Technology Offering Differentiated Enough to Win in the Digital Media Advertising Landscape?

Media buying desks are so 2009. I mean, who doesn’t have access to 800+ exchange inventory sources and 30 different 3rd party data providers?  In a world where well-heeled demand side customers have all of the tools to buy audience efficiently, how do internet marketers effectively communicate?

At this moment in time, digital display advertisers love the idea of audience buying because it seems unique. The concept of buying an audience, rather than the site it is on, is truly revolutionary and will be a continuing part of the digital media conversation for a long time to come. However, many technology companies are being funded, started, and run on the foolish misconception that audience buying vs. site-specific buying is a binary choice. It is not. Large holding company shops are trying to migrate client budgets over to their media buying desks, demand side platforms are trying to displace ad networks, and ad “platforms” are attempting to skim the media cream on all real time transactions by promising better performance through centralization. All of these tactics are doomed to fail.

Context

Unless you are going cheap and deep by buying remnant inventory at under $0.50 CPMs—or going data-heavy and spending upwards of $5.00 CPMs using segmentation to find highly specific premium audience—you are going to need context. In the former case (running wild with sub-$0.50 bids across exchanges) you face the issue of low CTR and the accompanying issue of low brand safety. Your ad is getting out there, but God knows where it’s serving. Then again, at $0.50, why not “spray and pray?” With machine learning, you can easily optimize against a conversion pixel, and let your bidding technology find all the performance that a cheap CPM can yield.

On the other end of the spectrum (using expensive V12 or Bizo segments, for example), you have a highly targeted audience—but a problem achieving scale against such specific targeting goals. Also, while you may be hitting your desired segment, you may be hitting them at the wrong time. As a frequent traveler, I have been frequently targeted with exactly the right ad (Cheap JetBlue flight to SFO) at exactly the wrong time (during my Yahoo! fantasy baseball draft).  Context does matter. Reaching premium surfers when they are engaged in consuming premium content is still relevant. That’s why people pay what they do for full page ads on the Wall Street Journal and that’s why WebMD will never accept “3rd party” advertising. Context matters, intent matters, and a user’s mindframe matters. When I am reading an article about Carmelo Anthony on ESPN.com, and I am in the market for basketball sneakers, I am simply more likely to buy them…because I am in a basketball mindset. Catch me with the same sneaker ad when I am replying to my friend on Hotmail, and it’s highly unlikely that I will break task and respond.

Engagement Methodology

Almost as important as context, is the way that an ad is served.  The majority of online audiences visit about three sites a day—and one of them is Facebook. It’s kind of tough to get into the media mix for the average site. There are two approaches the modern digital publisher can take can deal with this reality. The first is to SEO the hell out of their site, and drop enough tags to ensure an automatic, steady flow of exchange and network advertising. Another method is to firewall their exclusive content and only serve guaranteed advertising. Hybrid models are the norm, but publishers must manage the inevitable channel conflict and data leakage that come from opening up premium ad slots to networks and exchanges. Getting this blend right for websites is step one.

Modern publishers also have to go beyond the website. Today’s publishers are not only offering a blended approach to solving these marketing needs in modern RFPs—they are going beyond the typical RFP response to craft unique digital offerings that reach users that are engaged with digital content on multiple screens. You can’t effectively target pure audience yet on iPads, iPhones, or Android devices. Buy that’s where a lot of content consumption is rapidly shifting, Companies like Phluant (adapting online rich media ads of mobile browsing) are on the forefront of adapting display advertising to the new, mobile environment where they will be seen.

If your development plans do not include interoperability with the multiscreen media world we live in currently, then you are already becoming irrelevant. In the near future, there will be no such thing as “mobile networks” and “in-app” advertising. There will be platform solutions which enable cross-platform messaging (and accompanying analytics) in real time.

Price

A lot of the biggest mistakes modern media buyers make can be attributed to pricing. Todays’ digital media options do not lend themselves to a single RFP, with a static pricing range. The typical marketer looking to find high-income middle-age men who are “auto-intenders” may top out at $12 CPM. This is ridiculous. Marketers (especially old school direct mail marketers), know the value of finding their exact audience may be in the $100 CPM range (if they know they are reaching that exact, qualified customer), or it may be in the $1.00 CPM range (if they simply want to blanket my message to “men” in certain geotargeted area). Audiences are variable—but buying methodologies are not. In the near future, media buying will become programmatic, enabling marketers to populate a more robust RFP template with data—and receive systematic buying templates that span both buying methodologies (guaranteed and real-time) and pricing methodologies as well (CPM, CPC, CPA).

Choice

Today’s world is about choice. The modern digital marketer doesn’t have to face the straw man argument between choosing guaranteed vs. real-time audience buying; neither should he make the false choice of deciding between rich media and standard banners, when both can be deployed seamlessly across a single campaign. Moreover, it is now simple to leverage broadcast creative digitally, and run video advertising units on television, on the web, and on mobile devices simultaneously. As technology rapidly enables interplatform operability, marketers will be able to focus more upon the (all important) creative, than the delivery methodology itself.

As digital delivery systems evolve, marketers will live or die by the power of their creative to captivate. When technology companies finally enable marketers to broadcast their advertising across multiple digital channels at once (online display, video, mobile, DOOH, and cable set-top), the challenge will once again turn to creativity. In a technology-driven media world that enables marketers to produce and stream an advertising message seamlessly into the ether—it’s all about the ad, rather than where it is seen.

Up until now, the conversation in the space has been about delivering ads (by “DSPs” and RTB systems). As digital advertising delivery systems evolve, and every marketer has near ubiquitous access to platforms that enable scale and cross-platform delivery, the conversation is going to shift back to who is producing the best creative.

That’s a conversation I am looking forward to.

[This post originally appeared on 5/12/11 in eMarketing & Commerce]

Ecosystemopoly

LUMA Partners amusing “Adtechopoly” game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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]