Do Digital Media Agencies Have a Plan?

dude-wheres-my-carDigital agencies used to get paid for unpacking an incredibly complicated digital landscape for marketers. Faced with all kinds of new marketing opportunities, advertisers turned to savvy digital agencies to figure out where to spend their money, and how much of it to dedicate to display, mobile and social channels.

The dingy little secret was that the agencies didn’t really plan much of anything. The way it worked was that agency planners would make an Excel template, create an RFP document, instruct the media owners to send back all kinds of creative ideas and fill out the media plan template. RFPs sent publisher teams spinning into action, churning out exciting-looking PowerPoints with screenshots and suggested spending levels.

Not much of this was scientific. Publishers often promised more inventory than could be delivered, knowing they would never get the full budget allocation. Agencies asked for various “budget levels,” knowing they would allocate only $50,000 per publisher – but asking to see $200,000 plans to get a better sense of where CPMs might be negotiated. At the end of the day, the agencies would pick the winners and losers, usually the five publishers on the last plan, plus a few “challengers” or new ideas to impress the client with “innovation.” Once the plan went live, publishers could count on a quick cancellation or massive change to the contracted plan. Nothing ever seemed written in stone once the first impression was served.

Sounds pretty lame, right? Sadly, a lot of media is still planned this way. But, thanks to all kinds of programmatic innovation, times are rapidly changing and digital agencies are going to have to find out how to change with it.
In the old paradigm, agencies largely provided value by dealing with the intricacies of negotiating with vendors, moving data from plans to ad servers and billing systems and keeping clients in the loop on how their digital media “investments” were performing. Optimization was largely defined as cancelling a bad deal and re-allocating budget into a better one.
Today’s ad technology has given marketers and their agencies a lot more knobs and buttons to push. We are rapidly seeing a shift away from manual, Excel-based processes to nimble, web-based planning technology, driven by centralized data.
There are no spreadsheets inside of MediaMath or AppNexus. Publishers don’t offer PowerPoints in iSocket or AdSlot. And agencies are pushing legacy media-buying systems like MediaOcean and Strata to adapt to a digital world without spreadsheets and fax machines. A host of new, web-based planning and buying systems (like Bionic!) are also starting to disrupt the status quo, as agencies try and reconcile the old ways of buying media with a world in which billions of ad impressions are available through interfaces and big clients like P&G say they are going to buy up to 70% of ads programmatically.

Recently, a big European group of publishers introduced an RFP to have their entire digital inventory catalogued and made available through “programmatic direct” technology. Publishers want to give advertisers the efficiency and access they crave but have complete control over pricing and availability. That’s where the world is heading.
So what happens to an agency whose sole digital expertise consists of sending out Excel templates for publishers to fill out with pricing and avails? Sounds like the value they have been providing – lots of manual horsepower to help with complicated workflow – is going to become completely irrelevant. You can buy all the social media you want through easy-to-use interfaces.

It’s easy to hire a few smart “traders” and give them access to a DSP and gain access to the universe of inventory available in programmatic RTB. And now it’s increasingly easy to negotiate premium inventory deals inside programmatic platforms and secure those guaranteed impressions. A number of big marketers have decided it’s so easy that they are starting to do it themselves by bringing digital marketing in-house.
Digital media agencies’ legacy business models are expiring faster than a Madison Avenue parking meter. What should innovative agencies be doing to change and continue to provide real value to their clients?

  • Planning: “Planning” is not planning anymore. It’s investment management. Even though there are new ways to procure the media, your clients still need to know how it’s performing and moving the needle for their business. Figure out how to measure beyond clicks and common CPA metrics and try to get inside your clients’ real budget numbers. Are you gaining access to the client’s P&L and first-party data so you can help them measure by more important metrics, such as net new customers?
  • Teaching: Just because desktop display and social ads are commoditized doesn’t mean clients don’t need to understand the latest ways to rise above the noise. Are you schooling your clients on nascent native mobile opportunities or the latest ways to leverage RTB video to enable branding at scale? These are ideas that come with the help of vendors and publishers, but agencies need to stop collating others’ ideas and start helping vendors translate their opportunities into the framework of the client’s business. That is where the right digital agency can provide value.
  • Doing: The manual, spreadsheet-driven world of “22-year-old media planners” where labor, rather than strategy, was at a premium are over. But, in a programmatic world, execution – the “doing” – is more important than ever. Reallocating budgets to match performance cannot be totally algorithm-driven when spending is across multiple channels in systems that do not speak to each other. Agencies are perfectly positioned to be in the middle of dozens of systems, reconciling spending and performance against both long- and short-term client goals. That’s a job that can only be done by people.

The irony of today is that lot of systems are starting to make digital media planning less complicated from a transactional and workflow standpoint but the overall digital landscape is more complicated to navigate than ever. The digital media agencies that survive must change the way they plan, teach their clients and execute in order to survive and thrive.

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 7.25.14]

I See Dead People… Responding to my Marketing!

ImageI was recently at a Digital Marketing Association awards dinner where data legend Charles Stryker was being honored. After accepting his award, he told a famous story about data that every digital marketer should know.

A long time ago, the US Postal Service discovered they were paying a ton of money to deliver mail to deceased people. Charles was hired to help them get a handle on their records and create a sort of “Do Not Mail” list. Part of doing the work involved considerable A/B testing to ensure he was making the correct assumptions about the data. Direct response mailers were being sent to groups of dead people and similar groups of folks who were still alive. Something astonishing happened when the results came in.

The dead people responded at nearly twice the rate of the living.

Of course everyone at the dinner (about a hundred senior direct marketing executives) laughed uproariously. They have seen all kinds of unpredictable results with direct marketing. In today’s digital age, marketing is moving faster than ever. The velocity of data is increasing in orders of magnitude, and attribution is going to get even trickier.

What happened with the “dead” people was pretty interesting. It turns out that the successful mailers went to households where the husband of the family died, and the elderly spouses were taking great care to go through and read the mail of their deceased partners. The wives wanted to make sure there was nothing important in those letters—and probably were connecting with their husbands through that simple, daily task. Those widows made a great mailing list “select” since they actually opened and read the mail!

In today’s digital marketing, where we seem increasingly dependent on algorithms and attribution models for targeting and measurement, I wonder if we are too deep in the weeds. Are we forgetting the real, human element of marketing? Do we really understand how success and failure happen with our campaigns? At a recent iMedia agency conference, a lot of the talk was about trying not to forget that advertising is first and foremost about storytelling. Leading with emotion is so important. The marketer has to make an emotional connection with his audience and get them to care.

That struck me when watching a joint town hall workshop with Google and Kellogg’s about dynamic creative. Yes, changing the background color or “call to action” on a 300×250 ad in real time can bump the lift of a campaign incrementally—but are we tweaking a  broken process?

Can we really tell great stories on standardized banner ads?

With the rapid rise of programmatic, a lot of platforms and data companies are fully committed to a standardized industry where scale is king. Display, video, and mobile—biddable and accessible at full scale—is the mandate. Kellogg’s wants inexpensive access to a large electronic palette where Frosted Flakes ads can be constantly tweaked to get optimal performance. Nothing wrong with that.  American Express recently announced an “100%“programmatic” initiative for digital marketing. Why not? Both companies spend tons of money on TV, and optimizing the bottom of the funnel makes complete and utter sense.

But that’s all we are talking about: Optimizing the bottom of the funnel with standardized ads. Sorry, but we are not creating new customers with dynamic 300×250 ads that get a .05% click-through rate. If you are in this business, working for a venture backed startup or newly public adtech company whose value proposition is around driving audience targeting at scale, then you are not “creating stories” online.

As an industry, we need to create digital campaigns that get people to “open the mail.” This is incredibly hard to do with standard display banners, today’s woeful “native” executions, and interruptive social ads. Video has promise, but scale still eludes marketers, and low video completion rates erode available reach considerably.

So, how do you leverage programmatic technology to get great creative out at scale? The only real answer is to automate the workflow behind securing premium inventory and custom programs. That’s where the promise of programmatic direct comes in. Marketers want great ideas from publishers, access to the best inventory they have, and non-standardized units. They just don’t want to pay 10% of their media budgets for planners to cut and paste data into spreadsheets.

Innovation in the space is not just limited to programmatic direct companies with API connections into the publisher side (iSocket, ShinyAds, AdSlot) and workflow automation players (Centro, MediaOcean, and Bionic Advertising)—but also includes RTB players like Rubicon and MediaMath who are building new automation capabilities to augment their RTB stacks. In other words, it’s all about automating the deal right now.

Do they want access to evergreen programmatic campaigns that drive their most likely customers through the bottom of the sales funnel? Of course, and that’s a great job for programmatic RTB. But it does not, cannot, and will never replace the kind of media you can secure through a guaranteed transaction. Also, speaking of dead people responding better—that kind of sounds familiar. In programmatic RTB, some of the best click-through rates come from the dead—fake visitors created by robots.

That said, I think more and more digital advertising will go programmatic, and that programmatic RTB will command the lion’s share of performance budgets. But, when it comes to building brands, bringing automation to the process of securing quality inventory will win.

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 5.13.14]

NextMark Spawns Bionic Advertising Systems

Bionic-Advertising-fka-NextMarkNextMark today announced the creation of Bionic Advertising Systems, a new division focused on delivering technology that streamlines digital advertising workflow for digital marketers, their advertising agencies, and publishers.

“The new Bionic brand represents our philosophy of delivering advertising technology that combines the strengths of humans and machines,” remarked Joe Pych, CEO of NextMark, and co-founder of Bionic. “Over the past few years, there’s been a battle of man versus machine in digital media. Neither side is winning. Instead of man or machine, the best ‘systems’ of the future will be a combination of both. The recent announcements by AOL,Yahoo!, and Microsoft around Programmatic Direct validate this belief and heralds a new age in digital advertising: the Bionic Age. As the name implies, our new Bionic unit is 100% dedicated to delivering solutions for this new era in digital advertising.”

Launched today, Bionic Advertising Systems will encompass NextMark’s solutions for digital advertising, including the latest Programmatic Direct technologies. Bionic’s software automates the mundane processes of digital media planning, buying, and ad operations. It frees media planners, buyers, and sellers to spend their time on higher-value tasks. It enables digital media planners to find advertising opportunities, gather information, create and send requests for proposals, negotiate with publishers, build media plans, execute orders, and implement their campaigns with the click of a button. With its modern API-driven architecture, it integrates with popular agency tools such as DoubleclickMediaMind, and comScore. It’s currently integrating with leading sell-side Programmatic Direct technology providers AdslotiSocket, and Yieldex. Bionic’s Digital Media Planner aims to tie together the many disparate systems used in digital advertising, giving them a single interface that simplifies the way they develop and deliver media plans.

“’Bionic’ is such a great concept for the digital media industry,” added Chris O’Hara, the business unit’s co-founder and Chief Revenue Officer. “A lot of companies in the space think that algorithms and robots are the answer. We know human creativity can be unleashed by automation, and that digital advertising works best when people are empowered by technology.”

Currently, more than forty advertising agencies are using the Bionic Digital Media Planner to create and execute their media plans. More than 900 publishers and networks are using the Bionic Digital Ad Sales System to promote more than 9,000 premium digital advertising programs—the largest directory of its kind, which also powers the IAB’s Digital Advertising Directory.

To learn more, visit the Bionic website: http://www.bionic-ads.com/

The Great Time Suck

Nearly 70% of the $9 billion display media market still occurs in the “transactional RFP” channel. Source: Arkose Consulting

Nearly 70% of the $9 billion display media market still occurs in the “transactional RFP” channel. Source: Arkose Consulting

Why Publishers Hate the Transactional RFP Business 

I have been thinking about, and trying to solve, agency digital workflow problems since 2008.

Given the complexity of digital media, the variety of creative sizes, millions of ad-supported sites, and dozens of ad servers, analytics platforms, order management and billing tools, it goes without saying that the digital marketing stack has been hard for any agency to put together.

Recent research has tracked the immense level of complexity involved in digital media planning (more than 40 steps) and the tremendous expense involved in creating the actual plan (up to 12% of the media spend). It all adds up to a lot of manual work for which agencies are not willing to pay top dollar, along with frustrated agency employees, overbilled clients and a sea of technology “solution providers” that only seem to add to the complexity.

Media planning on the agency side is a big time suck. Yet some agencies are still getting paid for it, so it’s a problem that is going to get solved when the pressure from agency clients increases to the point of action, which I think we’re just now hitting in 2013.

But who is thinking about the publishers? Despite dozens of amazing supply-side technologies for optimizing programmatic RTB yield, there are only a few providers focused on optimizing the 70% of media dollars that flow through publishers’ transactional RFP channels.

DigiDay and programmatic direct software provider AdSlot and recently studied the transactional costs of RFPs. The sheer numbers stunned me. Here’s what one person can spend on a single RFP:

  • 5.3 hours on pre-planning
  • 4.2 hours on campaign planning
  • 4.0 hours on flighting
  • 5.3 hours on maintenance
  • 3.3 hours post-campaign

That’s more than 22 hours – half a business week – spent creating a single proposal and starting a campaign, which, according to the study, has a less than 35% chance of getting bought and a staggering 25% chance of getting canceled for performance reasons after the campaign begins. The result is a 25% net average win rate. That’s a lot of work, especially when you consider how easy it is for agencies to lob RFP requests over the transom at publishers. On average, publishers spend 18% of revenue just responding to RFPs, which translates to 1,600 man-hours per month, according to the study.

So, we have a situation in which agencies, which are firmly in control of the inventory procurement process, are not only wasting their own time planning media, they are also sustaining a system in which their vendors are wasting numerous hours comporting with it. In short, agencies spray RFPs everywhere, and hungry publishers respond to most. The same six publishers make the plan every year, and a lot of publishers’ emails go unanswered. What a nightmare.

 A Less-Than-Perfect Solution

To combat this absurdity, many publishers have placed large swaths of their mid-premium inventory in exchanges where they realize 10% of their value but avoid paying for 1,600 hours of work. The math isn’t hard if you know how agencies value your inventory. Publishers aren’t stupid. Inventory is their business, and most work very hard creating content to create those impressions. These days, every eyeball has a value. Biddable media has made price discovery somewhat transparent for most[CO1]  inventories. Programmatic RTB is great, but not all publisher inventories[TH2]  are created equal. A small, but highly valuable percentage will never find its way into an SSP.

Publishers will always want to control their premium inventories as long as they receive a greater margin after transactional RFP labor costs. Publishers who actually have strong category positioning, contextual relevance, high-value audience segments and a brand strong enough to offer advertisers a “halo” have to manage their transactional business so they can maintain control over who advertises and what they pay. This looks the year that demand- and supply-side software solutions may finally come together to solve the problem of “transactional RFP” workflow.

A couple of new developments:

Demand-Side Procurement Systems Are Evolving: Facing significant pushback from clients and seeing new and accessible self-service media buying platforms gain share, agencies are looking hard at tools to gain efficiency. Incumbent software systems like Strata and MediaOcean are modernizing, while new, Web-based tools are gaining adoption among the middle market. Suddenly workflow efficiency is all the rage and agencies that spend 70% of their money in the transactional RFP space want a 100% solution.

Supply-Side Direct Sales Systems Are Available: A few years ago, there were lots of networks and marketplaces for publishers to put inventory before going directly into exchanges. Many were more generous than today’s exchanges, but still offered low-digit CPMs and not much control over inventory. Now there are a variety of systems that plug directly into DFP and enable publisher sales teams to have real programmatic control over premium inventory. AdSlot, ShinyAds and iSocket are rapidly gaining adoption from publishers that want another premium channel to leverage, without giving up pricing control. To succeed, these publishers’ systems must be connected to the platforms that manage demand.

Who Put Peanut Butter Into My Chocolate? What is slowly happening, and will continue in a huge way in 2014, is that demand- and supply-side workflow solutions will come together. What does that mean from a practical standpoint? Planning systems will be able to communicate with ad servers, eliminating double entry work; ad servers will be able to communicate with order management and billing systems, eliminating even more duplicative work; and the entire demand side system will be able to communicate orders directly into the publisher workflow systems and ad server.

Simply put: Agencies will be able to create a line item in a media plan, electronically transmit an order to a publisher, which the publisher will electronically accept, and the placement data will be transmitted into the publisher’s ad server. A line item will be planned, and it will begin running on the start date. Wow.

That’s what we are starting to call programmatic direct. It’s a world with a lot less Excel and email, with thousands of hours that won’t get wasted on transactional RFP workflow for agencies and publishers.

What kinds of amazing things can do with all that extra time?


[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 11.14.13]

The Fat Middle (and Other Programmatic Direct Myths)

TheFatMiddleI recently sat through some great presentations on “programmatic direct” media buying at the recent Tech for Direct event in New York. With almost 70% of digital display dollars flowing through the negotiated (RFP) market, everyone wants to be in the game. One of the presenters, John Ramey of iSocket talked about what has happened to the advertising yield curve for digital display. This curve starts at the upper left corner with premium inventory capturing the highest CPMs, and is supposed to flow gently downward on the x-axis, towards the lowest value of inventory, ending on the lower right corner. A classic marketplace yield curve.  In this world, ESPN can charge $20 CPMs for their baseball section, sites like Deadspin in the mid-tail can charge $7, and the networks and exchanges aggregating hundreds of sports blogs in the long tail can charge $1. Nice and fair, and rational.

This is not what has happened, though.

As Ramey correctly points out, we have a yield cliff now. This is world in which there are two types of inventory: The super-premium, which is hand sold directly for double-digit CPMs; and the remnant, which is sold via RTB on exchanges or surviving ad networks, often for pennies. In this world of the Haves and Have-Nots, there is no middle class of inventory—even though one could argue that $7 inventory on Deadspin might actually outperform its upscale cousin, ESPN. This inventory disparity we have created in the digital advertising industry has nothing to do with supply and demand, but everything to do with the process by which we transact.

Premium mid-tail buying is a great idea. Back in 2009, marketplace platforms like TRAFFIQ were bringing this innovation to the space, and enabling marketers to cherry pick and aggregate premium quality sites that could offer friendly CPMs and URL-level transparency. It’s not a new concept. In fact, I think premium mid tail buying is the canary in the coalmine for programmatic direct; when today’s technology can make it easy to put together a large array of guaranteed buys, and enable fast and easy optimization, then we will have succeeded. Here what was missing in 2009, and what we need to succeed today:

  • A Centralized Directory:  You can’t buy stuff without knowing what’s available and how much it costs. Other media channels like direct mail have published prices for mailing lists, right down to audience targeting. You want to reach people who have bought something from the Cabela’s catalog in the last six months, and restrict the mailing to men only? No problem. You can find out what it costs, and who sells it. The digital display market needs to be organized in a directory, down to the placement level. You shouldn’t have to wait for an e-mail back from an RFP to find out what known inventory costs. That work is being done now, but has a lot more work to go through before it is comprehensive.
  • An Extensible Platform: Today’s API-driven technology makes it easy to enable buying directly into publishers’ inventory. A link into DFP means buyers can discover availability and start serving ads with a few button clicks. The problem is that agencies want a Single System to Rule Them All. So far, agencies have been stuck with installed, legacy systems that have more to do with billing and reconciliation than media planning and buying. Agencies want new, web-based ways to discover and buy great inventory, but they also want a system that plugs into their existing tools. They are not going to log into another buying system if they don’t have to. A system that can enable premium mid-tail buying at scale either has to integrate directly into existing media management systems—or replace them. Right now, there are a lot of tech companies at work retrofitting old technology or creating new technology that promises to make this a 2014 reality. It’s a horse race, and agencies are starting to place their bets. The winners are the one with the most extensible platforms that are good at integration, and they will be richly rewarded. The rest will fail, or become a point solution in someone else’s platform.
  • The Right Model: This is may be the most important factor in determining programmatic direct success. If you are charging anywhere north of 10% (and some would argue a LOT less than that) to help media buyers aggregate inventory, then you are not a “programmatic direct” technology company. You are an ad network, or media rep firm. The reason for industry consolidation is because disintermediation through technology has its own yield curve: The disruption that occurs always benefits the middle layer first, but markets always rationalize later. Mike Leo, former Operative CEO, told me about how another industry solved a similar problem that was occurring in the media business, where ad agencies were starting to rebel against specialized media buyers who in the middle of the transaction, with opaque pricing methodologies. The year was 1968, and agencies teamed up and decided that a standard rate of 15% was all they were willing to pay for television buying services (and then they eventually bought all of the media buying companies, but that’s another story). Anyway, markets always rationalize themselves, and right now even 15% feels like a big vigorish for agencies with ever-shrinking margins on their media practice.
  • Standards: It’s 2013, and we are still faxing IOs. This is largely because there are no accepted standards—and no protocol—for electronic orders. This is actually not a hard problem to solve, but getting adoption from buyers and sellers is what’s needed. Right now, a few companies are working with groups like the IAB to get real traction with standards, and we need that to succeed to make programmatic direct buying a scalable reality. Electronic orders suck a lot of the viscosity out of the deal pipeline, and start to let the machines do the grunt work of order processing, rather than a $50,000 junior media planner.

The good news is that there has been a tremendous amount of progress in 2013 on all of these initiatives. The promise of true programmatic direct buying is closer than ever, and there is enough real development behind the hype to make these dreams of efficient media buying a reality in the near future. In that future, it just may be possible for a buyer to use demand-side technology to aggregate the “fat middle” of premium mid tail publishers, and start to reward the middle class of inventory owners who are currently getting paid beer prices for champagne content.

Stealing Some Of Microsoft’s 76% Ad Tech Market Share

downloadWhen you think of advertising technology in the display space, the first names you’re likely to think of are Google, PubMatic, Adobe, and AppNexus. But Microsoft? Not really top of mind, unless you are thinking of its disastrous aQuantive acquisition in 2007. Sure, every now and then MSFT will pick up the odd Rapt or Yammer, but is it really having a huge impact in the ad tech space? Even if you’re a regular AdExchanger reader, you’d be justified in thinking it’s not.

But you’d be 100% wrong.

Microsoft has been quietly running the inner ad-technology workings of digital display since the first banner ad was purchased in 1995. According to some recent research, the company’s ad-planning software boasts an amazing 76% market share among agency media planners. MediaVisor ranks a distant second with a measly 9.7 Almost nine in 10 planners who use Excel spend more than an hour a day using its software, while almost 35% use it for more than four hours per day[CO1] . [l2]

That software is called Microsoft Excel.

Released in 1985 (originally for Macintosh), Excel is nearly three decades old and has been powering digital-media planning since its inception. Combined with Outlook, Word, and PowerPoint in the Office suite of products, Microsoft tools have been central to the digital-media planning process for a long time. Planners plan in Excel, publishers pitch in Excel and PowerPoint, contracts are made in Word, and everything is communicated via Outlook. And then there are the billing and reconciliation tasks that occur inside spreadsheets. Nobody ever seems to wonder why more than $6 billion in digital display media transactions (representing nearly 70% of all ads sold) use Microsoft tools and the occasional fax machine.

While innovative companies have challenged the dominance of these systems in the past, early efforts fizzled. The complexities of modern digital-media planning, combined with the reluctance of agency planners to change their behavior, have hindered innovation. Looking at past and current “systems of record” for media buying, it’s no wonder planners are scared of change. If you have ever seen legacy agency operating systems, you wonder if a single dollar was ever spent on user experience or user interface design.

Why Programmatic-Direct Planners Use Excel

As an ad technology “evangelist” of sorts, it is my job to show agencies the future of digital-media planning. This is starting to be called programmatic buying, a term which encompasses both “programmatic direct” buying, which targets the transactional RFP business that accounts for the bulk – 70% – of digital display ads, and “programmatic RTB,” which accounts for the impression-by-impression purchases that represent another $2.4 billion, or 25[CO3] % of the pie.

Companies like MediaMath and AppNexus have made the latter category wildly efficient. Buyers don’t use Excel to create an audience-buying campaign across exchange inventory. Instead, they log into a web-based RTB platform.

For automating guaranteed display buys, though, Excel has become the default for media planners, even though if it doesn’t have the features of many web-based systems available. For example, Excel doesn’t track your changes. When planners change something, multiple files are created, and it’s easy for two people to work on a plan at the same time, duplicating work and botching it up. Excel isn’t Sarbanes-Oxley compliant, either. Agencies end up with thousands of Excel sheets on hard drives and servers, and a complicated file versioning and access system that makes replicating and tracking plans really difficult. Excel doesn’t integrate easily with other systems. At the file level, Excel is great. You can import and export Excel files into almost anything. But Excel can’t send out an RFP, or accept an order. Excel can’t automatically set an ad placement inside an ad server like DFA or MediaMind, or get Comscore updates. Excel is amazingly flexible, but it wasn’t built for media planning.

Today, the average digital-media plan costs nearly $40,000 to produce and takes as many as 42 steps to complete. That’s why, according to a recent Digiday survey, more than two thirds of agency employees will leave their jobs within the next two years. Digital-media planning should be fun and innovative, and young, smart people should want to be spending their time influencing how major brands leverage new technologies and media outlets to sell their products.

The reality is that young media planners are finding their days are filled with reconciling monthly invoices and ad delivery numbers. Have you noticed media planners’ eyes glazing over during your latest “lunch and learn?” That’s today’s young agency employees’ way of calling bullshit on ad tech. Our technology has been making their lives harder and their hours longer, rather than ushering in a new era of efficiency and performance.

How We Can Finally Beat Excel

I believe that dynamic is rapidly changing now. Buy-side technologies from innovative software companies, combined with offerings from sell-side players that are plugging into publisher ad servers are creating a programmatic future by building web-based, easy to use, and extensible platforms.Here are a few reasons these types of systems will start to get adoption:

  • Pushback on agency pricing models: Big agencies have been getting paid by the hour for years, but their clients are starting to push back on cost-plus pricing schemes. After exposure to self-service platforms and programmatic buying, they are getting used to seeing a larger percentage of their money applied to the media, and that trend is only likely to continue. Brand advertisers are demanding more efficiency in direct-to-publisher buys, and that means agencies must start to embrace programmatic direct technologies.
  • User interfaces and user experiences are improving: Young people plan media. They are used to really cool web-based technologies, such as Snapchat and Twitter. Today’s platforms not only centralize workflow and data, but increasingly come with something even more critical to gaining user adoption: a nice interface. When we start building tools that people want to use and a user experience that maps to the tasks being performed online, adoption will quickly increase.
  • Prevalence of APIs: Today’s platforms are being built in an open, extensible way that enables linkage with other systems. Since there are so many phases in modern digital media planning (research, planning, buying, ad serving, reporting, billing) it makes sense for platforms to be able to talk to one another. While some legacy APIs are not the best, they are getting better. Servers-to-server integrations make a lot more sense than 23-year-old planners updating spreadsheets. As David Kenny, CEO of The Weather Company, once remarked, “If you are using people to do the work of machines, you are already irrelevant .”

Because of these factors, I expect 2013 will be the year that programmatic direct buying changes from a fun concept for a planners’ “lunch and learn” to a reality. It’s time for us to finally get cracking on stealing some of Microsoft’s ad technology market share.

[This post was originally pushed in AdExchanger on 4-23-13]

A Publisher’s History Of Programmatic Media

EvolutionIt’s hard to argue that the banner ad era has been good to publishers. After a brief initial period in which banner inventory matched audience availability, publishers enjoyed double-digit CPMs and advertisers enjoyed unique access to a valuable audience of online “early adopters.” Prognosticators heralded a new golden era of publishing, and predicted the eventual death of print. Fifteen years later, print is barely breathing, but publishers are still awaiting a “golden era” where the promise of online media matches its potential. What happened on the long road of publisher monetization, and how did we arrive in this new “programmatic” era?

It didn’t take long after HotWired sold the first banner ad to AT&T for other online properties to start making banner ads part of every page they put onto the Web. Not immune to Adam Smith’s economic theory, banner CPMs lowered as impression availability rose. Suddenly, publishers were in the single digits for their “ROS” inventory, and had plenty of impressions left over every month. Smart technology companies like Tacoda saw an opportunity to aggregate this unsold inventory, and sell it based on behavioral and contextual signals they could collect. Thus, the Network Era was born. Because networks understood publishers’ audiences better than the publishers did, they were able to sell ads at a $5 CPM and keep $4 of it. That was a great business for a very long time, but is now coming to an end.

While not creating tremendous value for publishers, the Network Era did manage to pave the way for real time bidding, and the start of the Programmatic Era. Hundreds of millions of cookies, combined with a wealth of third-party data on individuals, presented a truly unique opportunity to separate audiences from the sites the visited, and enable marketers to buy one impression at a time. This was great for companies like Right Media, who aggregated these cookies into giant exchanges. For advertisers, being able to find the “auto intender” in the 5 trillion-impression haystack of the Web meant new performance and efficiency. For publishers, this was another way to further segregate audience from the valuable content they created. The DSP Era ensured that only the inventory that was hardest to monetize found its way into popular exchanges. Publishers ran up to a dozen tags at a time, and let SSPs decide which bids to accept. Average CPMs plunged.

Over the last several years, it seems like publishers — at least those with enough truly premium inventory — are fighting back. Sellers have brought programmatic efficiencies in two ways: implementing DMP technology to manage their real programmatic (RTB) channel; and leveraging programmatic direct (sometimes call “programmatic premium”) technologies to bring efficiencies to the way they hand-sell their guaranteed inventory. Let’s look at both:

  • Programmatic/RTB: Leveraging today’s DMP technology means not having to rely on third-parties to identify and segment audiences. Publishers have been trying to take more control of their audiences from day one. The smartest networks (Turn, Lotame) saw this happening years ago and opened up their capabilities to publishers, giving them the power and control to sell their own audiences. With the ability to segment and expand audiences, along with new analytics capabilities, publishers were able to capture back the lion’s share of revenue, previously lost to Kawaja-map companies via disintermediation.
  • Programmatic Direct: Although 80% of the conversation in publisher monetization has revolved around the type of data-driven audience buying furnished by LUMAscape companies, 80% of the display advertising spending has been happening in a very non-real-time way. Despite building enough tech to RTB-enable the globe, most publishers are selling their premium inventory one RFP at a time, and doing it with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints, PDFs, and even fax machines. RTB companies are trying to pivot their technology to help publishers bring efficiency to selling premium inventory through private exchanges. Other supply-side companies (like iSocket, ShinyAds, and AdSlot) are giving publishers the tools to sell their premium ads (at premium prices) without bidding—and without an insertion order. On the demand side, companies like Centro, Facilitate, MediaOcean, and NextMark (disclosure: I work there) are trying to build systems that make planning and buying more systematic, and less manual.

As programmatic technology gains broader acceptance among publishers, they will find that they have turned the monetization wheel 180 degrees back in their favor. DMP technology will enable them to segment their audiences for targeting and lookalike modeling on their own sites, as well as manage audience extension programs for their clients via exchanges. They will, in effect, crate a balanced RTB playing field where DSPs and agency trading desks have a lot less pricing control. Programmatic Direct (or, more correctly, “systematic reserved”) technologies will help them expose their premium inventory to selected demand side customers at pre-negotiated prices, and execute deals at scale.

The Programmatic Era for publishers is about bringing power and control back into the hands of inventory owners, where it has always belonged. This will be good for publishers, who will do less to devalue their inventory, as well as advertisers, who will be able to access both channels of publisher inventory with greater efficiency and pricing transparency.

This article originally appeared on 3/14/13 in AdExchanger.

If it’s Not Programmatic Premium, Then what is it?

CountryAndWesternI recently returned from an exciting IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Phoenix, where a packed Arizona Biltmore resort was host to over 800 digital media luminaries. On the tip of many tongues over a two day session was “programmatic premium,” the term our industry is using to describe the buying of digital media in a more automated way.

One particular “Town Hall” type meeting was particularly spirited, as leaders sparred over what “programmatic” meant, whether or not publishers should be using it, and how agencies were leveraging it. Here is what I heard:

We are calling it the wrong thing. Like it or not, the term “programmatic” is tied to the concept of real time bidding. This is natural, given the fact that the last 5 years in ad tech have largely revolved around DSPs, SSPs, and cookie-level data. This creates a problem because, when you add the word “premium” into the mix, you have a really big disconnect. Most folks don’t really consider the large majority of exchange inventory “premium.” Doug Weaver said we should just call it “process reform,” since we are really talking about removing the friction from an old school sales process that still involves the fax machine. Maybe the term should be “systematic reserved” for deals that happen when guaranteed buying platforms (like NextMark, Centro, and MediaOcean) plug into sell-side systems (like iSocket, AdSlot, and ShinyAds) to enable a frictionless, tagless, IO-less buy. It is early days, but I suspect this may be what people are talking about when they utter the term “programmatic premium.”

Private Exchanges Seem like a Fad. For programmatic premium to take off inside of RTB systems, something like having “Deal ID” and “private exchanges” need to be implemented at scale. Yet, for all of the conversation around programmatic premium, I heard very little about private exchanges, Deal ID, and the like. I really think this is because of publishers enjoy having RTB as a channel for selling lower classes of inventory. They are getting better average CPMs from SSPs than they were getting in the network era, and they can experiment with who gets to look at their various inventory and play with floor pricing—a much higher level of power and control then they recently enjoyed. But do they want to sell the good stuff like this? The answer is no. They do, however, want to find ways to get out of the RFP mill that makes the transactional RFP business they manage so cumbersome and people-heavy. Again, that seems to be in the domain of workflow management tools, rather than existing supply-side platforms. If any of the many publishers at the conference were leveraging private exchanges to sell double-digit CPM inventory to a select group of customers via RTB, we didn’t hear a lot about it.

Agencies Love Programmatic. We heard programmatic perspectives from many major agencies throughout the conference, mostly in bite-sized chunks in networking sessions. When asked whether large agencies had less of an incentive to create efficiency in media planning and buying (since they get paid on a cost-plus basis), some agency practitioners admitted this was true but offered that “times were changing quickly.” Clients, having access to many highly efficient self-service buying platforms for search and display (and some, like Kellogg Company, having their own trading desks) there is a lot less tolerance for large billable hours related to media planning. It makes sense; the easier it is to plan a campaign, the cheaper it should be. Marketers would like a bigger chunk of their money going to the media itself. That said, we also heard that agencies are being pushed hard on meeting KPIs—and that even goes for brand marketers. Meeting those KPIs is easier to manage in a programmatic world, and that means pressure to buy through DSPs, rather than emphasizing guaranteed buys. That means lower prices for publishers, and probably necessitates plugging higher and higher tiers of inventory into RTB systems.

We Got Both Kinds

Like the honkytonk saloon in the Blues Brothers that offers “both kinds of music—country and western,” we have to accept two types of “programmatic premium” right now. The first is the notion of buying real premium inventory inside of today’s RTB systems through private exchanges. The second is the notion of buying reserved inventory in a more systematic way. Both approaches are valid ways in which to create more efficiency, transparency, and pricing control in a market that needs it. We just have to figure out what it’s eventually going to be called.

[This article originally appeared in ClickZ on 3/6/2013]

Pubs that Want Reach Extension Need to Own the Programmatic Channel

CaptureShould publishers go beyond the boundaries of their own inventory to sell “reach extension” packages to their clients? Publishers have long struggled with the problem of how to deliver a $100,000 campaign when they only have $90,000 of inventory. Without a strong partner network, the natural answer to that question used to be click arbitrage, an expensive and risky method of campaign fulfillment that often came with less than desirable site visitors.

These days there are several major factors that make reach extension a great opportunity for publishers, rather than a sales mechanism that strays outside their sore realm of expertise.

Publishers with premium inventory sell in three principle ways: Their best inventory is sold in large, customized “tent pole” sales; their standardized premium IAB units are sold through the transactional RFP process; and the rest is sold programmatically, through their remnant daisy chain. They do the first thing really well, especially for big branded advertisers, where they act like a mini creative/media agency to build custom programs. Publishers are also getting much better at the transactional business by leveraging great tools to bring efficiency to RFP response and enabling better demand-side access to their premium inventory (AdSlot, iSocket). The third thing (“remnant”) is the ball publishers continue to fumble, even though enabling an “owned” programmatic channel is getting easier for publishers every day.

Data management is the obvious solution. With the right tools, publishers no longer have to rely on third parties to understand the composition of their audience. The combination of a publisher’s CRM data and site tag data, ingested into one of a dozen amazing DMPs can enable them to segment and target their audience on the fly. Want “auto enthusiasts” on my site? Not only can I sell you a highly creative, customized program and back it up with a large share-of-voice in standard IAB banners within the site section—but now I can find your own customers right on my site…and on Facebook as well.

The last part of that equation (leveraging the client’s first-party CRM data) is where today’s reach extension differs from sending your excess buy to ContextWeb or AudienceScience, as you would in the old days. Now, publishers can find advertisers’ customers within their own site or publisher network and retarget them.  Better yet, pubs can help advertisers put that same first-party data to work on exchanges, including FBX, where match rates (and performance) are high. Really advanced publishers will leverage their DMP to model the audience advertisers are trying to reach, and build a custom lookalike model which can find “alike” audiences within the publisher network itself, or across the exchanges.

Publishers are acting more and more like agencies when it comes to the big premium sales that take multidisciplinary talent to pull off (sales, media, creative, development). Why shouldn’t they act like an agency (or, more specifically, an agency trading desk) when it comes to helping their clients with reach extension goals? If I am a publisher, and my client comes to me looking for the audience I specialize in, I should be able to tell the advertiser how to reach that audience—starting on my own site, but also across the Web in general. The right data management strategy and tools enable publishers to cover all three legs of the buy: sponsorship, transactional, and programmatic.

[This appeared as part of AdMonsters invaluable Audience Extension Playbook, available here.]

Is Programmatic Premium?

Will "buy it now" buttons control display media?

Will “buy it now” buttons control display media?

As the bloated Display LUMAscape shifts, more and more companies focused on real time bidding are turning their venture-funded ships in the direction of “programmatic premium” and trying to pivot towards an area where nearly 80% of display media budgets are spent. This has been called the “Sutton Pivot,” referring to the notion of robbing banks, because “that’s where the money is.”

The fact that that 80%—over $6 billion—is largely transacted using e-mail, Microsoft Excel, and fax machines is staggering in a world in which Facebook is becoming passé. The larger question is whether or not publishers are going to enable truly premium inventory to be purchased in a way that lessens their control. At a recent industry conference, publishers including Gannett and Turner completely rejected RTB and “programmatic” notions. In a world of ever growing inventory, the premium stuff is ever shrinking as a percentage—and that means scarcity, which is the publisher’s best friend. Selling less of a higher margin product is business 101.

As I wrote recently, at the same conference, Forbes’ Meredith Levien laid out the three principle chunks of inventory a super-premium publisher controls, and I want to examine the programmatic premium notion against each of these:

  • Super Premium: Big publishers love big “tent pole” branding campaigns, and are busy building mini-agencies within their sales groups, which bring together custom sponsorship packages that go beyond IAB standard banners. A big tent pole effort might involve a homepage takeover, custom rich media units, a dedicated video player, and branded social elements within a site. While some of the display elements within such a campaign can be purchased through a buying platform, this type of complex sale will never scale with technology, and is the very antithesis of “programmatic.” For many publishers, this type of sale may comprise up to 50% of their revenue. Today’s existing buying and selling platforms will be hard pressed to bring “programmatic” efficiencies here.
  • Transactional: Many super-premium (and most premium) publishers spend a lot of their time in the RFP mill, churning out 10 proposals and winning 2   or 3 of them. This “transactional RFP” business is begging for reform, and great companies like AdSlot, iSocket, Operative, and ShinyAds are starting to offer ways to make selling premium inventory such as this as programmatic as possible. Companies such as Centro, Facilitate, MediaOcean, and NextMark (disclosure: my company) are starting to offer ways to make discovering and buying premium inventory such as this as programmatic as possible. Much of the RFP process is driven by advertisers looking for information that doesn’t need to be offered by a human being: How much inventory do you have, when do you have it, and how much does it cost? This information is being increasingly found within platforms—which also enable, via tight pub-side ad server integrations, the ability to “buy it now.” 100% of this business will eventually happen programmatically. Whether or not today’s big RTB players can pivot their demand- and supply-side technologies to handle this distinct type of transaction (not very “real time” and not very “bidded”) remains to be seen.
  • Programmatic: There will always be a place for programmatic buying in display—and there has to be, with the sheer amount of inventory available. Let’s face it: the reason the LUMAscape is so crowded is that it takes a LOT of technology to find the “premium” needle in a haystack that consists of over 5 trillion impressions per month. If the super-premium inventory publishers have to sell is spoken for, and the “transactional” premium inventory publishers sell is increasingly going to other (non-RTB) platforms, then it follows that there is very little “premium” inventory available to be bought in the programmatic channel.

The middle layer—deals that are currently being done via the RFP process, is where “programmatic premium” is going to take place. In this type of buy, a demand-side platform will create efficiencies that eliminate the cutting and pasting of Excel and faxing and e-mailing of document-based orders, and a supply-side platform will help publishers expose their premium inventory to buyers with pricing and availability details. That sort of system sounds more like a “systematic guaranteed” platform for premium inventory.

So, is programmatic premium? Not the type of programmatic buying happening today.

[This post originally appeared in ClickZ on 2/18/2013]