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]

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

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

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

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

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

The End of the End-to-End Stack?

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

Hegemon Your Bets

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

Connecting the Dots

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

Time for Real Time

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

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

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 3.12.14]

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]

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]

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]