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Death of the Digital Media Agency?

Here are the three major trends making media agencies less relevant every day.

On the surface, it would seem that running a modern digital media agency would be fun. Being on the cutting edge of media and technology, being in the “social media conversation,” helping clients understand and deploy groundbreaking new technologies…that is the stuff that has turned scores of English majors into media professionals. Unfortunately, the reality of digital media is somewhat more mundane. At the end of the (long, thankless) day, the digital agency is more valued for reconciling ad serving numbers, collating performance reports, and swapping ad tags than delivering groundbreaking new marketing ideas. The true standalone independent digital agencies (MediaSmith and MediaTwo being great examples) happen to manage both, for most traditional agencies that have added a digital practice struggle to make the technology—and, more importantly, margins—work.

If it wasn’t enough having to make a living on the slim margins digital media offers, the industry’s tendency to constantly and rapidly shift means there are major, fundamental challenges that require the digital operator to adjust their approach to the market. Here are the three latest ones, and how they are impacting digital media shops:

Platform Technology

For digital marketers, it’s all about the tools. Ad campaigns need to be researched, negotiated, served, tracked, analyzed, optimized, billed and reconciled. Just five years ago, each of those tasks would require a separate, and often expensive, software tool. There were relatively few agencies willing to build and maintain the expertise to deliver digital media effectively, and fewer that had the scale to do it at a profit. Companies like Operative were born out of the complicated nature of tools like DFA and Atlas, which were so frustrating to use that agencies were willing to pay others to manage it for them.

The sea change in the industry has been about SaaS model “platform” technology that is giving anyone willing to login the tools to effectively manage many different aspects of digital media, from guaranteed display advertising, to real-time bidded display, to search and even social. This not only levels the playing field for smaller agencies, who now have nearly the same level of access as more deeply pocketed rivals, but once obscure DSP type technology is blowing the lid of the supply side’s hold on inventory, giving the local corner agency the ability to arbitrage media like a pro. Not only that, but many of the platform technologies available are venture funded startups out for any revenue they can get, and more than eager to sacrifice some margin to win sales by offering service behind the product. Most trading desks are pushing the buttons for agencies, and many platform technologies do the same. Ask yourself if your technology partner is looking to help you—or eventually displace you completely.

The challenge for digital media practices these days is not how many digital tools they have access to, but how they are utilizing them to extract the best advertising performance, whether it is for branding or performance or even the nauseatingly titled, “branded response.”   There are only so many tools an agency can realistically use, and fewer that they can use effectively. Getting the mix correct, and choosing your partners wisely is the difference between being a digital media tools provider, and your client’s digital media expert.

Shift back to Premium

Back at the Digital Publishing Summit, I heard Greg Rogers of Pictela say this: “Nielsen says people visit 2.9 sites a day, and one of them is Facebook.” I don’t care how many industry conferences you go to this year; you will not hear anything more significant than that statement. Why does it matter? It matters because everything this industry is trying to do with audience targeting depends entirely on reaching consumers across a wide variety of sites. The Holy Grail of advertising we have been chasing (well, venture capital has been chasing) is based on the notion that you can find me with a targeted ad, wherever I am on the web, and not have to pay some huge publisher gatekeeper a premium to get to me. If those people are all on Facebook, that’s kind of a big problem.

It also means that all of the standardization we have done with ad units and ad operations procedures that have been designed to make deploying 3 ad sizes all over the web was a terrible mistake. If a consumer is visiting 2 sites a day that aren’t Facebook, and nobody is clicking on an ad (well, 0.03% of people are clicking on an ad, but it turns out they have no money anyway), then what? It means that marketers have to engage consumers with ads that do things on the page, such as expand, or play video, or tell a story. The exact types of things you cannot do with a standard 300×250, 728×90, and 160×600 commoditized ad unit.

Sorry, but we made a big mistake. Flooding the web with cheap banner ads doesn’t work for performance (unless the media cost is so low that ROI is almost  guaranteed), and it doesn’t work for branding either, thanks to “banner blindness” and a the general reluctance of consumers to drop everything they are doing online, only to be transported to someone’s really big ad (their website). Coincidentally, nobody really wants to “like” your client’s brand, or be their “friend” either. That’s the modern version of the .03% click rate: the sub segment of consumers that will “like” a washing machine company are the same people that have been punching the monkey for the last ten years.

The future of digital display advertising is about using highly premium ad units to engage consumers on the page, and provide them with a rich branded experience. That is why concepts like Project Devil are coming back to the forefront. Your agency has to be an expert at understanding how to deliver customized ad experiences at scale, but also leverage the existing, commoditized tools for display to achieve reach. That means that creative agencies, who increasingly have access to platform technology advertising tools, can put themselves in the driver’s seat by making  the creative—and deploying it too.

Social Media

Now every Tom, Dick, and Harry has access to platform technology, and creative is once again coming back into the forefront. What’s the next challenge for the digital media agency? The coming threat from social media.  If you thought the increasing dependence on social media for marketers would be a boon to the digital media agency, you may want to think again. Much of the social media focus for big brands is within their PR firms, who are challenged to build and maintain a brand’s “social media presence” on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I recently met with a few PR firms who were charged with attracting “friends,” getting tweets, and “likes.”

They are going to do that with media money—and some of them want to keep that money in house, rather than partnering with media agencies to do it for them. A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable, as the cost of hiring a media team would erode much of the margins. Now, with ubiquitous access to platform technology, PR agencies are looking at building small in-house media teams to leverage social budgets, and make deploying social marketing campaigns a core expertise.

The successful digital media agency’s greatest expertise has always been adaptability. The best ones are already building the tools and expertise to help marketers navigate through these times, and partnering with technology companies that can evolve alongside them.

[This post was originally published in eConsultancy on 7/12/11]

Advertising Agencies · Demand Side Platform (DSP) · Digital Display · Digital Media Ecosystem · Marketing · Media Buying · Media Planning · Online Media · Real Time Bidding (RTB) · Remnant Monetization

Ecosystemopoly

LUMA Partners amusing “Adtechopoly” game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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