Death of the Digital Media Agency (Redux)

ImageLast year, I wrote that the digital agency was dead. I was mostly talking about how platform technology was going to knock a lot of digital media agencies out of business. In a world where over five trillion banner impressions are available every month, I argued, it was simply too much for humans to navigate through the choices and wring branding effect and performance out of campaigns. Well, digital media agencies are still around—but they continue to lose share to platforms as the amount of programmatically bought media increases. With RTB-based spending estimated to rise at an annualized rate of nearly 60% a year, according to market intelligence firm IDC, we could see as much as $14 billion in spending by 2016, or 27% of total display spending. Looks like the machines are slowly taking over.

Fairfax Cone, the founder of Foote, Cone, and Belding once famously remarked that the problem with the agency business was that “the inventory goes down the elevator at night.” That’s a big problem for an industry that relies on 23 year-old media planners to work long hours grinding on Excel spreadsheets and managing vendors to produce fairly mediocre media plans. Cone was talking about IP—what, exactly is the digital agency’s core intellectual property when the majority of the work seems to be hard labor? Digital creative agencies have no such worry. In this world of ubiquity, where everyone has access to wonderful SaaS-model technology that enables real-time bidding and access to trillions of exchange-based advertising impressions, the one place an agency can make an impact is on the creative side. Agencies that can create the miracle of getting more than 1 in 10,000 people to click on an ad, or watch a :30 pre roll video to completion are considered geniuses. But, what about the media shops? Can they really buy more efficiently than machines? More importantly, can they leverage the right machines to once again own the middle position between the advertiser and his prospect?

As I write in my recent report, looking at the history of display advertising, the future doesn’t favor the agency. In the beginning, agencies’ favored relationships with publishers made them a great way to buy media. Publishers aligned their content with the audiences that advertisers wanted (ESPN for sports enthusiasts), and largely controlled their inventory and audience data. Soon enough, the Network Era told hold, and smart companies like Tacoda started segmenting audiences based on context and behavior. By using technology to understand audiences better than the publishers themselves, they put yet another layer of IP between agencies and audiences. Then the DSP Era started, which further decoupled audiences from media. Agencies scrambled to create new vendor relationships with the MediaMaths of the world—but grew nervous that they would be disintermediated, and formed their own trading desks. This era is now evolving in the DMP Era.

After all of promises of easy audience targeting and automation, advertisers are looking at the same disturbingly low click-through rates, near impossibility of true attribution measurement, and spending waste—and determining that their own data is more valuable than most data that they can buy. Their desire to activate their “first party” data has given rise to the “DMP era.” Andy Monfried, who has brought his company Lotame through this transition, sees it this way, “Agencies are attempting to become technology providers for their clients, and from our perception, clients are hesitant to adopt. The larger agency holding companies have made an attempt at understanding first-party data but have come to be just a solution for clients to leverage third-party data. This is due to the lack of agency technology and lack of trust that clients put in agencies accessing their first-party data in a raw state.”

So, what happens now? Are advertisers simply going to license DMP technology, and build small practice groups for audience segmentation, targeting, and analytics? Or, are agencies going to adopt and learn how to become the centralization point for evaluating and helping clients implement new advertising technology? Media Kitchen digital head Darren Herman thinks the way through the trees is through education: “We are super bullish about teaching our strategists to learn the skills of data scientists. While the average media strategists will probably not have the skills of a robust data scientist with a PhD, from Stanford, an entire organization that learns to embrace data and make it useful will be more powerful than a few data scientists sprinkled [through] many. Knowledge of how to action data must both come from the top down and bottom up and be embraced by all. Building a culture that does this is hard as many people resist, but retooling and finding people who want this type of career is what we’re doing.”

Is your agency ready to hire a data scientist? Looks like the days of agencies hiring armies of English majors is over, and the next MIT recruiting session you see may have a few agency folks in attendance. Are digital media agencies dead? The data says not yet.

This post originally appeared on the EConsultancy blog on 12/13/12.

Ad Tech’s Walking Dead Startups (DigiDay Interview)

Chris O’Hara is svp of marketing and sales for Traffiq, a digital media optimization company. He has referred to the clutch of ad tech companies with sizable bank accounts from VC investment, not profits, as the walking dead. O’Hara believes that it’s only a matter of time before a massive fire sale begins in the industry.

Explain the idea of a walking-dead company?

Walking dead companies are venture-funded companies that are sort of stumbling along revenue wise, making enough money to stay afloat or surviving on their financing by having a relatively low burn rate. They’re not going to have a super successful exit anytime in the future. They may be very exciting, innovative companies, but they have a hard time getting VCs pumped up. Venture funds tend to place a lot of bets and hope that they get big wins from a small percentage of them. Like any investment vehicle, a VC’s portfolio has its mix of winners and losers, although the typical VC portfolio tends to be less diversified in terms of its industry focus. When I heard Jon Soberg of Blumberg Capital — it is a backer of Legolas, HootSuite, and DoubleVerify, among others — use the phrase “the walking dead,” it felt extremely appropriate. A lot of companies in the digital display landscape are running out of capital after 3 or 4 years and several rounds of financing—and most of them will exit at low or zero multiple of valuation. Then again, smart investors like Grotech Ventures find a Living Social to invest in every now and again, and that is the kind of deal that can propel the value of an entire portfolio.

 

Are VCs beginning to cool in regards to investing in ad tech and social, in light of the economy?

On the contrary. I think the valuations of LinkedIn, Facebook, and Living Social have the VC community excited, maybe even overexcited, to be honest. The recent Buddy Media announcement is just one example, raising $54 million to plump its valuation to $500 million, and there are sure to more such valuations coming soon. I think what VCs aren’t too excited amount is the amount of companies within the display landscape that are going to flame out, or exit at fire sale prices. Unfortunately, according to Luma Partners banker Terence Kawaja, over half of the 35 deals in the last year didn’t produce a return on capital, and he expects that number to increase over time.

 

What are VCs doing right, or wrong, in ad tech?

If their funds make a decent return on investment, then they aren’t doing anything wrong! It may seem like that to company insiders working for some of the less fortunate companies, but VCs are not in business to keep ad-tech executives in panel discussions at cocktail-soaked industry conferences. They are in business to build companies to sell them, or put them into a public offering. I think certain well-heeled VCs may be making the venture capital business a lot harder by over-inflating the valuations of some of the larger companies in our business, but I think that’s due to the flight of money from increasingly unstable capital markets to other investment vehicles. There is a lot of cash on the sidelines right now, and venture funds are starting to look like a surprisingly safe haven. While that should scare the average investor, it makes for a very fun, frothy environment for ad technology!

 

So how should an investor, in this market, value a Demand Side Platform (DSP) company?

I would give them a 1x-3x valuation, similar to a successful digital media agency — and only if they were showing strong profitability and something unique about their process which was repeatable. The problem with the current landscape is that the excitement has been driven in large part by many of the companies that I have just described — companies with more hype than real technology with a unique IP.

 

What should ad tech Investors look out for?

I think investors have to watch out for a rapidly collapsing landscape, due to the social factor. You have an entire ecosystem built around audience targeting using 3rd party data. The problem? The companies with better and deeper first-party data have a lot more audience — like 750 million profiles for Facebook alone — than all of the companies in our landscape put together. And Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google have just started to define their display advertising strategy. If audience targeting is as easy as it seems to be now, via Facebook, then what is the real value of many of those little logos in the Kawaja map?

 

[This interview was originally published in Digiday on 8/25/11]

The RFP is Dead: New Concepts in Audience Discovery

The Programmatic Approach to Media Allocation is Coming Soon to a Platform near You.

Since its inception, advertising has always been about putting the right message in front of the right audience. Back when televisions were really expensive, and people used to gather around them in bars to watch baseball, beer companies started to do a lot of television advertising. While it’s still pretty easy for marketers to find the right beer demographic on sports programming in broadcast, the new world of multiple screens makes finding that audience at scale tougher every day.

The guy who was likely in the pub watching the game back in the 1940s and 1950s is now watching the game at home, but maybe on his iPad. Or perhaps he’s sneaking it in at work on his computer via Slingbox, or following along on his Android phone on the MLB Mobile app. The point is, there’s no easy way to find him, it’s almost impossible to find him at cheaply at scale, and we may have the wrong way of discovering him online.

The traditional method of finding your audience in the digital space is to put together a campaign request for proposal (RFP) that details the nature of your ad campaign, the audience you are looking for, where you want to find them, and the most you expect to pay to reach them. An agency’s trusted inventory suppliers receive and evaluate the RFP, and put together (hopefully) creative strategies that deliver a way to find that audience, and put the agency’s message in front of the user at the right time, in the right place. This approach makes complete sense. Except when it doesn’t.

Here are some ways in which the traditional, single RFP fails:

Multiple Pricing Methodologies: One of the problems in the traditional RFP process is that the agency is often limited to suggesting a single price range they are willing to pay for the media. For example, a typical RFP for a branding campaign looking for contextually relevant, above-the-fold inventory may suggest a price range to publishers of between $8-$12 CPM. This is fine if the proposal is only going to premium publishers with guaranteed inventory. But what if the advertiser is also interested in finding his audience on a cost-per-click basis? Knowing the historical performance of similar past campaigns, he might suggest a range of $1.50 -$3.50 per click. While the agency is comfortable buying using both methodologies (and certainly prefers the latter), the publisher is left wondering how to respond in a way that gives him the best overall price, and best revenue predictability. After evaluating the campaign, he may well decide that he will fare better on the CPC model, but in the absence of the granular past performance data of the demand side client, he will probably opt for the revenue visibility afforded by a CPM campaign.

Markets tend to work most best when both sides of the transaction have access to similar information. That leads to pricing efficiency, which in turn creates long-term sustainable performance results. Unfortunately, the traditional RFP process tends to strongly favor the demand side customer rather than the inventory purveyor. Add in the possibilities of buying on cost-per-lead (CPL) and cost-per-action (CPA), and you have a situation in which the demand side customer has the benefit of greater data visibility, and the supply side opportunity becomes purely speculative, leading to even more pronounced market inequities. These dynamics have largely occurred due to the seemingly unlimited supply of banner inventory (a supply side problem that will be debated in another article), but the fact remains that today’s standard agency RFP process falls far short of accounting for the multiple ways in which digital media can be bought and sold today.

Multiple Buying Methodologies: Along with a new multitude of pricing choices available to both sides, the emergence of real-time-bidding (RTB) makes the traditional RFP process even less relevant in for today’s progressive digital marketer. Say a marketer wants to reach “Upper income men in Connecticut that are in-market for a BMW 5-Series sedan.” That’s a pretty specific target, and I’ll bet that if a marketer could actually identify and find the several dozen guys in Darien, Stamford, and Greenwich that are looking for that specific make and model of car within the time period of the campaign, they might be willing to bid upwards of $500 CPM to reach him. Unfortunately, if you were to restrict the RFP variable to that exact target, you would end up serving a few hundred impressions, and probably fail to even spend $500 altogether. Naturally, the marketer is willing to bid a lot less find all men and women in Connecticut that are in market for a BMW; or just men in Connecticut in market for a car in general; or even just men in Connecticut, whether they need a car or not. Naturally, bids for each segment will vary widely, and can span from single to triple digits. Without a CPM-based pricing cap, it is not uncommon to see bids above $1,000 for certain impressions, although very few of them are won.

Well executed RTB campaigns have multiple segments that bid at different levels, and impressions are won at widely differing prices. While the marketer expects some visibility around what the effective CPM may be for such a campaign, RTB systems work best when agnostic to media cost, and should depend purely on the advertiser’s CPC or CPA goals. While a marketer can be very specific about his ultimate CPA, CPC, or CPL pricing cap, the traditional RFP does not address his tolerance for certain types of risk, his willingness to deploy a large percentage of media budget for data costs, and his willingness to forgo placement and context in exchange for reaching his ultimate demographic targets. This is just one of the reasons that agencies are having difficulty transitioning to the new world of demand side platforms in general.

New Discovery Mechanisms: Finding your audience by creating a well-crafted RFP and working with inventory suppliers to cobble together an effective buying program is still a great way to reach your ultimate goal, mostly because publishers know their audiences really well and have been able to offer new and creative ways to engage them on webpages (and, now, multiple screens). But what if the publisher isn’t really in control of his audience? What if the content an advertiser wants to be associated with migrates and changes constantly, based on user behavior and activity? I am talking, of course, about user generated content. Companies like Buzz Logic measure the “conversational density” around a topic and find where people are talking about, say, “organic food.” You can’t find that audience with a traditional RFP. The prevalence (or downright dominance) of social media outlets has created an explosion of UGC that is creating content almost faster than marketers can discover it. And that those new content areas are highly desirable to advertisers looking to engage consumers in contextually relevant activities. Those audiences are found via technology. How about finding people through the products they own (OwnerIQ) or even based on their occupation (Bizo)?

RTB and data make finding very granular audiences an intriguing option for marketers, but the traditional RFP process makes it hard to describe a marketers willingness to mix traditional, contextual audience buying (finding fantasy football fans on ESPN, for example) from some of the new audience discovery options (finding college students online based on their ownership of mini refrigerators, for example). Both are possible, and probably great to deploy over the course of a single campaign, but the traditional RFP process doesn’t really address this well.

Allocation: In my mind, the most important aspect missing from the traditional RFP process is that it doesn’t bring the demand and supply sides together effectively to suggest proper budget allocation for a campaign. If you have a $100,000 budget, and suggest $10,000 per publisher, every publisher is going to suggest $10,000 in media—regardless of whether or not they have it available. Moreover, you are going to alienate some publishers that may have larger minimums. The real problem is that the traditional RFP process doesn’t easily allow budget allocation across multiple media types (guaranteed display, real-time bidded display, mobile, video, search, and social) or take into account historical performance data. Essentially, the RFP makes a crude guess at budget allocation, with the marketer using his gut and some past performance data (“well, the $40,000 I spent with Pandora last time performed pretty well, so I’ll do that again”). Although the amount of choices today’s digital marketer has have expanded greatly, his form of communicating specific campaign needs is still an essay-length Word document or form-based technology with limited fields that do not capture the breadth of choices available.

So, what is the answer? New platform technologies are helping marketers expand the way they describe their campaign needs-and their willingness to deploy differing pricing and buying methodologies to reach their intended audience. Real time bidding systems are also giving end users hundreds of different levers to control the types of bids they are willing to make, based on the granularity of the audience, and performance of the inventory they purchased. In coming months, technology will not only expand a digital marketer’s ability to better describe his goals, but also use past performance data to suggest more effective media allocations in the beginning—and during—a campaign. Based on granular campaign attributes, knowledge of price points where certain real-time bids are won, and historical campaign performance, systems will be able to tell the marketer: “Allocate this percentage to SEM, this percentage to guaranteed display, and this much to real-time display” while suggesting the most effective bids to place. This three-dimensional discovery technique is where we are headed. While we are getting ready for its arrival, marketers should start thinking outside the traditional RFP box, and begin configuring new ways to ask inventory partners to find their desired audiences.

[This post originally appeared in eConsultancy on 8/19/11]

TRAFFIQ Talks Private Marketplaces and Other Platform Enhancements

ADOTAS – Demand-side digital media management platform TRAFFIQ expands its offerings so much that it’s hard to keep up. Fortunately, we were able to hit Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing  (and regular Adotas contributor) Chris O’Hara with questions regarding the platform’s latest upgrades (including customized and private publisher portfolios and enhanced financial management tools) as well as the many partnerships the company has formed since the beginning of the year.

ADOTAS: Terence Kawaja’s infamous display ecosystem landscape places TRAFFIQ in “media management systems” with companies like Centro — closer to the supply side than DSPs. Do you think this is a fair placement and why?

 

O’HARA: I don’t think we should put too much emphasis on placement in the landscape chart. Many companies belong in one or more buckets—and some of the logos should appear much larger than others, based on overall impact within the landscape itself. TRAFFIQ, for example, could appear in many of the categories (DSP and Ad Serving being two of them), but I believe there is a revenue threshold to be met before LUMA will place you in multiple buckets.

That being said, I think TRAFFIQ is in the right category. Eventually, the notion is that TRAFFIQ would appear as an overlay to multiple sections of the map, providing dashboard level access to an advertiser’s entire vendor toolset.

How does a media management system differ from a DSP? Confused agency people want to know.

Mostly, it’s nomenclature. I think the term “demand-side platform” is a great term for a technology tool that helps advertisers manage their media. The reality is that now “DSP” means “technology tool for real time managing exchange buying.” Agencies have every right to be confused, as companies within the landscape are changing from network to “platform” and from data provider to “DMP.”

The difference is simply that a “management system” should provide tools that cover inventory discovery, vendor negotiation, offer management, contracts, ad serving, analytics, and billing; DSPs handle a sliver of the overall media buy. For example, TRAFFIQ customers will be able to manage several DSPs within our platform at once.

It seems like the new Private Marketplaces tool allows advertisers to customize publisher and exchange lists — fair assessment, or is there more, so much more?

Right now, TRAFFIQ private marketplaces enables advertisers to buy outside of our curated list of 3,000 guaranteed inventory sources, which is especially important in terms of giving agencies the control they need over media. Publishers increasingly want the convenience and efficiency of exchange buying…without exposing their quality inventory to the world.

Demand side customers like the reach and price efficiency they can achieve with exchange-buying—but still struggle with brand safety and transparency. Our next-generation system will offer both sides a lot more control over who they work with, and that is sorely needed in our business right now.

Can this tool also offer hookups into the increasingly popular private exchanges, such as The Weather Channel’s Category 5 and Quadrant One?

Yes, as long as the demand-side partner has a business relationship in place with the inventory supplier, TRAFFIQ will be able to enable the connection.

Why are agencies going gaga over your new finance management tools?

If agency CFOs could actually go “gaga,” they may be doing so over our new tool for the simple reason that most digital platforms don’t take the vagaries of agency pricing into account. At TRAFFIQ, we have to manage several different pricing scenarios at once.

What is the agency’s margin, and how do they want that margin reflected in the pricing (baked into the media cost, or shown transparently)? How about data and technology fees? Those can be added to the gross media cost, or shown separately as well. Also, handling net and gross costs with publishers has always been challenging.

Smart systems should recognize these fundamental business needs, and expose the correct pricing to everyone within the system, eliminating confusion and duplicative work.

Can you explain how the multiple user permissions work? Why is this important for your agency clients and how can they best be deployed?

For the demand side, multiple user permissions means giving access to a subset of clients for an individual account team. On the supply side, it means having the ability to put the right publisher rep with the right demand side customer.

For example, an individual agency account team may buy from Fred at ESPN for one client, and Joe at ESPN for another. It is also necessary for agencies to be able to manage which of their end-clients gets to view certain reports. Multiple user permissions adds the layer of flexibility that enables TRAFFIQ users to expose the right data to the right set of customers.

What kind of agencies are you working with these days and what kind do you hope to add to your client base? Are you working with brands directly as well?

For the past several years, our focus has been getting total product adoption from the small to mid-sized agency market. Some are the types of shops that have a thriving traditional media practice, but not necessarily the right tools to tackle digital media. Still others are strong in digital, but are struggling with multiple tools, and having a hard time putting all of the pieces together efficiently.

We partnered with some of the great agency groups like TAAN, Magnet Global, AMIN and Worldwide Partners to reach these shops, and have been quite successful. We have also done some work with the holding companies, but mostly on a campaign-by-campaign basis, rather than getting the large shops to adopt our solution fully.

The product features we are working on now will actually enable big agencies to adopt TRAFFIQ by enabling API connections to their existing systems (ad serving, billing, etc). You can’t walk into an agency and ask them to drop all of their vendor relationships at once… You have to be able to work seamlessly with what they have.

What sets apart your attribution services from your media management peers as well as other attribution providers? What kind of extra insight do you provide?

Right now, a lot of our customers are working with our embedded Aperture audience measurement reports. Unlike other platforms, we make it fairly easy to take those demographic campaign  learnings and take action against them. So, it’s not just click- or view-based data; it’s using third-party data to understand who is seeing your campaign, clicking on it, and ultimately converting against it.

We are the only platform that can help marketers react to that data through guaranteed buying—and RTB. In the near future, we will be able to show how our efforts in initial media budget allocation and optimization are driving performance. We also see a great opportunity to get some key attribution metrics out of search and display, once out customers are doing both types of media in the platform at scale.

How does TRAFFIQ integrate first-party and third-party data into audience buying efforts?

Right now we have over 15 data segmentation partners. Some of them work directly with our Trading Desk (we apply those segments to exchange buys), and some of our partners provide both targeting and media execution. We see our role as a platform as provisioning our advertising clients with the right best-of-breed partners, no matter what the targeting need.

That means Proximic and Peer39 for semantic; AlmondNet (now Datonic) for search keyword retargeting; Media6Degrees and 33Across for social targeting; Nielsen, Lotame and eXelate for demo targeting, etc. We also have the ability to match any first-party data with available audience within our real-time bidding system, and find that audience as well.

Do you foresee more mobile partnerships in TRAFFIQ’s future or is Phulant your one and only?

TRAFFIQ is an open platform, and that means we must be willing to integrate partners based on our clients’ needs. We see Phluant as a key TRAFFIQ partner for mobile ad serving, and have plans to work closely with them to define and grow our mobile capabilities. We want to see more standardization around mobile workflow, and that means making it easier for marketers to allocate budgets across different media types (social, search, mobile, video, and display) in one system.

Phluant has developed amazing technology to help marketers take rich media for display  and bring it to mobile devices. That’s a great starting point… and something that can be leveraged across multiple mobile inventory vendors.

Regarding your partnership with Bizo, what kind of opportunities lie in the realm of targeted B2B display?

Bizo is doing an amazing job of bringing the power of B2B to display advertising. Until recently, B2B marketers stayed away from display advertising (or struggled to get online reach with smaller, niche business publishers). Now, they can take the success that they are used to having with targeted direct mail in B2B, and apply that in real time display.

We believe that there are some real opportunities to make both B2B and local display digital advertising more manageable, scalable, and accountable.

Besides its “interesting” name, what about Oggifinogi (recently acquired by Collective Media) attracted TRAFFIQ to make it your video and rich media network partner?

Our customers use Pointroll, Mediamind, Spongecell, and all kinds of third-party rich media vendors, but we needed a reliable “go-to” partner that could help our registered demand-side client base tackle rich media and video more easily. We saw that “Oggi” had a strong commitment to both technology and customer service, and we felt that we could work with their team well. I think Collective media validated what a great partner choice we made there!

TRAFFIQ appears to have spread itself out pretty well across digital marketing channels, so what area is next on the agenda? Social?

The first big channel we are going to tackle after display is search. In a few months, TRAFFIQ will feature bid management tools for search engine marketing right in the platform—along with access to the Facebook self-service ad inventory. This means that, for the first time, guaranteed display, real-time display, search, and social can be managed within the same “media management system.”

It’s going to be exciting, but the real challenge will be making it seamless for marketers—and getting some great insights out of all the data that such an integrated platform will produce. That’s what we’ll be working on over the next several months.

[This interview appeared on 7/2711 in Adotas]

Epic FAIL

This is why agencies buy direct.

Much has been written about the notorious “logo vomit” map of famed internet banker Terence Kawaja. I reference his handy charts on my blog, and often his “Display LUMAscape” as a reference point for thinking about the digital display business, and what will happen to it. Many have tried to navigate through the various categories and dissect what may be “happening” in the space, which is a favorite pastime of company executives trying to raise money for many of the identified advertising technology outfits referenced within. Nobody ever really tries to explain the whole thing, though. It’s just too complicated, I guess. Allow me to try:

 “A few years ago, people started to figure out that you could use technology to target advertising to people on the Web. Ever since then, 250 companies have placed themselves in the middle of the transaction between the advertiser and the inventory, confusing everyone. Now, most of them are running out of money and will sell cheap, get acquired, or go out of business.”

Perhaps that oversimplifies things slightly, but the reality is that there are many companies in the space that are primed for one of those three scenarios. Unfortunately, most of them will sell for less than their investment, or go out of business. Here are the three big reasons we have gotten here:

It was a Bad Idea

The whole point of most of the companies on the Kawaja map is to help advertisers use data to find exactly the right audience at the right time, serve them the right ad, and maybe find something out about them that helps drive branding or sales. In the past, most advertisers used to do that contextually (putting ads for shoes in Vogue, for example) and it seemed to work pretty well. When that Internet thing came along, publishers could get something nearing their print CPMs for “site sponsorships” and premium banner advertising alongside good content. Sooner or later, however, publishers decided to put banners ads on all of their pages, creating the advertising largest inventory glut known to man. That created a big problem.

All of that banner space needed to be monetized somehow, and publishers were quickly discovering that it was hard to make money on the trillions of monthly advertising impressions they had created. But nobody wanted to buy $10 CPM banner ads on message board pages, and the “contact us” page. So, in order to “solve” this problem, exchanges popped up and allowed publishers to “monetize” this space by having various parties bid on the inventory. Things got even better when data companies came in, and were able to layer some demographic data atop those impressions, making audience buying possible for the first time. The venture money flowed, as smart young technologists created fast-moving software companies to help marketers exploit this trend as they sought a way to help reduce industry average CPMs from $20 to $2.

Mission accomplished! In the last 10 years, average CPMs have been drastically reduced, 100% of a publishers inventory is being “monetized” (often by 10 or more companies), and you can target an ad down to one’s shoe size.  So, what’s the problem? Hasn’t turning advertising from an art into a science worked?

The answer is: Yes, but not for all of the companies on that map. People visit three sites a day, and one of them is Facebook. If you want audience targeting, why not just find exactly what you want from a social network? They are the ones with the real audience data. They are also the ones with the audience scale, having about 5 times as many “profiles” as the next largest data company. The problem with all the companies trying to sell you audience targeting and ad technology is that it only works when you have audience scale (they don’t) and deep audience data (they don’t have that either).

Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn (and the next company that people are willing to share their private information with) are going to win the audience targeting game. When you are talking about audience buying at scale, social media IS digital media.

It’s Still about Art

If you believe that the average web user visits only two sites a day besides Facebook, then you better find them on those sites—and give them a really amazing experience with your banner ad. That thing should play video, games, talk to you, and almost pay you to look at it. Since only three out of every 10,000 people will click on it, you had better make sure the creative really tells a terrific story and gets your brand message across too.

That means standard sized banners that work with exchange-based buying are pretty much irrelevant, since they have a hard time doing any of the above. It also means that context has to accompany placement. It is not enough to reach a “35 year old woman in-market for shoes.” You have to reach her when she is on her favorite fashion site, or otherwise psychologically engaged in shoe consideration. The ad should be in a brand-safe environment that engenders trust—and compliments the creative in question. That sounds suspiciously like premium display advertising…the stuff that was being sold 10 years ago!

In a certain sense, we have almost come back full-circle to guaranteed, premium advertising. And that means an emphasis on the creative itself. If you look at the map, it’s clear that creative isn’t a part of the picture…but it might be the most important thing driving the future of the digital display advertising business.

It’s Confusing

Even if agencies and advertisers wanted to take advantage of a few of the of companies cluttering the “landscape,” they would need to log into and learn multiple systems. As a marketer looking to reach women, am I really going to log into Blue Kai and bid on demographic “stamps” from Nielsen, log into AppNexus and apply those to a real-time exchange buy, constantly log into my DART account to check ad pacing and performance, periodically log into my Aperture account to download audience data, and then log into my Advantage account every month to bill my clients? Maybe—but that’s exactly the reason why digital media agencies are making 3% margins lately. Most of these technologies are really great on their own, but string together too many of them and you start to get lost in the data, and are unable to react to it.

For digital marketing to be effective, a set of standards need to be created that enables systems to work together and share information. Basic B-school dogma teaches you that effectiveness starts to break down when a manager has more than 5 direct reports. If you believe that, then it’s not hard to imagine the effectiveness of a 22-year old media planner managing 5 logins on behalf of his agency.  It’s not just confusing, but impossible.

We have built an industry ripe for aggregation, and the Googles, Adobes, and IBMs of the world will not disappoint us! So, what companies will succeed in this ecosystem?

— Social Scalers: If you agree that all reach advertising targeting audiences will eventually be on social networks, then you should look to work with companies that are making social advertising scale effectively. Doing Facebook advertising is incredibly easy—but doing it right is hard. Doing it properly requires extreme multivariate creative optimization and, more importantly, knowing what to do with the mounds of truly actionable audience data that Facebook and other social networks will hand you. Companies like XA.net that are doing this are EPIC WIN.

 — Creative enablers: Since the conversation is coming back to the creative, how can technology help make great creative even better—and help advertisers understand how that creative is being engaged with?  The click is a dead metric to most seasoned advertisers, who are spending more time with branding measurement tools (Vizu) and creative ad analytics startups (Moat) that are well positioned to “science-ify” the truly important part of advertising: the creative itself. Companies doing that well are also going to be EPIC WIN.

 — Standard Bearers: With all of the logins out there, it is inevitable that one company is going to try and create the technology stack for next generation media buying that puts all the pieces together seamlessly. There are a number of companies trying to do this right now (full disclosure: I work for one of them), and I believe there will be a lot of advertisers and agencies relieved to log into a single platform, and be able to access all of their vendor relationships in one dashboard.  This will take some time, but the companies that enable standardization across technology providers will also WIN big.

[This post originally appeared 7/20/11 on eConsultancy blog]

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]

Beyond Bidding

Why Real Time Bidding is More Important than you Think

Last week, I wrote that companies that depend on what we think of as “RTB” are in danger of missing larger opportunities. I argued that RTB technology is important, but that advertisers still need inventory quality, contextual relevance, and scale—something that today’s real time platforms are struggling with. If the game is truly about utilizing data to target audiences, companies are also burdened by an uncertain legislative environment—and the fact that big players like Facebook have an impossible data advantage. My point was not to dismiss the technology itself, only that RTB is only a single piece of the larger digital media puzzle. Getting RTB right is also the key to success for many of the companies in the digital media ecosystem. Here are the trends to look for over the next 18 months:

Moving Upscale

Let’s face it: agencies want to buy what they want, when they want. It doesn’t matter how cheap the prices are. The problem isn’t that agencies don’t understand that some inventory is better delivered through RTB. The problem is that their clients want their ads seen in certain places, and they want to know exactly where those ads will appear, and when they will appear. Clients also tend to want their ads to appear on sites that they have heard of, not necessarily “OpenX  Longtail” or “PubMatic Default” no matter how great the performance is. Human nature is all about exerting control over those things we can control, and it’s no different with advertising. The desire for control in real time bidding leads naturally to demand side domain grouping, in which advertisers carve out limited tranches of pre-approved inventory into which to bid, and forego many of the pure remnant options.

Now that publishers have spent some time exposing their inventory to DSPs, they now have more experience working the systems, and a better sense of what floor prices to set for certain inventory types. I recently had lunch with a large vertical publisher who told me that he recently discovered that a small amount of his inventory was consistently being won at a $1,700 CPM (it appears as though some DSPs do not offer a pricing cap for automatic bids)! At one time, technology companies understood how to monetize inventory better than publishers, but that dynamic is rapidly evolving—and for the better. After a few years of premium and remnant monetization, most publishers have a sense for where their inventory sells and performs best, and they are quickly realizing the benefit of putting more premium inventory up for bid to a trusted pool of advertisers. Watch over the next several months as more publishers take the lessons of exchange-based inventory selling, and start turning $5.00 CPM inventory into $10.00 CPM inventory by leveraging RTB technology to create small, private exchanges for their best inventory.

Private Exchanges

Will building private exchanges be the way ad tech companies score big with their demand and supply side customers?

These private exchanges are more than just a way for publishers to create increased competition for their premium impressions for an installed demand base. Private exchanges are an important piece of the entire monetization puzzle for publishers. Salespeople are motivated by commission plans, not necessarily corporate strategy, and they are also expensive. Reducing the cost of sales—while insuring that every premium impression is monetized properly, and at full value—is top of mind for all publishers right now. They got beat on remnant inventory technology, and you better believe that they won’t get fooled twice with their premium supply. They are going to figure out a way to let technology help them control and monetize it, and they are going to keep the lion’s share of the revenue for themselves. Innovative companies like aiMatch are helping to revolutionize this effort.

Private exchanges are going to enable publishers to place their entire premium inventory into biddable buckets, and let their advertisers have “seats” that enable them to get access. Ultimately, certain publishers will have upfront markets, in which the most premium inventory is sold for holiday times—and an active “spot market” in which the remainder of their premium inventory is sold at prices that exceed variable floor prices. Publishers will employ trading desk operatives that control the inventory they place in all exchanges (remnant and private), and employ fewer salespeople to hold the biggest clients’ hands. RTB is simply not about making cheap inventory better anymore. It’s about creating new market dynamics that raise the cost of the valuable inventory—and lessen the cost of sales.

Beyond Display

So much energy in the Kawaja logo vomit map has been created by companies in the real time display space that I believe we, as an industry, are somewhat blind to the opportunities happening in real time elsewhere. Digital media marketing is about marrying best practices in display, search, affiliate marketing, mobile, and video to get results. As branding becomes more measurable (thanks to Vizu, Aperture, and other technologies), more and more brand money is going to the digital pie. It’s quite simple: brand money goes to where the eyeballs congregate, and they happen to be cast upon computer screens, mobile phones, and tablets as much as television and newspapers these days. However, putting all of that together is not easy for the modern digital marketer. Real time can help.

Real time buying systems are slowly migrating from pure display into multi-channel media management systems that can find cost efficiencies across display, search, and mobile. AppNexus recently released Windows Mobile inventory into its exchange, and Android browser inventory is sure to follow. Now, you can bid for eyeballs seamlessly in the same platform, without regard to where they may be focused on. Enter programmatic buying technologies that can allocate spend across differing mediums (search display), buying methodologies (guaranteed, real-time), and pricing methodologies (CPM, CPC, CPA)—and suddenly you have real time systems that aren’t about “RTB” if you follow me. They are about getting all of the combinatorial values of an effective media plan correct, using campaign attribute data—and historical performance and pricing data. The bottom line is that the machines are going to be making the allocation calls in the future, and we are going from real time bidding, to real-time media decisioning. That’s a big change.

Immediacy

Another interesting aspect (and perhaps the most important) of RTB is immediacy. Real time bidding systems are collapsing the time window between having a great marketing message, and your ability to distribute it quickly. Twitter’s sponsored posts are one great example, Facebook’s self-serve ad interface gives instant satisfaction, and companies like DashBid are helping advertisers put their ads directly into the “hottest” video content, using bidding systems. Now that content is being curated by end users even more than by publishers, marketers need the ability to access audiences quickly, as they follow the latest meme, news trend, or fashion. Systems that offer the ability to go from idea to execution quickly, and are easily adaptable will win in this new RTB-driven ecosystem.

[This post originally appeared in eConsultancy on 6/30/11]