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]

Fish Don’t Know He’s Wet

If Your Company Depends on RTB, Put Your Helmet On.

The 5 Reasons RTB is less important than you think

All the hype in the display advertising industry has been around real time bidding for the last several years, and rightly so. Finding audiences with precision (cheaply) is marketing nirvana and, with all of the startup companies willing to work their tails off to make their “platforms” work for advertisers, the promise of media, layered with great technology, and tons of free service was hard to resist. Conference after conference, our industry leadership (well, actually I think it’s just the 30-odd people that speak at every conference) prognosticates on the latest data-driven success story, and ponders the meaning of the famed Kawaja logo vomit map, hoping that their flavor of audience technology gets acquired. But, like the old George Clinton lyric goes, the fish don’t know they are wet. After drinking the RTB Kool-Aid for so long, the real time practitioners may not realize that this fundamental driver of the display advertising ecosystem may not be as important as we all think. Here are five reasons to hedge your bets with RTB:

Quality Matters: Sorry, exchanges, but inventory quality still matters—a lot. The notion that you can splash a little bit of data on top of $0.25 CPM banner inventory and turn it into $5.00 gold was never really real in the first place. The great thing about RTB isn’t the enormous amounts of data you can apply to a media buy—it’s the enormous scale and price advantage that exchange buying brings. In a CPA-driven world, the most important metric is the cost of media. Today’s bidders give advertisers the ability to scour 800+ exchange inventory sources and buy cheaply and deeply into remnant inventory like never before. But, when you look at the reporting coming back, the clicks and conversions tend to happen where quality content appears. I’ve seen it time and time again: An RTB advertiser lucks into a bit of Tier I or Tier II inventory and finds performance. Unless publishers start changing their habits and stop putting banner code on every single web page they publish, there will continue to be a dearth of quality placements available in real time, and average real-time CTRs will not eclipse their .03% average.

Cookies Don’t Scale: This is the dirty little secret of the display media industry, and something that Datran’s Aperture team is out actively pushing. Anyone who has used a DSP can tell you that even a little bit of segmentation data applied to a media buy drops impression availability by a large factor. Cookie-based targeting is enormously complicated, and getting all the gears to turn in the same direction is not easy. How many people are in the market for a BMW are there in any given 30 day period, anyway? Well, according to AppNexus, I can find about 81,689 unique users that fit that description, and access up to 1.3M impressions if I win every single bid I place. Let’s go crazy and say that I am prepared to pay $30 CPM for every single one of them (I can probably win them at $8, though). That means, this month there is the potential of $40,000 of inventory to be sold for “BMW intenders.” Add in “Connecticut” and “Men” as additional segments, and you might as well call each potential buyer on the phone, or rent a plane and drop pamphlets on their house. But wait—you could probably mail them something really nice and reach them that way. Now that sounds like a business!

Legislative Tsunami: Many fish don’t understand what “Do Not Track” and other legislation is going to do to real-time bidding. Even if you take the most conservative reckoning, you would have to admit that some sort of consumer protections need to be built into our industry. I can’t tell you how many people are fascinated—and sort of bummed out—when I introduce them to www.bluekai.com/registry Personally, I have no problem being targeted (except for the relentless onslaught of industry-specific ads I seem to be targeted with). No matter how our industry tries to spin it, the fact that I just looked at flights for North Carolina, and am being targeted by travel ads two seconds later as an “in market travel intender” makes almost everyone uncomfortable, and it’s not a winning long term strategy. We need to turn over choice to consumers, rather than convince them that we are “protecting” their data. Watch out for companies that don’t run without the fuel of 3rd party data. Conversely, bet big on companies that collect tons of 1st party (volunteered) data like Facebook…at least until the government has a problem with that too.

Premium on the Rise: Call me a Project Devil fan. With people visiting an average of 3 sites a day (one of them being Facebook), it’s kind of hard to argue with the

It's Time to Break out of Pure RTB Business Models

fact that advertising needs to be engaging on the page. Whether it’s video, over-sized RM banners, in-app ads, or sponsored apps, advertisers are looking to engage users directly, rather than drive them to a site. These opportunities are the opposite of commodity-based exchange buying. You can’t standardize them…and you can’t buy these engaging units cheaply. Advertisers are starting to rebel against the low quality of exchange-based media, and publishers are really starting to rebel against the returns they are seeing on exchanges. They want technology that helps them understand and sell their own audiences, rather than technology that disintermediates them and sells their valuable audiences for them. Maybe we finally jumped the shark with the Admeld acquisition. Wouldn’t it be nice if technology helped advertisers find the right audiences where they wanted to be found, and publishers sell their audiences for more than $0.50? Was there ever an industry that sustained itself by crushing their main suppliers down on price?

Big Guys Have More Data than You: I don’t care how many cookies you have out there on the Web. Is it 150 million? 200 million? It doesn’t really matter. How many Facebook subscribers are there? How many Google Gmail users? We have given the biggest publishers absolutely every single piece of information about ourselves (including, for some Congressmen, too much information), and shared it with our friends, and shared our friends’ data with everyone too. Where cookie-based targeting doesn’t scale, first party data targeting on sites like Facebook scales plenty. You would think the ability to reach users with such specificity would be expensive, but no. Facebook ads are the best deal in town. I have never paid more than $0.50 CPM for my audience, no matter how many “segments” I want to apply. I can’t remember winning many display media bids in for that price. If you consider that Google is just starting to get into display—and Facebook is just starting to look at display, doesn’t that make you want to change your data strategy a little bit? If your business depends on the sheer amount of your data, you may need to get a longer ruler and think about just how much scale you really have.

There are a lot of ad technology fish swimming in the RTB sea right now, and every single one of them is wet. My advice to them is to break the surface of the water for a second, and see what else is around. RTB will be a part of advertising for a long time, but it will not displace premium, guaranteed advertising. It will also look nothing like today’s RTB in a few years. The advent of private marketplaces, higher value audiences exposed in real time environments, and the emergence of smarter branding metrics (via Vizu and others) is going to turn the conversation back to premium quickly. Jump in…the water is going to be fine.

[This post appeared on 6/23/11 in AdMonsters]

Changing the Game

The Evolution of Real Time Bidding Means Better Inventory, and Higher Bids

For years, publishers have devalued their inventory by letting a daisy chain of remnant inventory networks and exchanges leverage their audience. Because every publisher was willing to place ads on every single page, sheer scale created the opportunity for 3rd parties to extract value by adding the splash of data that changed CPMs from pennies into dollars. As third party data shrinks, the opportunity for publishers to profit from partnering with technology and data companies also shrinks—but the near ubiquity of real time bidding also creates many new and exciting opportunities for publishers to package and sell their higher value inventory and audiences. Here are three tactics critical for succeeding in post-legislation era:

1)      Change the Bids: Although real time bidding has gone from obscure, future-facing media theory to being part of the ongoing media conversation, demand-side players still put RTB in the same bucket as remnant networks. When inventory is being traded in a true exchange that is agnostic with regard to pricing, it is assumed that some inventory will be priced high, and some low. Today, the preponderance of inventory available in both private and public exchanges is composed of the same low-value impressions most networks offer. This will change. Once supply side players start selling their high-value inventory inside exchanges, the game changes. Look for private, exchange-based marketplaces to crop up that connect prime demand side customers with the best inventory available on the planet. This is the future of RTB.

2)      Own the Data: Given the coming legislative tsunami, the common wisdom is that there will be severe shrinkage in the cookie pool, leading to a decline in targetable audience. Consumers will have to opt into targeting—or have much easier access to browser-based tools that enable them to opt out more easily. Either way, it seems apparent that cookie-addressable audiences will decline. For publishers, this may be the greatest thing that ever happened. At what point did publishers decide to let 3rd party technology companies know more about their audiences than they did? While that is somewhat of an exaggeration, I think the successful modern publisher must have a strategy for targeting their own inventory using first-party data.

3) Stop the Madness: Many publishers realize they have a inventory management problem. Like addicts, they know exactly what their problem is doing to their lives but, when confronted by the source of their addiction, easily crumble. For digital publishers, the crack pipe is called remnant inventory and monthly checks from network and exchange enablers keep the ads flowing.  Back in the old days of print publishing, we understood that ads didn’t have to appear on every single page. The expensive ones were in the front, and the cheap ones (classified) were all crammed in the back. Not a bad strategy. I wonder who decided that every single page on the internet had to have 3 standard IAB-sized ads on it. Maybe the time has come to end “value-added” impressions, and cut back the number of remnant ads available on your site. That day won’t come for a while, which is why companies like Rubicon and AdMeld, and PubMatic exist.

As the real time universe becomes more ubiquitous, more than just remnant inventory will be bought and sold on a bidded basis. For publishers, the challenge will not only be how to squeeze every penny out of the cheapest inventory with remnant optimizers, and managing the declining availability of targetable inventory (based on 3rd party data availability). The challenge will be balancing the decline in remnant revenue with the rise in bidded high value inventory. How much of your premium audience will you make available in real time to your existing and new advertisers in open exchanges? Getting that mix correct will make some publishers (and private publisher inventory pools) extremely profitable, and kill other publishers altogether.

[This article appeared on 4/18/11 in iMediaConnection]

Rise of the Machines

Where do People Fit into a World that Promises Endless Media Automation?

Ever since man tied a rope to an ox, there has been a relentless drive to automate work processes. Like primitive farming, digital media buying is a thankless, low-value task where results (and profits) do not often match the effort involved. Many companies are seeking to alleviate much of the process-heavy, detail-oriented tasks involved in finding, placing, serving, optimizing, tracking, and (most importantly) billing digital media campaigns with various degrees of success.

Let’s take the bleeding edge world of real-time audience buying. Trading desk managers are often working in multiple environments, on multiple screens. On a typical day, he may be logging into his AppNexus account, bidding on AdBrite for inventory, bidding for BlueKai stamps in that UI, looking for segmentation data in AdAdvisor, buying guaranteed audience on Legolas, trafficking ads in Atlas, and probably looking at some deep analytics data as well. If he is smart, he is probably managing that through a master platform, where he can look at performance of guaranteed display and even other media types. How efficient does that sound?

To me, it sounds like six logins too many. Putting aside the obvious fact that an abundance of technology doesn’t lead to efficiency (how’s “multitasking” working out for your 12 year old, by the way?), I wonder we aren’t asking too much of digital as a whole. How many ads have you clicked on lately? If the answer is zero, then you are in a large club. Broken down to its most basic level, we are working in a business that believes a 0.1% “success” rate is reason to celebrate. But the “click is a dead metric” some say. Really? Isn’t the whole point of a banner ad to drive someone to your website? When did that change?

All of this is simply to illustrate the larger point that the display advertising industry, for all of its supposed efficiencies, is really still in its very nascent stages. Navigating the commoditized world of banner advertising is still very much a human task, and the many machines we have created to wrestle the immense Internet into delivering an advertiser the perfect user are still primitive. For a short while longer, digital media is still the game of the agency media buyer…but not for long.

Let’s look at the areas in which smart media people add value to digital campaigns: site discovery, pricing, analytics and optimization, and billing.

Site Discovery

In the past, half the battle was knowing where to go. Which travel sites sold the most airline tickets? Which sites indexed most highly against men of a certain age, looking for their next automobile? What publisher did you call to get to IT professionals who made purchasing decisions on corporate laptops? Agencies had (and still have) plenty of institutional knowledge to help their clients partner with the right media to reach audiences efficiently and—even with the abundance of measurement tools out there—a lot of human guidance was needed. Now, given the ability to purchase that audience exactly using widely available data segments, the trick is simply knowing where to log in. I just found the latter IT professional segment in Bizo in less than 2 minutes. So the question becomes: how are you leveraging data and placement to achieve the desired result, and how efficiently are you doing it?

Pricing

It used to be that the big agencies could gain a huge pricing advantage through buying media in bulk. Holding company shops leveraged their power and muscled down publisher rate card by (sometimes) 80% or more with promised volume commitments, leaving smaller media agencies behind. Then, a funny thing happened: ad exchanges. All of the sudden, nearly all of the inventory in the world was available, and ready to be had in a second-price auction environment. Now, any Tom , Dick, and Harry with a network relationship could access relatively high quality impressions at prices that were guaranteed never to be too high (in a second-price auction, the winning bid is placed at the second highest price, meaning runaway “ceiling” bids are collapsed). Whoops. With their pricing advantage eliminated, large agencies did the next best thing: eliminated the middleman by building their own exchanges, which we have been calling “DSPs.” So, you don’t need human intervention to ensure pricing advantages.

Analytics and Optimization

What about figuring out what all the data means? After all, spreadsheets don’t optimize media campaigns. Don’t you need really smart, analytical media people to draw down click- and view-based data, sift through conversion metrics, and build attribution models? Maybe not. Not only are incredible algorithms taking that data and using machine learning to automatically optimize against clicks or conversions—but programmatic buying is slowly coming to all digital media as well.  In the future, smart technology will enable planners to create dynamic media mixes that span guaranteed and real-time, and apply pricing across multiple methodologies (CPM, CPC, CPA). Much of that work is being done manually right now, but not for long.

Billing

Sadly, much of the digital media business comes down to billing at the end of the day. Media companies struggle tremendously with reconciling numbers across multiple systems, and agency ad servers don’t seem to speak the same language as publisher ones. The bulk of a media company’s time seems to be spend just trying to get paid, and an incredible amount of good salary gets burnt in the details of reconciliation and reporting. This is slowly changing, but the advent of good API development is starting to make the machines talk to each other more clearly. The platforms that can “plug in” ad serving and data APIs most easily have a lot to gain, and the industry as a whole will benefit from interoperability.

So, are people doomed in digital media? Not at all. There are going to be a lot less digital media buyers and planners needed—but what agencies are really going to need are smart media people. Right now, you need 4 people to manage 10 machines. In the near future, you will need 1 smart person to manage 1 platform—and the other three people can focus on something else. Maybe like talking to their clients.

[This article originally appeared in ClickZ on 4/14/11]

Notes from DPS 2011

Going Beyond Content and Delivering Value in a Multi-Platform World

Deer Valley, UT – If there is one thing I learned after spending several days at Digital Publishing Summit 2011, is that the people in this industry really love what they do. It’s not easy walking past world class spring skiing in what is arguably the United States’ best ski area, and enter a dim conference room to listen to a speech on “Auto-nomous Data Management,” but every session played to an SRO crowd of media and technology executives. The crowd was a veritable who’s-who of the “Digital Display Advertising Landscape” (LUMA) map, so I suppose you could argue that these guys got where they are today by skipping lots of fun, and building advertising and media technology instead.

Among the highly informative (albeit sometimes sales-y) content at the conference, there were some gems to be had. So, here is DPS 2011, organized by quote:

“Value is shifting from those that produce the content, to those that deliver the experience of consuming it.” – Saul Berman, IBM

Saul Berman’s keynote address touched upon the disruption happening in our space, but even the overhyped keyword “disruption” doesn’t touch upon the true chaos happening as publishers learn how to navigate the through all the new social media, exchange-based sales, and various technology partnering opportunities out there. Do you make Facebook Connect your friend (as Kristine Shine from PopSugar Media does), to drive new unique visits, and build your audience? According to Shine, for her organization, the call was to “go all in” with Facebook. For others, like Todd Sawicki, CRO of Cheezburger, Facebook can kill publications by migrating all of their native traffic (like message board comments) to their environment, without returning the favor.

So, for publishers, the challenge is not just continuing to produce quality content, but to make it for a multi platform world, where consumers are just as likely to value the way they are consuming it. That means having a multi-platform approach—and a multi-revenue approach as well. Why does a full song from iTunes cost $0.99, but a 10-second sliver of that song, sold as a ringtone, cost $3.00? In that case, it is the application of content in a clever way that adds value, a nice use case for anyone monetizing content in an experiential way.

“Media will be sold like pork bellies” – Frank Addante, Rubicon Project

There was quite a bit of discussion around pricing at the conference, and the founder and CEO of the Rubicon Project was not wrong in insisting that, without significant changes, media would indeed be as commoditized as the humble pork belly. Unfortunately, this trend has already happened. Addante was right to highlight the unfortunate fact that the same article in the NY Times commands a $20CPM in print as opposed to $2CPM online. That value gap, Addante argues, can be closed by “realizing the true value of digital experiences.” Rubicon would like to see one big gigantic “open market” that enables the industry to expand the digital advertising pie from $40b to $400b with full participation, but the details were cloudy. If that market concept involves having publishers suddenly not to sell their entire remnant inventory into an exchange, then maybe we can avoid the pork bellies fate.  Addante may be on to something, however. What the industry needs is one trusted third party aggregate high quality inventory, and create value around it, but that battle is in its very nascent stages.

That being said, a good bit of the conversation was around pricing. Both Saul Berman and Tim Cadogan of OpenX deployed the airline pricing scenario, to argue for dynamic pricing models. For Cadogan, three levels of inventory equate to three levels of seating: Exclusive (first class), Premium Guaranteed (business class), and Non-Guaranteed (coach). Just as airlines frequently change the configuration of their seating to account for their routes, seasonality, and passenger mix, so must the industry dynamically price inventory, based on its placement and value. The OpenX Enterprise server hopes to achieve that by putting guaranteed and real time exchange inventory into the same platform, and use smart decisioning  technology to maximize yields. A very smart idea.

For Berman, it was not only about “having 5 different passengers, paying five different prices,” but also about exploring entirely new revenue models, like Apple did in “switching the razor blade model” with the iPhone (expensive “razor,” cheap “blades”). Publishers must go beyond monetizing their content through advertising, and start looking at generating revenue from the larger  “marketing” bucket. Right now, that is called “selling apps.”

“Premium brands need to be associated with premium content” — Eric Klotz, Pubmatic

Truer words have never been spoken. Klotz explored some recent survey data which asked publishers and advertisers how the way they are buying media is shifting. The results were fairly predictable: more and more budget is finding it’s way into real-time bidding environments, as brand and direct marketers seek new ways to target their desired audiences. That’s nothing new. What is changing rapidly, however, is that all marketers are demanding more placement control, increased transparency, and brand safety. Brands want the same direct connections with publishers they have enjoyed with guaranteed buying, with the ease and cost efficiency of exchange-based buying. The takeaway? If you are a publisher, and not looking at building private exchange connections with your demand side partners, you are in trouble.

That sentiment was hinted at in a panel called “Selling in a Cluttered Market.” For Jonas Abney of Hachette Filipacchi, “general content gets beaten by specific content every time.” Marketers are looking for laser-focused, topical content that captures user intent, rather than more generalized content. Moreoever, today’s advertising sale is more educational than ever. For panelists like AdMeld CEO Michael Barrett and PubMatic’s Andrew Rutledge, a sales force cannot simply have media experience–they have to know the ecosystem, and be prepared to add value by educating clients. For Whitepages VP of Sales Craig Paris, it is simple math: Agencies get 100+ unique sales calls a month, from an increasing amount of new technology and media companies. Unless you differentiate yourself, you are not going to win business. “Thirty percent of your day should be spent reading the industry trades so you can have credibility, and provide insights to your customers.”

“Nielsen says people visit 2.9 sites a day, and one of them is Facebook” — Greg Rogers, Pictela

Last minute speaker Greg Rogers of Pictela provided some insights on how premium advertising units (specifically the new IAB 300×1050 “Project Devil” unit from AOL) can drive user engagement. If the above quote is true, it means that brands have to find a way to engage the user more deeply on the the sites they visit every day, and that way is through interactive units. Rogers has data that points to “dramatic” CPM increases from premium RM units, and makes a case for replacing three 300×250 units with the single 300×1050 “devil” slot. Patch and Huffpo have seen great results, and advertisers are getting good engagement, and plenty of reporting. Highly premium, brand-safe, engaging advertising…sounds like something from the past called “premium guaranteed.” I bet PopSugar’s Shine would agree. She has built a virtual in-house agency to build premium campaigns for her customers, and demands “150% control over every ad unit on the page.”

“Cookie Targeting Doesn’t Scale” — Michael Hannon, Aperture

Sort of a dark horse moment for me was Michael Hannon’s first slide, which threw down the gauntlet on cookie targeting. All the energy in the space for the last several years has been about  targeting using 3rd party data . But what if it doesn’t work? This is the 900 lb. elephant in the Ecosystem. Not only have many marketers had difficulties achieving significant scale when overlaying data on top of exchange buys, but the legislative tsunami of “Do Not Track” threatens to reduce that scale even further. Hannon makes an elegant argument for real audience measurement, and doing so in a cookie-less way.

That leads me to a great conversation led by Alan Chapell, a lawyer specializing in just these types of issues. In a room full of ad publishing and ad technology executives that depend on using data to identify target audiences, there was a great deal of confusion regarding how our industry is getting on top of what may be a very severe problem. More direction from the IAB in the form of specific self-regulatory principles and mandates is needed, and needed fast. For Chapell, inaction may cause the “privacy disaster, which enables Google, AT&T, and Facebook to own all the data,”  leaving the rest of the industry on the side.

[This article originally appeared in Adotas on 4/4/11]

The Agency of Procrustes

Is Your Media Shop the Right Fit for the Digital Age?

Nassim Taleb’s marvelous book of aphorisms is called The Bed of Procrustes, named after the myth of Procrustes, a cruel owner of a roadside estate between Athens and Eleusis in ancient Greece. According to Taleb,

He abducted travelers, provided them with a generous dinner, then invited them to spend the night in a rather special bed. He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection. Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched.

Taleb’s point is that we humans tend to “squeeze the world into crisp, commoditized ideas.” In short, we try and fit things we don’t understand into our particular worldview. But, what if the new things don’t fit?

As a digital media agency owner faced with keeping up with the times and (more importantly) earning margins from notoriously labor intensive digital campaigns, it is tempting to fall back on time-worn models. If you think about the tried and true “agency” model, it is exactly what the dictionary says it is: “a consensual fiduciary relationship in which one party acts on behalf of and under the control of another in dealing with third parties.” In other words, the client can do the work himself, but would rather stick to making widgets or selling plane tickets than have 300 different media and technology relationships to contend with.

The problem? That’s not enough anymore. What clients want—and an increasing number of them expect, is a different definition of “agency.” Maybe even a legal understanding of the term: the person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved. Is your digital agency exerting true power on behalf of your clients, or are you just buying media? I believe that, in a world where technology enables most agencies to have ubiquitous access to media and software tools, the modern digital agency needs to go beyond traditional notions of “agency” and provide their clients with unique expertise.

The traditional agency “bed” is still rather misshapen for the world of emerging technology. Most shops still don’t have a cohesive social strategy (beyond Facebook); the technology to properly target audiences through exchanges; or the ability to leverage technology to wring performance from digital creative. Some do, and are leveraging relationships with social technology providers, DSPs, and creative optimization companies. The problem here is that many of those technology providers are going directly to your clients as well.  So, how do you defend against disintermediation and start building proprietary expertise to enable you to win and retain digital business in the future?

  • Data: Create it, analyze it, tie into your clients’ data, and make it actionable. I know an agency in upstate New York that only gets paid every time its client performs an oil change. The agency is tied into their client’s POS system, and gets a true end-to-end view of attribution. They know how they are getting people to the business, when, and how they are getting them to return. I know other agencies that, through tools like Datran’s Aperture, are getting a household-level view of who is converting on their online campaigns, and using online data to go offline to seek new customers and reengage them. If you are not leveraging the data you currently have—and seeking to partner with your client to create or get access to new streams of data, then you are not being an extension of power to your client.
  • Technology: How is your shop leveraging available technology to gain efficiency? Media platforms like Transis, Facilitate, and TRAFFIQ (disclosure: I work for TRAFFIQ) offer agencies the ability to let workflow technology handle the blocking and tackling of digital media (RFPs, AdOps, billing, etc) so agencies can work on things that have value (strategy, creative execution, data analysis).  What about real time bidding technology that uses machine learning to auto-optimize campaigns based on performance data? If you are not leveraging technologies like these, then you are already in danger of becoming extinct.
  • People: If you are in fact going to leverage data and technology to transform your agency business, then you are going to necessarily need different people. In the good old days, you could hire a 22-year old for $25,000 and bill them out at $40,000. Unfortunately, the 22 year old wants $35,000 these days, and by the time you train them to be a “digital media expert,” a larger shop will pay them $50,000 to take advantage of the free training you gave them, and start billing them out at $75,000. Also, that 22 year old media person who used to good at collating spreadsheets and ignoring publisher e-mails is not the person who is going to transform your business. Someone who can dive into data to determine media placements—or someone who is passionate about the social space and understands the new social technology ecosystem are the folks that are going to make a difference (and profit) for your agency now.

In the end, Procrustes faced poetic justice. One of his guests was the mighty Theseus, of Minotaur-slaying fame. Theseus invited Procrustes to lie in his own bed and, seeing it slightly too small for his frame, decapitated him to create the perfect fit. Your agency may not currently be the right fit for clients that need advanced digital agency help. The answer, however, is to make your bed fit your clients better, rather than shrink them down so they fit into your legacy paradigm.

[This article originally appeared in Adotas 3/16/11]

Agencies: Working Hard or Hardly Working?

A recent meeting with a large agency’s digital planning team left me wondering who is doing the real work these days: agencies or ad networks? I was there to talk about our solution for making sense of an increasingly crowded and complicated digital space. Today’s media planners and buyers have to be able to navigate through a 300,000 channel world for their clients — and be able to take advantage of dozens of new creative executions, placements, and targeting capabilities. Their clients trust them to find a receptive audience wherever they are on the web — and deliver enough scale and performance to make it effective and affordable.

One of the planners in the room was responsible for a seven-figure pharmaceutical budget. When I asked him how he was evaluating new traffic sources, he said, “I buy on two networks. They find me headache suffers and my client is satisfied, why would I want to risk it by moving money around?”

“I buy on two networks.” Surely he couldn’t be serious.

After I left the meeting, I continued to be astonished by the reply. Sure, buying on those networks was easy (and probably pretty effective) but what was the agency bringing to the table? Why wouldn’t the client simply place those two network buys themselves, and gain an extra 10% in performance by eliminating the agency’s fee?

Furthermore, what if the client’s CMO asked that planner where his ads were running? He couldn’t tell him with any certitude. It seemed to me like a pretty expensive and risky marketing strategy.

The agency is passing along their job along to a network, who is keeping all the data from the campaign. Even if the company sold a ton of migraine pill prescriptions, they still don’t know how they were successful—and who responded to their ads. Even worse, that network can now go and pitch all of the client’s competitors, who now stand to gain for the investment they made building an audience.

If I were the client, I would be justified in firing this agency.

The successful agency not only continually works to discover new pockets of high-performing traffic for their clients but they actively manage the campaign, and share performance results with them. If I want to reach migraine sufferers, the easiest thing in the world is to call WebMD and sponsor their migraine section; I am guaranteed a contextually-relevant placement in a high quality setting. Easy.

Same thing as buying a car. If I want a really reliable German automobile that seats 5 adults, with leather seats, all-wheel drive, and impeccable handling, I just go the Mercedes dealer and pick up a new S-Class.

The problem starts to arise when I get my monthly bill. Is $1,200 a month too much to pay when I can get to work in the same relative comfort in a $600 a month Audi, or a $350 a month Volkswagen?

Maybe, as a media planner, I can find five health sites that target migraine sufferers and string together the same audience for a lot less money. In addition, maybe there are premium opportunities I can get on smaller, more vertically focused sites that the leading site cannot or will not offer me?

Don’t get me wrong, WebMD is a great place to advertise. But that’s something even my mother knows. Do you really need to pay 15% to an agency for them to recommend that strategy?

So, how hard is your agency working for you, anyway? Every advertiser who uses the services of a media agency for their media planning and buying should ask themselves and their agency this question every single day. If they did, I think they would unfortunately find in many cases, the answer to be: not very hard.

How can an agency then justify the fees that they are collecting? They can do it by continually looking for better performing traffic. The only way to do that is to spread dollars around, find pockets of traffic either through other networks, or direct-to-publisher sites. They can do it by deploying smaller per-publisher budgets, while benefiting from smaller incremental risk.

Sure, it will take more work, but that’s what the client is paying for.

[This originally appeared in Adotas on 3/9/2010]