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

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

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

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

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

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

We Got Both Kinds

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

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

Pubs that Want Reach Extension Need to Own the Programmatic Channel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Cost-Plus is a Minus

imagesIs the Hourly Pricing Model Right for Today’s Digital Media Agency?

It’s funny how people deride Microsoft for not being successful in advertising technology when 80% of digital media dollars are transacted using their media planning software. Despite the fact that we live in a world where computers can evaluate hundreds of individual bid requests on a single impression and render an ad serving  decision in under 50 milliseconds, the overwhelming majority of display inventory is bought using e-mail and fax machines. Those media plans are manually created in Excel.

Terence Kawaja of the famous  LUMAscape maps, which depict the 300-plus companies who enable the 20% of display buying that happens programmatically, once said that “inertia is the agency’s best friend” when asked why holding companies were not doing more to bring innovation to advertising. I imagine that part of what he meant was that their common business model (billable hours plus a negotiated margin) does not create an incentive for efficiency. On the contrary, complexity in media planning means more billable hours—as well as a built-in need for agencies’ existence. After all, if media buying were easy, then marketers would do it themselves.

A result of this inertia is the fact that Microsoft’s business products (Outlook, PowerPoint, and Excel) power the majority of digital media buying today. After research is done in platforms like Comscore and Nielsen, media planners output a spreadsheet, create an RFP, and begin the long process of gathering other spreadsheets from publishers. After a few weeks and $40,000 in hours spent cutting and pasting, a media plan is born. This grueling process has the average media planner spending more time on manual, repetitive processes than on strategy and high-value, client-facing activities. You would imagine that agencies would work quickly to adopt technologies that make the transactional nature of media planning more streamlined.

It seems like agencies don’t care, as long as they are getting paid for their work, but there are real problems with the Excel model. Here are a few to consider:

  • Employee Happiness: One of the biggest problems facing agencies is the constant turnover in media planning departments. Agencies hire junior planners directly out of college in many cases, and work them long hours where they perform many of the manual processes that go into digital media plan execution. After a while, they take their training and insights and ascend the ladder into the next position, or take their newfound expertise to the next agency, where they can expect more of the same for a slight raise. Wouldn’t it be better to deploy technology that takes out the grunt work of campaign planning, and enables planners to focus on more high value activities, such as strategy? The costs of employee turnover are high, as are the hidden costs of employee dissatisfaction.
  • More Bandwidth Equals More Clients:  Although agencies get paid for their hours, there is a point at which an agency can only take on so many clients. After all, adding employees (even low cost ones) means adding more desk space, furniture, computers, and financial overhead in general. Eventually, an agency starts to need increases in productivity at the employee level in order to scale, and add more clients (and revenue) without overly expanding its physical footprint. Leveraging technology that streamlines the manual part of media planning means being able to do more planning with less planners, enabling shops to scale their market share without adding as many junior personnel.
  • You Don’t Get Paid for Pitching: Digital media shops don’t always get paid for all of their hours. Pitching new clients means creating sample plans and putting company resources to work on speculative business, which is all the more reason to find efficiencies in media planning technology.
  • Spreadsheets Don’t Learn: One of the biggest problems with digital media planning using manual, spreadsheet-driven processes is that it becomes hard to maintain a centralized knowledge base. Planners leave, plans get stored on disparate hard drives, information on pricing and vendors is fragmented, and it is hard to measure performance over time. Despite the fact that they are getting remunerated for their work, agencies must consider whether the method of using man hours to perform repetitive tasks could be more expensive in the long run. As David Kenny once remarked, “If you are using people to do the work of machines, you are already irrelevant.”

At the macro level, the cost-plus pricing model’s principle disadvantage is that it creates what economists call a perverse incentive or, put more simply, an incentive for inefficiency. When it that cost model is applied to digital media planning—already fraught with inefficiency—you have an environment ripe for disruption. The advent of new, platform-driven media planning and buying technologies is spawning a new era of “systematic guaranteed” buying which promises to streamline and centralize the way banner ads are bought today. Agencies will be able to dedicate more hours to client facing tasks and strategy, and publishers will be able to manage their transactional RFP business more seamlessly, and be able to focus their sales teams on super premium, high CPM sales.

By eliminating much of the human cost of media planning and buying, technology can help add more value to the media itself—the real “plus” that we have been looking for.

[This post originally appeared in ClickZ on 2/7/13]

Programmatic Premium is not about Bidding

bid-nobid-article “A market is never saturated with a good product, but it is quickly saturated with a bad one” – Henry Ford

When it comes to digital publishing sales, it seems like many publishers are questioning whether the product they have—the standard banner ad—is what they should be selling. Last month, I wrote that 2013 would be the year of “premium programmatic,” where LUMA map companies who make their living in real time bidding turn towards the guaranteed space, where 80% of digital marketing dollars are being spent. My recent experience at Digiday Exchange Summit convinced me that this meme continues—with an important distinction: “premium programmatic” is not about bidding on  quality inventory through exchanges. Rather, it is about using technology to enable premium guaranteed buys at scale. Here is what I heard:

The Era of the Transactional RFP is Over

Forbes’ Meredith Levien currently gets 10% of her display revenue from programmatic buying, up from 2% in 2011. The rest of her revenue is comprised of 45% premium programs , and 45% from what she calls the “transactional RFP” business. The latter is the type that comes from continually responding to agency RFPs for standard IAB banner programs, with little customization. Levien questioned whether that type of transactional business was completely on its way to becoming driven exclusively by technology.

Are publishers really going to be able to abandon the  relentless RFP treadmill where countless hours are spent reacting to agency RFPs—many of which are sent to over 100 publishers, despite the fact that an average of 5 find themselves on the campaign? In order for that to happen, Levien said, the very language we are using must change. The language of the transactional RFP (“GRP,” “CPM,” “Impressions”) must change to the language of premium (“Social Shares,” “Influence,” and “Engagement”). Ultimately, Levien sees a world where there are fewer people managing  RFP response and more multi-disciplinary teams that create super premium tentpole programs for large brands. Forbes’ teams feature copywriters, developers, and creatives who don’t talk about the “buy details” of a campaign, but more about the social and cultural implications a great advertising program can create.

To paraphrase Federated’s CEO Deanna Brown, publishers “really have to question whether sending 100 e-mails to win a $50,000 RFP is worth it.”

Create Scarcity

Gannett’s Steve Ahlberg was even more forceful in his rejection of programmatic buying, and the transactional nature of guaranteed buying. After living in a world of their own creation (pages festooned Nascar-like with low-CPM banners) USAToday.com took the draconian move of removing all below-the-fold ads from its site, stripped every network and exchange tag from its pages, and decided to have one large ad placement per page. The experiment—revenue neutral in the 4th quarter of 2012—has thus far proven that publishers can get off “set it and forget it” SSP revenue by creating the type of scarcity that drives up both rates and demand. According to Ahlberg, the publication is talking to quality brand clients that were not on the radar just months before.

Part of the equation is getting away from standardized IAB units and trying to create a “television-like” experience for brand advertisers. Like Forbes, that means getting RFP response teams away from transactional duties, and leveraging cross-disciplinary teams that think like wealth managers, rather than salespeople. Instead of asking about reach and frequency, USAToday.com asks brands what they want to accomplish, and works with them to craft campaigns that work towards a different set of KPIs.

“If the Premium Publishers’ Product is the Banner Ad, then they are in Trouble”

For Walker Jacobs, who oversees Turner’s digital ad sales, the recent leaps and bounds in programmatic technology has done nothing but “accelerate the bifurcation of the ecosystem” which is divided been the good inventory and the bad. Like Gannett, Turner takes a jaundiced view of the programmatic ad economy.  “Our RTB strategy is ‘no’,” as Jacobs concisely put it.

Going further, Jacobs suggested that “there is no such thing as programmatic premium” in a world saturated with banner ad units, many of which go unseen. Standard banners, therefore, are a “flawed currency.”  It is hard to argue with Jacobs in a world that sees 5 trillion impressions every month.

It is clear that, despite the massive strides being made in programmatic buying technology, there is a very large gap between publishers who control super premium inventory, and those that do not. Publishers in the former want to find more streamlined and efficient ways to respond to RFPs, and ultimately turn more of their efforts into selling creative, multi-tiered, tentpole solutions to major brands. It doesn’t sound like many premium publishers are implementing private exchanges either, despite all of the hype in 2012. As Dan Mosher of Brightroll Exchange remarked, a private exchange “is just a blocklist feature of a larger platform.”

In 2013, it seems like premium publishers are not embracing private exchanges, not because of the technology, but rather because they are rejecting the notion of commoditization of their inventory in general.  For most premium publishers, there are the types of sales: Super-premium programs, that will continue to be handled primarily by their direct sales force; “transactional RFP” business for standard IAB display units, which most see being streamlined by “systemic” reserved platform technologies; and programmatic RTB sales of lower class inventory.

So, is 2013 the year of “programmatic premium?” Yes—but only if that means that publishers embrace technologies that help them streamline the way they hand-sell their top-tier inventory.

[This post originally appearded in the EConsultancy blog on 2/5/13]