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]

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]