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The Hourglass Funnel Changes Everything

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

hourglass_branding_funnel

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hourglass funnel. Most funnels stop at the thin bottom, when a customer “drops” out, having made the journey through awareness, interest, desire and action. After the “action,” or purchase, the customer gets put into a CRM to be included in more traditional marketing outreach efforts, such as calls, e-mails, and catalogue mailings. In the past, marketers often thought about how to turn customers into advocates, but couldn’t figure out how to do it at scale. Companies that were really good at multi-level marketing, like Amway, didn’t have easy-to-replicate business models.

Today, the situation has changed. Social-media platforms give marketers tools to engage customers in their CRMs and bring them back through the bottom of the funnel, turning them into brand advocates — and maybe even salespeople. This is why Salesforce has been snatching up social-media companies like Radian6 and Buddy Media, while Oracle bought Vitrue and Involver. These platforms can help get people talking about your brand– and, in turn, you get to listen to what they have to say. These platforms also can help you understand what it takes to get your customers to move from liking your page to actively sharing your content and to actually recommending your products and even selling them as an affiliate.

The ad-tech revolution of the last several years has supercharged our ability to drive people through this hourglass-shaped funnel. But instead of enabling this movement, we have instead – for the most part — focused  on wringing efficiency out of reaching the customers we’re already very close to getting. For example, programmatic RTB makes it easy to bid on people in the “interest” layer, who behave like existing customers. Additionally, it’s a no-brainer to retarget those customers who have already expressed “desire” by visiting a product page or your website. And technology also makes it increasingly easy to invite customers already in your CRM to “like” your Instagram page, or to offer them incentives to “recommend” products through social sharing tools.

But what about the very top of the funnel (awareness) and the very bottom (advocacy)? Those are the two most critical parts of the marketing hourglass funnel, but the two least served by technology today. While we have tools to drive people through the marketing process more quickly or cheaply, technology doesn’t create brands or turn social-media fans into brand advocates.

However, the right strategy for both ends of this funnel can still boost awareness and advocacy by creating a branding vortex that is a virtuous circle. Let me explain:

Awareness

You can’t start a customer down the sales funnel without making he or she aware of your product or service. Despite all of the programmatic promise in display, technology mainly emphasizes reaching our known audience most efficiently. It simply hasn’t yet proven that it can create new customers at scale. That’s why TV still gets the lion’s share of brand dollars. Cost-effective reach, pairedwith a brand-safe, viewable environment, is what TV supplies.

In my opinion, the digital answer for raising awareness is starting to look less and less like programmatic RTB and more like video and “native” formats, which are more engaging and contextually relevant. Also, new programmatic direct technologies are starting to make the process of buying guaranteed, premium inventory more measurable, efficient and scalable.

Programmatic RTB advocates will argue that you can build plenty of awareness across exchanges, but it’s hard to create emotion with three IAB standard units, and there still isn’t enough truly premium inventory available in exchanges today to generate a contextual halo for your ads. New “native” display opportunities, video and tablet advertising are where branding has the biggest impact. Adding those opportunities to social tools, such as Twitter and Instagram, would help you leverage your existing brand advocates and amplify your message.

Advocacy

Great digital branding at the “awareness” level of the funnel not only helps drive potential new customers deeper into the sales funnel, but also can help engage existing customers. This amplification effect is extremely powerful. Old-school marketers such as David Sarnoff understood that folks make buying decisions through their friends and neighbors. He also understood that, when you’re trying to sell the next big thing (like radio), you have to leverage existing media (print). Applied to digital marketing, this simply means leveraging awareness media — TV, video and “native” advertising — to stimulate word-of-mouth advertising, which is still the most powerful type. By using Facebook and other social sharing tools, the effect of any campaign can grow exponentially in a very short period of time. This virtuous circle of awareness media influencing brand advocates, who then create more awareness among their own social circles, is something that many marketers miss when they lead their campaigns with data rather than with emotion.

Everything In Between

I’m not saying that marketers can simply feed the top of the funnel with great branding and ignore the rest. That’s not true at all; the middle of the funnel is important too. I think it’s relatively easy, nowadays, to build a stack that also helps support all the hard work that brands are doing to create awareness. Most large marketers reinforce brand efforts with “always on” programmatic RTB that targets based on behavior, and all brands employ as much retargeting that they can buy. Once customers are in the CRM, it’s not hard to maintain a rewards/loyalty program, and messaging to an existing social fan base also is relatively simple.

But marketers are making a mistake if they think that this kind of programmatic marketing can replace great branding. With so many different things competing for customers’ attention, capturing it for more than a second is extremely difficult, and the challenge is only going to get harder.

The Datalogix Effect

So what does all this mean for for ad technology? The best way to think about this is to look at theDatalogix-Facebook partnership. Datalogix’s trove of customer offline purchase data essentially enables brands to measure whether or not  all their social-ad spending resulted in more online sales. A few studies have pretty much proven that media selling soap suds on Facebook created more suds sales at the local Piggly Wiggly. In fact, ROI turns out to be easy to calculate, as well as positive.

This type of attribution seems simple, but I don’t think you can overstate its impact. It’s the way we finally move from clicks and views to profit-optimization metrics such as those offered by MakeBuzz. And this method of tying online activity with offline sales is already having a vast impact on the ecosystem. It shows, beyond doubt, that branding sells product.

Getting the attribution right, though, means that brands are going to have to care about creative and content more than ever. It means big wins for video, “native” ad approaches, and big tentpole marketing campaigns. If quality premium sites can be bought programmatically at scale, then it may also mean big wins for large, traditional publishers.

It also likely means that many retargeters, programmatic RTB technologies and exchanges could end up losing in the long run. Don’t get me wrong: These technologies are needed to drive the “always on” machine that powers the middle of the funnel. But just how many DSPs and exchanges does the industry need to manage its commoditized display channel?

As marketers realize that they are spending money to capture customers that were going to convert anyway, they’re likely to focus less on audience targeting and more on initiatives to create new customers — and turn existing customers into advocates.

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger]

The Unexploited Middle

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013
YieldCliff

Programmatic Direct technology will make it easy for the demand side to exploit this rich pocket of quality inventory.

I recently sat through some great presentations on “programmatic direct” media buying at the recent Tech for Direct event in New York. With almost 70% of digital display dollars flowing through the negotiated (RFP) market, everyone wants to be in the game. One of the presenters, John Ramey of iSocket talked about what has happened to the advertising yield curve for digital display. This curve starts at the upper left corner with premium inventory capturing the highest CPMs, and is supposed to flow gently downward on the x-axis, towards the lowest value of inventory, ending on the lower right corner. A classic marketplace yield curve.  In this world, ESPN can charge $20 CPMs for their baseball section, sites like Deadspin in the mid-tail can charge $7, and the networks and exchanges aggregating hundreds of sports blogs in the long tail can charge $1. Nice and fair, and rational.

This is not what has happened, though.

As Ramey correctly points out, we have a yield cliff now. This is world in which there are two types of inventory: The super-premium, which is hand sold directly for double-digit CPMs; and the remnant, which is sold via RTB on exchanges or surviving ad networks, often for pennies. In this world of the Haves and Have-Nots, there is no middle class of inventory—even though one could argue that $7 inventory on Deadspin might actually outperform its upscale cousin, ESPN. This inventory disparity we have created in the digital advertising industry has nothing to do with supply and demand, but everything to do with the process by which we transact.

Premium mid-tail buying is a great idea. Back in 2009, marketplace platforms like TRAFFIQ were bringing this innovation to the space, and enabling marketers to cherry pick and aggregate premium quality sites that could offer friendly CPMs and URL-level transparency. It’s not a new concept. In fact, I think premium mid tail buying is the canary in the coalmine for programmatic direct; when today’s technology can make it easy to put together a large array of guaranteed buys, and enable fast and easy optimization, then we will have succeeded. Here what was missing in 2009, and what we need to succeed today:

  • A Centralized Directory:  You can’t buy stuff without knowing what’s available and how much it costs. Other media channels like direct mail have published prices for mailing lists, right down to audience targeting. You want to reach people who have bought something from the Cabela’s catalog in the last six months, and restrict the mailing to men only? No problem. You can find out what it costs, and who sells it. The digital display market needs to be organized in a directory, down to the placement level. You shouldn’t have to wait for an e-mail back from an RFP to find out what known inventory costs. That work is being done now, but has a lot more work to go through before it is comprehensive.
  • An Extensible Platform: Today’s API-driven technology makes it easy to enable buying directly into publishers’ inventory. A link into DFP means buyers can discover availability and start serving ads with a few button clicks. The problem is that agencies want a Single System to Rule Them All. So far, agencies have been stuck with installed, legacy systems that have more to do with billing and reconciliation than media planning and buying. Agencies want new, web-based ways to discover and buy great inventory, but they also want a system that plugs into their existing tools. They are not going to log into another buying system if they don’t have to. A system that can enable premium mid-tail buying at scale either has to integrate directly into existing media management systems—or replace them. Right now, there are a lot of tech companies at work retrofitting old technology or creating new technology that promises to make this a 2014 reality. It’s a horse race, and agencies are starting to place their bets. The winners are the one with the most extensible platforms that are good at integration, and they will be richly rewarded. The rest will fail, or become a point solution in someone else’s platform.
  • The Right Model: This is may be the most important factor in determining programmatic direct success. If you are charging anywhere north of 10% (and some would argue a LOT less than that) to help media buyers aggregate inventory, then you are not a “programmatic direct” technology company. You are an ad network, or media rep firm. The reason for industry consolidation is because disintermediation through technology has its own yield curve: The disruption that occurs always benefits the middle layer first, but markets always rationalize later. Mike Leo, former Operative CEO, told me about how another industry solved a similar problem that was occurring in the media business, where ad agencies were starting to rebel against specialized media buyers who in the middle of the transaction, with opaque pricing methodologies. The year was 1968, and agencies teamed up and decided that a standard rate of 15% was all they were willing to pay for television buying services (and then they eventually bought all of the media buying companies, but that’s another story). Anyway, markets always rationalize themselves, and right now even 15% feels like a big vigorish for agencies with ever-shrinking margins on their media practice.
  • Standards: It’s 2013, and we are still faxing IOs. This is largely because there are no accepted standards—and no protocol—for electronic orders. This is actually not a hard problem to solve, but getting adoption from buyers and sellers is what’s needed. Right now, a few companies are working with groups like the IAB to get real traction with standards, and we need that to succeed to make programmatic direct buying a scalable reality. Electronic orders suck a lot of the viscosity out of the deal pipeline, and start to let the machines do the grunt work of order processing, rather than a $50,000 junior media planner.

The good news is that there has been a tremendous amount of progress in 2013 on all of these initiatives. The promise of true programmatic direct buying is closer than ever, and there is enough real development behind the hype to make these dreams of efficient media buying a reality in the near future. In that future, it just may be possible for a buyer to use demand-side technology to aggregate the “fat middle” of premium mid tail publishers, and start to reward the middle class of inventory owners who are currently getting paid beer prices for champagne content.

A Contrarian View of Programmatic RTB

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013
unicorn

Online display would be like this, if branding metrics took profit into account.

I’ve always loved the notion of programmatic RTB. As a data hound and an early adopter of Appnexus , the notion that advertisers can achieve highly granular levels of targeting and utilize algorithms to impact performance is right in my wheelhouse. Today’s ad tech, replete with 300 companies that enable data-driven audience segmentation, targeting, and analytics is testament to the efficiency of buying ads one impression at a time.

But what if driving efficiency in display actually does more harm than good?

Today’s RTB practitioners have become extremely relentless in pursuit of the perfect audience. It starts with retargeting, which uses first party data to serve ads only to people who are already deeply within the customer funnel. No waste there. The next tactic is to target behavioral “intenders” who, according to their cookies, have done everything BUT purchase something. Guess what? If I have searched 4 times in the last three hours for a flight from JFK to SFO, eventually you will get last view attribution for my ticket purchase if you serve me enough ads. Next? Finding “lookalike” audiences that closely resemble past purchasers. Data companies, each of whom sell a variety of segments that can be mixed to create a 35 year-old suburban woman, do a great job of delivering audiences with a predilection to purchase.

But what if we are serving ads to people that are already going to buy? Is efficiency really driving new sales, or are we just helping marketers save money on marketing?

It seems like online display wants to be more and more like television. Television is simple to buy, it works, and it drives tons of top funnel awareness that leads to bottom funnel results. We know branding works, and even those who didn’t necessarily believe in online branding need look no further than Facebook for proof. With their Datalogix offline data partnership, Facebook conclusively proved that people exposed to lots of Facebook ads tended to grab more items off of store shelves. It just makes sense. So why are we frequency capping audiences at 3—or even 10? I can’t remember the last time I watched network television and didn’t see the same car ad about 20 times.

The other thing that RTB misses out on is profit. RTB drives advertising towards lowering the overall cost of media needed to drive a sale. Even if today’s attribution models were capable of taking into account all of the top-funnel activity that eventually creates an online shopping cart purchase (a ludicrous notion), we are still just measuring those things that are measureable. TV ads, billboard ads, and word of mouth never get online credit—yet I believe they drive most of the online sales. Sorry, but I believe the RTB industry creates attribution models that favor RTB buying. Shocking, I know.

So, what is true performance and what really drives it? For most businesses, performance is more profit. In other words, the notion that a sales territory that has 100 sales a day can generate 120 sales a day. That’s called profit optimization. If I can use advertising to create those additional 20 sales, and still make a profit after expenses, than that’s a winner. RTB makes it cheaper to get the 100 sales you already have, but doesn’t necessarily get the next twenty. Getting the next batch of customers requires spending more on media, and driving more top-funnel activity.

The other thing RTB tends to fumble is how real life sales actually happen. Sure, audience buying knows what type of audience tends to buy, and where to find them online, but misses with frequency capping and a lack of contextual relevance. Let me explain. In real life, people live in neighborhoods. The houses in those neighborhoods are roughly the same price, the kids go to the same school district, the people have similar jobs, and their kids do similar activities and play the same sports. The Smiths drive similar cars to the Joneses, they eat at the same restaurants, and shop at the same stores. If the Smiths get a new BMW, then it’s likely the Joneses will keep up with a new Audi or Lexus in the near future. When neighbors get together, they ask each other what they did on February Break, and they get their vacation ideas from each other. That’s how life works.

What media most closely supports this real-life model, where we are influenced most by our neighbors?  Is it serving the Jones family a few carefully selected banners on cheap exchange inventory, which is highly targeted and cost effective? Or is it jamming the Smiths and Joneses with top-funnel brand impressions across the web? The latter not only gets Smith, the BMW owner, to keep his car top-of-mind and be more likely to recommend it—but also predisposes Jones to regard his neighbor’s vehicle in a more desirable light. That takes a lot of impressions of various types of media. You can’t do that and remain efficient. The thing is—you can do that and create incremental profit.

Isn’t that what marketers really want?

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger]

Complexity is the Digital Ad Agency’s Best Friend

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013
Agencies are afraid of change, but change always happens. Is your manual workflow a "red stapler?"

Agencies are afraid of change, but change always happens. Is your manual workflow a “red stapler?”

I once heard Terence Kawaja remark that “complexity is the agency’s best friend.” It’s hard to argue with that. Early digital agencies were necessary because doing things like running e-mail campaigns, building websites, and buying banner ads were really complicated. You needed nerdy guys who knew how to write HTML and understood what “Atlas” did. Companies like Operative grew admirable services businesses that took advantage of the fact that trafficking banner ads really sucked, and large publishers couldn’t be bothered to build those capabilities internally. The early days were great times for digital agencies. They were solving real problems.

Fast forward 13 years. Digital agencies are still thriving, mostly by unpacking other types of complexity. “Social media experts” were created to consult marketers on the new social marketing channel, “trading desks” launched to leverage the explosion of incomprehensible RTB systems, and terms like “paid, owned, and earned” were coined to complexify digital options. It’s hard being a marketer. So much easier to hand the digital keys over to an agency, and have them figure it all out.

Some of that complexity is dying, though.

Have you ever done any advertising on Google? It’s not that hard. You can get pretty good at search engine marketing quickly, and it doesn’t take anything more than common sense, an internet connection, and a credit card to start. Facebook advertising? Also dead easy. Facebook’s self-service platform is so intuitive that even the most hopeless Luddite can target to levels of granularity so minute that you can use it to reach a single individual. Today’s platforms leverage data and offer great user interfaces and user experience mechanisms to make the complex simple.

This has created the OpenTable effect. Remember when you had to call 8 different restaurants to get a Valentine’s Day reservation? What a pain in the ass. I used to always get to it late, and usually spend a few hours getting rejected before finding a table somewhere. Today, I log into OpenTable, type in “11743” and see all the available 8:30 reservations for two in Huntington. A few clicks, and I am locked in. Would I ever go back to doing it the old way? Sure, why not? Call my beeper if you need me. Please “911” me if it’s important.

So, with all of this innovation making the complex simple, and all of these platforms democratizing access to advertising inventory, analytics, and reporting, why are digital agencies still making a living off of the lowly banner ad? Is there a good business left in planning and buying digital display media?

Programmatic RTB is coming on strong, now representing the way almost a quarter of banner inventory is purchased. That’s a good thing. Platforms like Rubicon Project and Appnexus are making it easy to build great businesses on top of their complicated infrastructure. Marketers can hire an agency to trade for them, or maybe just build their own little team of smart people who can leverage technology. That seems to be happening more and more, making managing RTB either a specialist’s game, or not an option for the independent agency.

Really complicated, multi-channel, tentpole campaigns and sponsorships can never be automated. They represent about 5% of overall display spend, and that’s really where a digital agency’s firepower can be leveraged: the intersection of creativity and technology. That sector of digital involves a lot of what’s being called “native” today. Working with content owners and marketers to build great, branded experiences across the Web is where the smartest agencies should be right now.

How about the rest of the money spend on digital display—the 70% of money that goes through the transactional RFP space? A lot of agencies are still making their money buying reserved media, trafficking ad tags, and doing the dreaded billing and reconciliation. Marketers who pay on a cost-plus basis are starting to wonder whether spending money to have expensive agency personnel create and compare spreadsheets all day long is a good use of their money. Agencies that do not get paid for such work are seeing their margins shrink considerably, as they grind away money paying for low value tasks like ad operations. Clients don’t care how long it took you to get the click tag working on their 728×90. Just saying.

A lot of this viscosity within the guaranteed space is being solved by great “programmatic direct” technologies. Right now, you can use web-based systems to plan complex campaigns without using Excel or e-mail, and you can leverage web-based tools to buy premium inventory directly from great publishers—the kind of stuff not found inside RTB systems. Protocols and standards are being written that will, in a few short months, make the electronic IO a reality. Systems are being built with APIs that can enable trafficking to go away completely. Yes, you heard me. People should not have to ever touch JavaScript tags. That’s work for machines.

This future (“programmatic direct”) has been coming for a long time, but it is still met with resistance by agencies, some of whom are continue to benefit from complexity—and others who are (rightfully) scared of change and what it means for their business. Looking at legacy workflow systems, you wonder why they are so hesitant to leave them, but the cost of switching to new systems is high in terms of emotion and workplace disruption—and previous attempts to “simplify” agencies’ lives didn’t really work out that way.

So, how can digital agencies start to change, and embrace the new world of programmatic direct tools, so they can turn their energy to strategy and client care, rather than be an “expert” in processes that will eventually die?

Part of that is learning to recognize if you have a “wizard” on staff. The Wizard is the guy that has truly embraced complexity within the agency. He is the “systems guy” who knows how to pull complicated reports out of legacy workflow platforms. He probably knows who to write the occasional SQL query, and he knows where all the bodies (spreadsheets) are buried. When a web-based technology salesperson comes calling on the agency, and shows the CEO or VP of Media what web-based programmatic direct buying looks like, they are showing an agency a world where a lot of complexity is suddenly made simple. That demo shows the future of digital media buying: a directory-driven, centralized, web-based method of planning, buying, and serving inventory. Just like search! C-level agency executives and media people want it. They want their employees focused on strategy and analytics…not ad trafficking. But to get it, they invariably tell you to go see the Wizard. “Fred is our ‘systems guy.’ He’ll know whether this can work for us from a technical standpoint.”

That’s when innovation dies. Fred, the Wizard of the legacy systems, will shut down any innovation that comes his way. Complexity is Fred’s best friend. When you are the only guy that can pull a SQL query from your data warehouse, or reconcile numbers between SAP and your agency’s order management system, then you are a God. Fred is God…and he doesn’t want a downgrade. Complexity is the reason great digital agencies were built, and continue to thrive. Tomorrow’s big challenges are going to come from complexities in cross-channel delivery and attribution, and keeping up with new platforms that are delivering amazing native marketing opportunities, not being the next at reconciling ad delivery numbers from servers.

When innovation comes knocking on your door, don’t let Fred answer it.

[This post was originally published in AdExchanger]

Are Publisher Trading Desks Next?

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

tradingDeskThis post originally appeared in AdExchanger.

A long time ago, I was selling highly premium banner ad inventory to major advertisers. Part of a larger media organization, our site had great consumer electronics content tailored to successful professional and amateur product enthusiasts. The thing we loved most was sponsorships and advertorials. We practically had a micro-agency inside our shop, and we produced amazing custom websites, contests, and branded content sections for our best clients. They loved our creative approach, subject matter expertise, and association with our amazing brand. They still capture this revenue today.

The next thing we loved was our homepage and index page banner inventory. We sold all of our premium inventory—mostly 728×90 and 300×250 banners—by hand, and realized very nice CPMs. Back then, we were getting CPMs upwards of $50, since we had an audience of high-spending B2B readers. I imagine that today, the same site is running lots of premium video and rich media, and getting CPMs in the high teens for their above-the fold inventory and pre-roll in their video player. I was on the site recently, and saw most of the same major advertisers running strong throughout the popular parts of the site. Today, a lot of this “transactional RFP” activity is being handled by programmatic direct technologies that include companies like NextMark, Centro, iSocket, and AdSlot, not to mention MediaOcean.

What about remnant? We really didn’t think about it much. Actually, realizing how worthless most of that below-the-fold and deep-paged inventory was, we ran house ads, or bundled lots of “value added ROS” impression together for our good customers. Those were simple days, when monetization was focused on having salespeople sell more—and pushing your editorial team to produce more content worthy of high CPM banner placements.

Come to think of it, it seems like not much has changed over the last 10 years, with the notable exception of publishers’ approach to remnant inventory. About five years ago, they found some ad tech folks to take 100% of it off their hands. Even though they didn’t get a lot of money for it, they figured it was okay, since they could focus on their premium inventory and sales relationships. In doing some of those early network deals, I wondered who the hell would want millions of below-the-fold banners and 468x90s, anyway? Boy, was I stupid. Close your eyes for a year or two, and a whole “Kawaja map” pops up.

Anyhow, we all know what happened next. Networks used data and technology to make the crap they were buying more relevant to advertisers (“audience targeting”), and the demand side—seeing CPMs drop from $17 to $7, played right along. Advertisers LOVE programmatic RTB buying. It puts them in the driver’s seat, lets them determine pricing, and also (thanks to “agency trading desks”) lets them enhance their shrinking margins with a media vigorish. Unfortunately, for publishers, it meant that a rising sea of audience targeting capability only lifted the agency and ad tech boats. Publishers were seeing CPMs decline, networks eat into overall ad spending, DSPs further devaluing inventory, and self-service platforms like Facebook siphon off more of the pie.

How do publishers get control back of their remnant inventory—and start to take their rightful ownership of audience targeting?

That has now become simple (well, it’s simple after some painful tech implementation). Data Management Platforms are the key for publishers looking to segment, target, and expand their audiences via lookalike modeling. They can leverage their clients’ first party data and their own to drive powerful audience-targeted campaigns right within their own domains, and start capturing real CPMs for their inventory rather than handing networks and SSPs the lion’s share of the advertising dollar. That is step number one, and any publisher with a significant amount of under-monetized inventory would be foolish to do otherwise. Why did Lotame switch from network to DMP years ago? Because they saw this coming. Now they help publishers power their own inventory and get back control. Understanding your audience—and having powerful insights to help your advertisers understand it—is the key to success. Right now, there are about a dozen DMPs that are highly effective for audience activation.

What is even more interesting to me is what a publisher can do after they start to understand audiences better. The really cool thing about DMPs is that they can enable a publisher to have their own type of “trading desk.” Before we go wild and start taking about “PTDs” or PTSDs or whatever, let me explain.

If I am BigSportsSite, for example, and I am the world’s foremost expert in sports content, ranking #1 or #2 in Comscore for my category, and consistently selling my inventory at a premium, what happens when I only have $800,000 in “basketball enthusiasts” in a month and my advertiser needs $1,000,000 worth? What happens today is that the agency buys up every last scrap of premium inventory he can find on my site and others, and then plunks the rest of her budget down on an agency trading desk, who uses MediaMath to find “basketball intenders” and other likely males across a wide range of exchange inventory.

But doesn’t BigSportsSite know more about this particular audience than anyone else? Aren’t they the ones with historical campaign data, access to tons of first-party site data, and access to their clients’ first party data as well? Aren’t they the ones with the content expertise which enables them to see what types of pages and context perform well for various types of creative? Also, doesn’t BigSportsSite license content to a larger network of pre-qualified, premium sites that also have access to a similar audience? If the answer to all of the above is yes, why doesn’t BigSportsSite run a trading desk, and do reach extension on their advertisers’ behalf?

I think the answer is that they haven’t had access to the right set of tools so far—and, more so, the notion of “audience discovery” has somehow been put in the hands of the demand side. I think that’s a huge mistake. If I’m a publisher who frequently runs out of category-specific inventory like “sports lovers,” I am immediately going to install a DMP and hire a very smart guy to help me when I can’t monetize the last $200,000 of an RFP. Advertisers trust BigSportsSite to be the authority in their audience, and (as importantly) the arbiter of what constitutes high quality category content.

Why let the demand side have all of the fun? Publishers who understand their audience can find them on their own site, their clients’ sites, across an affiliated network of partner sites, and in the long tail through exchanges. These multi-tiered audience packages can be delivered through one trusted partner, and aligned with their concurrent sponsorship and transactional premium direct advertising.

Maybe we shouldn’t call them Publisher Trading Desks, but every good publisher should have one.

2013 Will be the Year of Programmatic Direct

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

guaranteed_stamp

A version of this post originally appeared in ClickZ.

Fairfax Cone, the founder of Foote, Cone, and Belding once famously remarked that the problem with the agency business was that “the inventory goes down the elevator at night.” He was talking about the people themselves. For digital media agencies, who rely on 23 year-old media planners to work long hours grinding on Excel spreadsheets and managing vendors, that might be a problem.

For all of the hype and investment behind real-time bidding, the fact is that “programmatically bought” media (RTB) will only account for roughly $2B of the anticipated $15B in digital display spending this year, or a little over 13% depending on who you believe. Even if that number were to double, the lion’s share of digital display still happens the old fashioned way: Publishers hand-sell premium guaranteed inventory to agencies.

Kawaja map companies, founded to apply data and technology to the problem of audience buying, have gotten the most ink, most venture funding, and most share of voice over the past 5 years. The amount of innovation and real technology that has been brought to bear on audience targeting and optimization has been huge, and highly valuable. Today, platforms like The Rubicon Project process over a trillion ad bids and over 100B ad transactions every month. Companies like AppNexus have paid down technology pipes that bring the power of extensible platform technology to large and small digital advertising businesses alike. And inventory? There are over 5 trillion impressions a month ready to be purchased, most of which sit in exchanges powered by just such technology.

All of that bring said, the market continues to put the majority of its money into premium guaranteed. They are, in effect, saying, “I know I can buy the ‘sports lovers’ segment through my DSP, and I will—but what I really want is to reach sports lovers where they love to go: ESPN.com.”

So, while RTB and related ad technologies will grow, they will not grow fast enough to support all of the many companies in the ecosystem that need a slice of 2013’s $2B RTB pie to survive. NextMark founder and CEO, Joseph Pych, whose company focuses on guaranteed reserved software, has been calling this the great “Sutton Pivot,” referring to the famous remark of criminal Willie Sutton , who robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.”

In order to better inderstand why this is happening, I have identified several problems with RTB that are driving companies focused on RTB to need to pivot:

  • There’s a Natural Cap on RTB Growth: I think today’s RTB technology is the best place to buy remnant inventory. As long as there are low-value impressions to buy, and as long as publishers continue to festoon their pages with IAB-standard banners, there will need to be a technology solution to navigate through the sea of available inventory, and apply data (and algorithms) to choose the right combination of inventory and creative to reach defined performance goals. While the impressions may grow, the real cap on RTB growth will be the most important KPI of them all: Share of time spent. Marketers spend money where people spend their time, whether it’s on television, Twitter, radio, or Facebook. When people spend less time on the inventory represented within exchanges, then the growth trend will reverse itself. (Already we are seeing a significant shift in budget allocation from “traditional” exchanges to FBX).
  • The Pool is Still Dirty: It goes without saying, but the biggest problem in terms of RTB growth is brand safety. The type of inventory available in exchanges that sells, on average, for less than a dollar is probably worth just that. When you buy an $850 suit from Joseph A. Bank—and receive two free suits, two shirts, and two ties—you feel good. But it doesn’t take much figuring to understand that you just bought 3 $200 suits, two $75 shirts, and two $50 ties. Can you get $15 CPM premium homepage inventory for $3 CPM? No…and you never will be able to, but that type of inventory is just what the world’s largest marketers want. They would also like URL-level transparency into where their ads appeared, a limit on the number of ads on a page (share of voice), and some assurance that their ads are being seen (viewability).  Inventory will continually grow, but good, premium inventory will grow more slowly.
  • It’s Not about Private Exchanges: Look, there’s nothing wrong with giving certain advertisers a “first look” at your premium inventory if you are a publisher.  Auto sites have been pursuing this concept forever. Big auto sites guarantee Ford, for example, all of the banner inventory associated with searches for Ford-branded vehicles over the course of a year. This ensures the marketer gets to his prospect when deep in the consideration set. Big auto sites may create programmatic functionality around enabling this type of transaction, but private exchange functionality isn’t going to be the savior of RTB, just necessary functionality. Big marketers want control of share of voice, placement, and flexibility in rates and programs that extend beyond the functionality currently available in DSPs. As long as they are spending the money, they will get—and demand—service.

What does all of this mean? RTB-enables ad technology is not going away, but some of the companies that require real time bidding to grow at breakneck speed to survive are going to pivot towards the money, developing technologies that enable more efficient buying of premium guaranteed inventory—where the other 85% of media budgets happen.  I predict that 2013 will be the year of “programmatic direct” which will be the label that people apply to any technology that enables agencies and marketers to access reserved inventory more efficiently. If we can apply some of the amazing technology we have built to making buying (and selling) great inventory easier, more efficient, and better performing, it will be an amazing year.

Programmatic Direct is not about Bidding

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

bid-nobid-article

A version of this article riginally appearded in the EConsultancy blog.

“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 programmatic direct, 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: programmatic direct (also described as “programmatic premium”) 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 direct?” Yes—but only if that means that publishers embrace technologies that help them streamline the way they hand-sell their top-tier inventory.

 

On the Road to Programmatic Direct

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

PremiumWin

A version of this post originally appeared in ClickZ .

As the bloated Display LUMAscape shifts, more and more companies focused on real time bidding are turning their venture-funded ships in the direction of programmatic direct and trying to pivot towards an area where nearly 80% of display media budgets are spent. This has been called the “Sutton Pivot,” referring to the notion of robbing banks, because “that’s where the money is.”

The fact that that 80%—over $6 billion—is largely transacted using e-mail, Microsoft Excel, and fax machines is staggering in a world in which Facebook is becoming passé. a lor of people have been calling the move to create efficiency in guaranteed display buying “programmatic premium,” but it’s not 100% about inventory quality.  The larger question is whether or not publishers are going to enable truly premium inventory to be purchased in a way that lessens their control. At a recent industry conference, publishers including Gannett and Turner completely rejected RTB and “programmatic” notions. In a world of ever growing inventory, the premium stuff is ever shrinking as a percentage—and that means scarcity, which is the publisher’s best friend. Selling less of a higher margin product is business 101.

As I wrote recently, at the same conference, Forbes’ Meredith Levien laid out the three principle chunks of inventory a super-premium publisher controls, and I want to examine the programmatic direct notion against each of these:

  • Super Premium: Big publishers love big “tent pole” branding campaigns, and are busy building mini-agencies within their sales groups, which bring together custom sponsorship packages that go beyond IAB standard banners. A big tent pole effort might involve a homepage takeover, custom rich media units, a dedicated video player, and branded social elements within a site. While some of the display elements within such a campaign can be purchased through a buying platform, this type of complex sale will never scale with technology, and is the very antithesis of “programmatic.” For many publishers, this type of sale may comprise up to 50% of their revenue. Today’s existing buying and selling platforms will be hard pressed to bring “programmatic” efficiencies here.
  • Transactional: Many super-premium (and most premium) publishers spend a lot of their time in the RFP mill, churning out 10 proposals and winning 2   or 3 of them. This “transactional RFP” business is begging for reform, and great companies like AdSlotiSocketOperative, and ShinyAds are starting to offer ways to make selling premium inventory such as this as programmatic as possible. Companies such as CentroFacilitateMediaOcean, and NextMark (disclosure: my company) are starting to offer ways to make discovering and buying premium inventory such as this as programmatic as possible. Much of the RFP process is driven by advertisers looking for information that doesn’t need to be offered by a human being: How much inventory do you have, when do you have it, and how much does it cost? This information is being increasingly found within platforms—which also enable, via tight pub-side ad server integrations, the ability to “buy it now.” 100% of this business will eventually happen programmatically. Whether or not today’s big RTB players can pivot their demand- and supply-side technologies to handle this distinct type of transaction (not very “real time” and not very “bidded”) remains to be seen.
  • Programmatic RTB: There will always be a place for programmatic buying in display—and there has to be, with the sheer amount of inventory available. Let’s face it: the reason the LUMAscape is so crowded is that it takes a LOT of technology to find the “premium” needle in a haystack that consists of over 5 trillion impressions per month. If the super-premium inventory publishers have to sell is spoken for, and the “transactional” premium inventory publishers sell is increasingly going to other (non-RTB) platforms, then it follows that there is very little “premium” inventory available to be bought in the programmatic channel.

The middle layer—deals that are currently being done via the RFP process, is where programmatic direct  is going to take place. In this type of buy, a demand-side platform will create efficiencies that eliminate the cutting and pasting of Excel and faxing and e-mailing of document-based orders, and a supply-side platform will help publishers expose their premium inventory to buyers with pricing and availability details. That sort of system sounds more like a “systematic guaranteed” platform for premium inventory.

 

How you Pay Your Agency Matters

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Paintbrush digging up a one hundred dollar bill

This post originally appeared in The CMO Site, a United Business Media publication.

I have been working for a company that makes software solutions for buying digital media, and I have worked for a number of ad technology companies in the past. In a world where digital banner ads are still purchased through e-mail and fax, and media plans are mostly created using Microsoft Excel—technology dating from 1985—the ad technology industry sees an opportunity to create efficiencies in the way media is bought and sold. As an industry, one of the odd dynamics we have encountered in bringing our product to market is how independent agencies are more apt to embrace new efficiencies than the “big four” owned agencies who lead the space in terms of media spend.

Logically, you would think that gigantic media agencies, managing hundreds of media planners and buying on thousands on digital media channels, would grasp at the chance to do more planning with fewer personnel, migrating towards web-based tools that offer efficiency and centralization. The evidence has shown otherwise. On the surface, it may seem as though the biggest difference between independent agencies and the majors is size. The majors have Ford, and the independents have the Ford dealers. They both work very hard to identify digital audiences, perform against marketers’ aggressive KPI goals, while trying to understand how they got there through detailed analytics. At the core, the difference between what media teams within holding company shops and a smaller agency does is minimal. So what accounts for the reluctance of bigger shops to innovate with technology tools?

One reason may be the way they get paid.

The biggest shops consistently rely upon cost-plus pricing, which pays them based on hours worked, plus an additional, negotiated margin. The typical $500,000 digital media plan takes an alarming 42 steps and nearly 500 man hours to complete, which can cost up to $50,000—and that doesn’t even include developing the creative. If you are paying your agency on a cost-plus basis, your agency doesn’t have a lot of incentive to create your plan faster, or with less labor. In fact, this type of pricing scheme creates an incentive for inefficiency, or what economists call a “perverse incentive.” Unfortunately, every cent you pay towards the labor of creating a media plan subtracts from the amount that can be dedicated to the media itself.

So, what to do? The most obvious choice for those working with a large agency under such a scheme is to try and change the payment terms. Pay-for-performance is optimal, but a careful analysis may show that paying on a percentage-of-spend model yields more reach, when you are not paying for the labor of building a media plan. Some marketers are choosing instead to build small, efficient in-house teams to leverage the demand side technologies that their agency won’t to discover and buy digital media. Other marketers choose to work with multiple smaller, independent agencies that have specific expertise in different digital verticals. Those shops usually offer flexible fee structures, and you are far more likely to work with the team that pitched you after you hire them.

As they say in finance, “it isn’t what you make, it’s what you keep.” In digital media, moving away from cost-plus pricing relationships and towards new technologies for media buying means keeping more of your money for reach, and spending less on labor that doesn’t help you move the sales needle.

 

If it’s not Programmatic Premium, then what is it?

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013
CountryAndWestern

We got both kinds…programmatic RTB and programmatic direct!

This article originally appeared in ClickZ.

I 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.