By Eric Picard (Originally Published on AdExchanger.com – Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015)
There was a time when advertising was a game of statistical assumptions about the types of people who were consuming media. Television had four networks and there were only dozens of mainstream magazines, typically one local newspaper read by a large percentage of adults and various radio stations in each market.
In what is possibly the most basic truth of the media industry, the fragmentation trend has continued with a constantly growing number of media vehicles against which smaller slices of people’s time are applied.
Even when media-buying teams were specialized by media type, such as TV buyers and magazine buyers, the fragmentation problem still faced an unmanageable outcome. But digital media has blurred the lines between channels. Digital media buyers are now responsible for buying display ads on PC web, mobile web, digital video on both and, increasingly, audio ads. Channels, like in-game ads, and format variances, such as native ads, increase the complexity.
Billions of dollars have been invested in the next generation of media-buying technology over the past 10 years. As expected by those investors, the digital media space has grown incredibly.
The amount of money spent on digital on PCs has almost caught up to the amount of time spent by people consuming digital media – which means that spending “growth” is slowing on a year-over-year percentage basis. But spending is still growing at incredible rates. Mobile still has a massive growth opportunity that looks much like the “Internet” looked 10 years ago, as you can see below in Mary Meeker’s most recently updated “% of Time Spent” chart.
The New Planning And Buying
When planning and buying was tied to a small number of media channels and publishers per channel, it was reasonable for planning and buying group of 100 people to execute large budgets against a relatively small number of publishers. With fragmentation, the complexity of executing in any one channel makes this approach untenable.
And yet, the vast majority of ad dollars spent today are still spent against media that is bought the same way it was 10 years ago. Meanwhile, programmatic media-buying platforms have exploded on the scene and made it possible for one buyer to effectively input buying rules that allow for hundreds of billions of buying decisions per day. Each impression is evaluated in real time, valued against the campaign goals and only purchased if the value of the impression is higher than its price. This revolution puts the advertiser/buyer in control of defining, evaluating and valuing the ad inventory – a highly desirable transition to advertisers.
Although this is a technological miracle, these programmatic buying platforms have been relegated to only a small percentage of overall digital media budgets. Yes, programmatic is a rapidly growing percentage, but still has been largely limited to direct-response budgets until relatively recently.
It makes sense that direct-response budgets are directed toward the programmatic channel – buying platforms can evaluate audiences and apply explicitly identified audiences to a specific set of criteria, measured against explicit ROI goals. For direct-response campaigns, it’s easy to justify spending more than 20% of the media budget on programmatic because first-party data is such an obvious leap for marketers.
However, we have these amazing platforms with immense capabilities for evaluating enormous numbers of impressions per second and making intelligent decisions about which impressions to buy. And we have all sorts of bridging technologies and measurement models, such as Nielsen’s OCR and comScore’s VCE, to help drag budgets that need to move evolutionarily from the panel-based model approach to TV buying to more automated buying models. But there’s a chicken-and-egg problem that hasn’t been resolved.
While programmatic buying platforms are orders of magnitude more advanced than the old ways of buying media, planning methodologies for allocating budget ahead of the buying process simply haven’t kept up with the buying revolution. Under the current model, planners divvy up the budget to different buying teams, sending large chunks to “traditional” digital media buyers (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and smaller chunks to the programmatic buying team.
This is despite the fact that programmatic buying methodologies can execute both budgets equally efficiently and effectively. Buyers can just as effectively execute their budget for direct buys programmatically. The difference when a programmatic buying platform is used is that every impression can be evaluated against the campaign goals expressed by the planner, and either be bought or rejected. This “outcomes-based” buying actually puts the planner’s objectives right at the center of the buy – and pushes the media toward an even playing field between brand and direct response.
To execute a media plan using only direct buys today means that the old-world scale issues apply: A media-buying team of 100 people typically buys from between 50 to 60 publishers. This ratio means that in a world with millions of websites, a tiny fraction of available inventory is considered. And buying teams that only buy direct are unlikely to evaluate publishers outside of their personal experience, as is human nature. This is not to say that there is no place for direct media buys – they absolutely serve a purpose. But there are many other ways to run after any campaign objective, whether the desired outcome or goal is to drive an immediate sale or to reach a specific audience, or to reach a more general audience.
The Role Of Direct Buys In A Programmatic World
Programmatic buying teams now use mechanisms like private marketplace deals to execute direct buys with publishers, which enables buyers to establish more controls over how impressions will be selected or rejected than a direct buy. In a standard direct buy, every impression must be consumed. In a programmatic-first world, only impressions that match the campaign goals are purchased. And the role of a direct buy has more to do with ensuring that an advertiser can purchase inventory from a specific publisher that may otherwise be unavailable or in short supply over the open RTB inventory channel.
In a programmatic-first world, campaigns are begun over just open RTB. Using white lists and evaluating which publishers saw impression volume periodically can show how much inventory is available on that publisher over the exchanges. A private marketplace should be considered if a publisher is determined to be valuable and inventory volumes do not respond to increasing the bids on a CPM basis for available impressions. One way that programmatic-first buyers will make evaluations regarding private marketplace buys or even direct buys is to test on the exchange first to see if the inventory can be bought there. If standard bids aren’t finding the inventory desired on a publisher, and raising the bids doesn’t open up inventory, a private marketplace buy or direct buy is the answer. But there is a lot of value in finding that inventory on the exchange if possible.
It is sometimes the case that various business rules will render a publisher or set of desirable inventory inaccessible to a specific advertiser over the exchanges. In those cases, the issue isn’t bid price – the inventory is simply not accessible to the advertiser over the exchange without a private marketplace buy in place. These private marketplace deals will eventually replace direct buys. But in some cases, publishers may simply require a direct buy because their operations teams haven’t sorted out how to support private marketplaces or for philosophical reasons.
This last scenario is quickly evaporating from the market – buyers are increasingly demanding and receiving support for private marketplace deals across most publishers. It is not unusual for these to be part of a standard IO. For those publishers that require vendor support, the options that support programmatic sales are rapidly increasing. Publisher programmatic vendors, including Pubmatic, Casale and Rubicon, offer support for standard private marketplace buys. Google, as always, is innovating like crazy in this space. And upstarts, such as Sonobi and C1 Exchange, are examples of a new type of publisher-facing programmatic vendor that supports more flexible inventory guarantees, using programmatic pipes by integrating directly into the publisher ad server.
We’re on the cusp of a massive revolution in media planning and buying – with new tools and methodologies. There are significant advertiser and publisher benefits to sorting these issues out. But this innovation comes at a cost. Evaluating hundreds of billions of daily impressions across all these platforms, publishers, advertisers, campaigns, insertion orders, line items, placements and creatives is technologically intensive.
And while automation is often touted as a way to increase efficiency, that doesn’t mean it reduces labor costs. The number of people needed to execute this way stays static, but the salary costs go up because team members have more technical skills and are in high demand. But over time they scale exponentially better than traditional media buys. This will ultimately lead to some interesting conversations between agencies and advertisers. The procurement-driven cost-plus model is not leaving agencies room to support these newer and better ways of servicing their clients.