Category Archives: Media Agencies

The fundamental disconnect between buyers and sellers

By Eric Picard (Originally Published on iMedia – November 20, 2013)

If we break down the way that buyers and sellers view the world from an advertising perspective, the buyer wants to reach a specific audience on quality publications. And the seller wants to sell as much inventory as possible at the highest price.

To these ends, each party has built their own set of processes, technologies, and methodologies. Historically, media buyers would come up with a plan for reaching ideal target audiences, identify publishers that match brand goals and have access to the target audiences, and then send RFPs over to those publishers. Once buyers passed along the RFP, control was largely out of their hands. Buyers could say yes or no to things, they could ask for clarification, and they could negotiate price. But the control over exactly which audience they reach or what pages their ads land on have not been in their control. That has reverted back to the publisher’s sales, account, and operations teams.

Publisher sales organizations, meanwhile, have spent an immense amount of time and effort coming up with methods of “packaging” inventory to ensure the most sales, at the highest price. They have created significantly complex packages — with combinations of highly desirable and aligned inventory to an RFP — with less aligned and less desirable inventory that they require the buyer to take in order to get the inventory they really want.

In conversations with media buyers, I’ve been told that they see their job as “forcing publishers to blow up packages and unbundle the bad stuff from the good stuff.” This tension between buyer and seller can be quite intense — because their goals are generally not seen as aligned. There is a problem of “information asymmetry” in this world, meaning that publishers have all the information about both the buyer’s goals and the publisher’s own inventory and audiences. Ultimately they package that inventory without much input from the buyer other than the original RFP and media plan. Buyers have very little information in this world and rely on the publisher to interpret the buyer’s goals properly and to deliver what they’ve agreed to.

Over in RTB land, media buyers have much more control. In this world, the “information asymmetry” goes in the other direction. Within a DSP or other buying tool, the media buyers specify the audiences they want to reach and the kinds of inventory that are acceptable — even down to creation of a white list of which publishers are acceptable. They use inventory quality vendors, verification vendors, data providers, and all sorts of techniques to gain control over the buying process.

In this world, publishers add very little value (basically none) to the buying process, and they exist with absolute data asymmetry. Not only do they not know why their inventory is being bought (they don’t get an RFP or media plan), but they also often don’t even know who is buying their inventory. They maintain very little control over the selling process in this circumstance, which rightly makes them nervous about RTB.

As the technologies and markets evolve, a new process needs to be developed where publishers and buyers can collaborate. This process must allow publishers to gain insight into the goals of the buyers such that they can make good decisions about where to invest in building content — content that attracts the kinds of audiences that buyers want to reach. And buyers need access to data that publishers have about their audiences (which they don’t normally make available to generic ad exchange buys) that can be bound together with inventory via private exchanges or even programmatic direct technologies. So between the buyer and the seller, we can come together with a strong handshake that drives the right kind of symmetry of information — one that drives the right business outcomes for everyone involved.

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When will digital take over traditional media?

By Eric Picard (Originally published on iMediaConnection.com, September 12, 2013)

In 2005 I worked on a project to map the infrastructure used for all traditional media advertising and determine if there was an opportunity to inject the new modern infrastructure of online advertising into the mix. This was a broad look at the space — with the goal to see if any overlap in the buying or selling processes existed at all and if there was a way to subtly or explicitly alter the architecture of online advertising platforms to drive convergence.

If you think about it, this is kind of a no-brainer. Delivering tens or hundreds of billions of ads a day in real time with ad delivery decisions made in a few milliseconds is much harder than getting the contracts signed and images off to printing presses (print media) or ensuring that the video cassettes or files are sent over to the network, broadcaster, or cable operator by a certain deadline. And the act of planning media buys before the buying process begins isn’t very different between traditional media and digital.

I went and interviewed media planners and buyers who worked across media. I talked to publishers in print, TV, radio, out-of-home, etc. And I went and talked to folks at the technology vendor companies who supported advertising in all of these spaces. It was clear to me that converging the process was possible, and as I looked at how the various channels operated, it was also clear that they’d benefit significantly from a more modern architecture and approach.

But in 2005, the idea of digital media technologies and approaches being used to “fix” digital media was clearly too early. It would be like AOL buying Time Warner…Oh yeah, that happened. In any case, the likelihood of getting traditional folks to adopt digital media ad technology in 2005 was simply ludicrous.

And despite progress, and clearly superior technical approaches in digital (if lower revenue from the same content due to business model differences), there’s little danger of traditional and digital media ad convergence in the near term. This is actually a real shame because digital media now is stepping into a real renaissance from an advertising technology perspective.

Programmatic media buying and selling is clearly the future of digital, and I believe they will extend into traditional as well. And within programmatic, RTB is a clear winner (although not the only winner) in the space. The value proposition of RTB for the buyer is incredibly strong.  Buyers get to deliver ads only to the specific audiences they desire and on the specific publishers (or group of publishers) they want their ads associated with. While still mostly used for remnant media monetization, this is changing very fast.

Television is the obvious space to adopt digital media ad technology, and with terms like “Digital Broadcast,” “Digital Cable,” “IPTV,” and others, it would seem on the surface that we’re moments away from RTB making the leap from online display ads and digital video to television.

That’s not quite the case. While great strides are being made in executing on targeted television buys by fantastic companies like Simulmedia, Visible World, and others, this space is still not quite ready to make the transition to real-time ad delivery (what we think of as ad serving in the online space) at large, let alone RTB.

This is because the cable advertising industry is hamstrung by an infrastructure that is designed for throughput and scale of video delivery, which was absolutely not designed with the idea of real-time decisions at the set-top-box (STB) level in mind. Over the years we’ve seen video on demand (VOD) really take off for cable, but even there, where the video content is delivered via a single stream per STB, they didn’t design the infrastructure around advertising experiences. Even the newer players with more advanced and modern infrastructures and modern-sounding names like IPTV, such as Verizon’s FIOS solution, haven’t built in the explicit hooks and solutions needed to support real-time ad delivery decisions across all ad calls. That basically means that for the vast majority of ads, there’s no targeting whatsoever.

Some solutions like Black Arrow and Visible World have done the work to drop themselves into the cable infrastructure for ad delivery, but nobody has seen massive adoption at a scale that would let something happen at the national level. And the cable industry’s internally funded advanced advertising initiative — The Canoe Project — laid off most of its staff last year and has focused on delivering a VOD Clearinghouse to get VOD to scale across cable operators. So in 2013, we’re still not to the point where dynamic video advertising can be delivered on any television show during its broadcast, and even VOD doesn’t yet have a way to easily, cohesively, and dynamically deliver video advertising — let alone providing an RTB marketplace.

On the non-RTB side of programmatic buying and selling, I think we’ll see a lot of progress here in traditional media. Media Ocean has been doing their own flavor of programmatic for quite some time — in fact the Media Ocean name of the post-merger company was a product name within the Donovan Data Systems (DDS) portfolio that helped bind together the DDS TV Buying Product with a Television Network selling product and allowed buyers and sellers to transact on insertion orders programmatically for spot television. With Media Ocean’s new focus on digital media (which is getting rave reviews from folks I’ve talked to who have seen it), there’s little doubt in my mind that these products will extend over to the traditional side of the market and ultimately replace (or be the basis of new versions of) the various legacy products that allowed DDS to dominate the media buying space for decades.

If our industry can get to the point where executing media buys across traditional and digital share a common process until the moment where they diverge from a delivery perspective, I think the market overall will make great headway. And I’m bullish on this — I think we’re not far away but it won’t happen this year.

Life after the death of 3rd Party Cookies

By Eric Picard (Originally published on AdExchanger.com July 8th, 2013)

In spite of plenty of criticism by the IAB and others in the industry, Mozilla is moving forward with its plan to block third-party cookies and to create a “Cookie Clearinghouse” to determine which cookies will be allowed and which will be blocked.  I’ve written many articles about the ethical issues involved in third-party tracking and targeting over the last few years, and one I wrote in March — “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Third-Party Cookies” — led to dozens of conversations on this topic with both business and technology people across the industry.

The basic tenor of those conversations was frustration. More interesting to me than the business discussions, which tended to be both inaccurate and hyperbolic, were my conversations with senior technical leaders within various DSPs, SSPs and exchanges. Those leaders’ reactions ranged from completely freaked out to subdued resignation. While it’s clear there are ways we can technically resolve the issues, the real question isn’t whether we can come up with a solution, but how difficult it will be (i.e. how many engineering hours will be required) to pull it off.

Is This The End Or The Beginning?

Ultimately, Mozilla will do whatever it wants to do. It’s completely within its rights to stop supporting third-party cookies, and while that decision may cause chaos for an ecosystem of ad-technology vendors, it’s completely Mozilla’s call. The company is taking a moral stance that’s, frankly, quite defensible. I’m actually surprised it’s taken Mozilla this long to do it, and I don’t expect it will take Microsoft very long to do the same. Google may well follow suit, as taking a similar stance would likely strengthen its own position.

To understand what life after third-party cookies might look like, companies first need to understand how technology vendors use these cookies to target consumers. Outside of technology teams, this understanding is surprisingly difficult to come by, so here’s what you need to know:

Every exchange, Demand-Side Platform, Supply-Side Platform and third-party data company has its own large “cookie store,” a database of every single unique user it encounters, identified by an anonymous cookie. If a DSP, for instance, wants to use information from a third-party data company, it needs to be able to accurately match that third-party cookie data with its own unique-user pool. So in order to identify users across various publishers, all the vendors in the ecosystem have connected with other vendors to synchronize their cookies.

With third-party cookies, they could do this rather simply. While the exact methodology varies by vendor, it essentially boils down to this:

  1. The exchange, DSP, SSP or ad server carves off a small number of impressions for each unique user for cookie synching. All of these systems can predict pretty accurately how many times a day they’ll see each user and on which sites, so they can easily determine which impressions are worth the least amount of money.
  2. When a unique ID shows up in one of these carved-off impressions, the vendor serves up a data-matching pixel for the third-party data company. The vendor places its unique ID for that user into the call to the data company. The data company looks up its own unique ID, which it then passes back to the vendor with the vendor’s unique ID.
  3. That creates a lookup table between the technology vendor and the data company so that when an impression happens, all the various systems are mapped together. In other words, when it encounters a unique ID for which it has a match, the vendor can pass the data company’s ID to the necessary systems in order to bid for an ad placement or make another ad decision.
  4. Because all the vendors have shared their unique IDs with each other and matched them together, this creates a seamless (while still, for all practical purposes, anonymous) map of each user online.

All of this depends on the basic third-party cookie infrastructure Mozilla is planning to block, which means that all of those data linkages will be broken for Mozilla users. Luckily, some alternatives are available.

Alternatives To Third-Party Cookies

1)  First-Party Cookies: First-party cookies also can be (and already are) used for tracking and ad targeting, and they can be synchronized across vendors on behalf of a publisher or advertiser. In my March article about third-party cookies, I discussed how this can be done using subdomains.

Since then, several technical people have told me they couldn’t use the same cross-vendor-lookup model, outlined above, with first-party cookies — but generally agreed that it could be done using subdomain mapping. Managing subdomains at the scale that would be needed, though, creates a new hurdle for the industry. To be clear, for this to work, every publisher would need to map a subdomain for every single vendor and data provider that touches inventory on its site.

So there are two main reasons that switching to first-party cookies is undesirable for the online-ad ecosystem:  first, the amount of work that would need to be done; second, the lack of a process in place to handle all of this in a scalable way.

Personally, I don’t see anything that can’t be solved here. Someone needs to offer the market a technology solution for scalable subdomain mapping, and all the vendors and data companies need to jump through the hoops. It won’t happen in a week, but it shouldn’t take a year. First-party cookie tracking (even with synchronization) is much more ethically defensible than third-party cookies because, with first-party cookies, direct relationships with publishers or advertisers drive the interaction. If the industry does switch to mostly first-party cookies, it will quickly drive publishers to adopt direct relationships with data companies, probably in the form of Data Management Platform relationships.

2) Relying On The Big Guns: Facebook, Google, Amazon and/or other large players will certainly figure out how to take advantage of this situation to provide value to advertisers.

Quite honestly, I think Facebook is in the best position to offer a solution to the marketplace, given that it has the most unique users and its users are generally active across devices. This is very valuable, and while it puts Facebook in a much stronger position than the rest of the market, I really do see Facebook as the best voice of truth for targeting. Despite some bad press and some minor incidents, Facebook appears to be very dedicated to protecting user privacy – and also is already highly scrutinized and policed.

A Facebook-controlled clearinghouse for data vendors could solve many problems across the board. I trust Facebook more than other potential solutions to build the right kind of privacy controls for ad targeting. And because people usually log into only their own Facebook account, this avoids the problems that has hounded cookie-based targeting related to people sharing devices, such as when a husband uses his wife’s computer one afternoon and suddenly her laptop thinks she’s a male fly-fishing enthusiast.

3) Digital Fingerprinting: Fingerprinting, of course, is as complex and as fraught with ethical issues as third-party cookies, but it has the advantage of being an alternative that many companies already are using today. Essentially, fingerprinting analyzes many different data points that are exposed by a unique session, using statistics to create a unique “fingerprint” of a device and its user.

This approach suffers from one of the same problems as cookies, the challenge of dealing with multiple consumers using the same device. But it’s not a bad solution. One advantage is that fingerprinting can take advantage of users with static IP addresses (or IP addresses that are not officially static but that rarely change).

Ultimately, though, this is a moot point because of…

4) IPV6: IPV6 is on the way. This will give every computer and every device a static permanent unique identifier, at which point IPV6 will replace not only cookies, but also fingerprinting and every other form of tracking identification. That said, we’re still a few years away from having enough IPV6 adoption to make this happen.

If Anyone From Mozilla Reads This Article

Rather than blocking third-party cookies completely, it would be fantastic if you could leave them active during each session and just blow them away at the end of each session. This would keep the market from building third-party profiles, but would keep some very convenient features intact. Some examples include frequency capping within a session, so that users don’t have to see the same ad 10 times; and conversion tracking for DR advertisers, given that DR advertisers (for a whole bunch of stupid reasons) typically only care about conversions that happen within an hour of a click. You already have Private Browsing technology; just apply that technology to third-party cookies.

Which Type Of Fraud Have You Been Suckered Into?

By Eric Picard (Originally published by AdExchanger.com on May 30th, 2013)

For the last few years, Mike Shields over at Adweek has done a great job of calling out bad actors in our space.  He’s shined a great big spotlight on the shadowy underbelly of our industry – especially where ad networks and RTB intersect with ad spend.

Many kinds of fraud take place in digital advertising, but two major kinds are significantly affecting the online display space today. (To be clear, these same types of fraud also affect video, mobile and social. I’m just focusing on display because it attracts more spending and it’s considered more mainstream.) I’ll call these “page fraud” and “bot fraud.”

Page Fraud

This type of fraud is perpetrated by publishers who load many different ads onto one page.  Some of the ads are visible, others hidden.  Sometimes they’re even hidden in “layers,” so that many ads are buried on top of each other and only one is visible. Sometimes the ads are hidden within iframes that are set to 1×1 pixel size (so they’re not visible at all). Sometimes they’re simply rendered off the page in hidden frames or layers.

It’s possible that a publisher using an ad unit provided by an ad network could be unaware that the network is doing something unscrupulous – at least at first.  But they are like pizza shops that sell more pizzas than it’s possible to make with the flour they’ve purchased. They may be unaware of the exact nature of the bad behavior but must eventually realize that something funny is going on. In the same way, bad behavior is very clear to publishers who can compare the number of page views they’re getting with the number of ad impressions they’re selling.  So I don’t cut them any slack.

This page fraud, by the way, is not the same thing as “viewability,” which involves below-the-fold ads that never render visibly on the user’s page.  That fraudulent activity is perpetrated by the company that owns the web page on which the ads are supposed to be displayed.  They knowingly do so by either programming their web pages with these fraudulent techniques or using networks that sell fake ad impressions on their web pages.

There are many fraud-detection techniques you can employ to make sure that your campaign isn’t the victim of page fraud. And there are many companies – such as TrustMetrics, Double Verify and Integral Ad Science – that offer technologies and services to detect, stop and avoid this type of fraud. Foiling it requires page crawling as well as advanced statistical analysis.

Bot Fraud

This second type of fraud, which can be perpetrated by a publisher or a network, is a much nastier kind of fraud than page fraud. It requires real-time protection that should ultimately be built into every ad server in the market.

Bot fraud happens when a fraudster builds a software robot (or bot) – or uses an off-the-shelf bot – that mimics the behavior of a real user. Simple bots pretend to be a person but behave in a repetitive way that can be quickly identified as nonhuman; perhaps the bot doesn’t rotate its IP address often and creates either impressions or clicks faster than humanly possible. But the more sophisticated bots are very difficult to differentiate from humans.

Many of these bots are able to mimic human behavior because they’re backed by “botnets” that sit on thousands of computers across the world and take over legitimate users’ machines.  These “zombie” computers then bring up the fraudsters’ bot software behind the scenes on the user’s machine, creating fake ad impressions on a real human’s computer.  (For more information on botnets, read “A Botnet Primer for Advertisers.”) Another approach that some fraudsters take is to “farm out” the bot work to real humans, who typically sit in public cyber cafes in foreign countries and just visit web pages, refreshing and clicking on ads over and over again. These low-tech “botnets” are generally easy to detect because the traffic, while human and “real,” comes from a single IP address and usually from physical locations where the heavy traffic seems improbable – often China, Vietnam, other Asian countries or Eastern Europe.

Many companies have invested a lot of money to stay ahead of bot fraud. Google’s DoubleClick ad servers already do a good job of avoiding these types of bot fraud, as do Atlas and others.

Anecdotally, though, newer ad servers such as the various DSPs seem to be having trouble with this; I’ve heard examples through the grapevine on pretty much all of them, which has been a bit of a black eye for the RTB space. This kind of fraud has been around for a very long time and only gets more sophisticated; new bots are rolled out as quickly as new detection techniques are developed.

The industry should demand that their ad servers take on this problem of bot fraud detection, as it really can only be handled at scale by significant investment – and it should be built right into the core campaign infrastructure across the board. Much like the issues of “visible impressions” and verification that have gotten a lot of play in the industry press, bot fraud is core to the ad-serving infrastructure and requires a solution that uses ad-serving-based technology. The investment is marginal on top of the existing ad-serving investments that already have been made, and all of these features should be offered for free as part of the existing ad-server fees.

Complain to – or request bot-fraud-detection features from – your ad server, DSP, SSP and exchange to make sure they’re prioritizing feature development properly. If you don’t complain, they won’t prioritize this; instead, you’ll get less-critical new features first.

Why Is This Happening?

I’ve actually been asked this a lot, and the question seems to indicate a misunderstanding – as if it were some sort of weird “hacking” being done to punish the ad industry. The answer is much simpler:  money.  Publishers and ad networks make money by selling ads. If they don’t have much traffic, they don’t make much money. With all the demand flowing across networks and exchanges today, much of the traffic is delivered across far more and smaller sites than in the past. This opens up significant opportunities for unscrupulous fraudsters.

Page fraud is clearly aimed at benefiting the publisher but also benefitting the networks. Bot fraud is a little less clear – and I do believe that some publishers who aren’t aware of fraud are getting paid for bot-created ad impressions.  In these cases, the network that owns the impressions has configured the bots to drive up its revenues. But like I said above, publishers have to be almost incompetent not to notice the difference in the number of impressions delivered by a bot-fraud-committing ad network and the numbers provided by third parties like Alexa, Comscore, Nielsen, Compete, Hitwise, Quantcast, Google Analytics, Omniture and others.

Media buyers should be very skeptical when they see reports from ad networks or DSPs showing millions of impressions coming from sites that clearly aren’t likely to have millions of impressions to sell.  And if you’re buying campaigns with any amount of targeting – especially something that should significantly limit available inventory such as Geo or Income– or with frequency caps, you need to be extra skeptical when reviewing your reports, or use a service that does that analysis for you.

What the heck does “programmatic” mean?

By Eric Picard (originally published on iMediaConnection.com 1/10/13)

This article is about programmatic media buying and selling, which I would define as any method of buying or selling media that enables a buyer to complete a media buy and have it go live, all without human intervention from a seller.

Programmatic is a superset of exchange, RTB, auction, and other types of automated media buying and selling that have mainly been proven out for remnant ad inventory clearing mechanisms up until today. So while an auction might or might not be involved in programmatic buying and selling, the roots and infrastructure behind the new programmatic world is based on the same infrastructure that the ad exchanges, DSPs, SSPs, and ad servers have been plumbing and re-plumbing over the last five years.

Let’s talk first about so-called “programmatic premium” inventory, as this is what I’m seeing as the most confusing thing in the market today. Many people still think of programmatic media as remnant inventory sold using real-time bidding. But that’s far from the whole truth today. All display media could (mechanically) be bought and sold programmatically today — whether via RTB or not, whether it’s guaranteed or not, and whether it’s “premium” or not. Eventually all advertising across all media will be bought and sold programmatically. Sometimes it will be bought with a guarantee, sometimes it won’t.

What we’re talking about is how the campaigns get flighted and how ad inventory is allocated against a specific advertiser’s campaign. In premium display advertising, this is done today by humans using tools, mostly on the publisher side of the market. In the programmatic world, all buys — even the up-front buys — will be executed programmatically. So when I say that all ads will be bought and sold programmatically, I mean that literally. If Coke spends $50 million with Disney at an upfront event, that $50 million will still be executed programmatically throughout the life of that buy. The insertion order and RFP process goes away (as we know it) and is replaced by a much more efficient set of processes.

In this new world, sales teams don’t go away. They become more focused on the value that they can add most effectively. That’s in the relationship and evangelism of their properties and the unique content and brand-safe environment that they bring to the table. Sales teams will also engage in broader, more valuable negotiations with buyers — doing more business development and no “order taking.”

In a programmatic world, prices and a whole slew of terms can be negotiated in advance. Essentially what’s happening is that the order-taking process, the RFP, and the inventory avail “look up” that have been intensely manual for the past 20 years are being automated. And APIs between systems have opened up that allow all these various tools to communicate directly and to drive through the existing roadblocks.

Here are five things everyone in our industry should know about programmatic media buying and selling.

It’s inevitable

Programmatic buying and selling is coming, is coming big, and will change the way people buy and sell nearly all media — across all media types — over the next five to 10 years. This will be the case in online display over the next two to three years.

It’s comprehensive

Programmatic is not just RTB, is not just “bidding,” and is not one channel of sales. It’s comprehensive, it’s everything that will be bought and sold, and it’s all forms of media across all sales channels. That’s why I’m hedging by saying five to 10 years, as it will take more than five years to do all these things across all media. But certainly fewer than 10. And a lot is transitioning over the next two years, especially online.

Prices will still vary

In non-programmatic buying and selling (old-fashioned traditional relationship sales), different customers are charged different prices all the time for exactly the same product. That doesn’t go away. Different advertisers get different prices for all sorts of reasons. In the worst case, the buyers might be worse negotiators. But it could be that the advertisers spend more than $1 million monthly with that publisher and therefore get a huge discount on CPM. There are all sorts of reasons that this happens. The same exact thing will happen programmatically. Various advertisers will have hard-coded discounts that are negotiated by humans in advance. Price will drop as thresholds on overall spend are hit. Prestigious brands will get preferences that crappy or unknown brands don’t get. This can all be accommodated right now — this very minute — in almost every major system out there. It’s here. Now.

Complexities will remain

All the various “ad platforms” of the past and the new true ad platforms of today have opened up APIs and can communicate with each other programmatically. This is the way the infrastructure is powering programmatic buying and selling. I can’t stress to all of you how fundamental this change is. It’s not about bidding, auctions, futures, hedges, etc. — although those things will certainly exist and proliferate. It’s about automating the buying and selling process, removing friction from the market, and providing immense increases in value across the board. People talk about how complex the LUMAscape map of ad tech vendors is, but what they miss is that there’s plenty of room for lots of players when they can all easily connect and interact. I do believe we’ll see consolidation — mainly because there’s too little differentiation in the space (lots of copycat companies trying to compete with each other). But I do believe that the ecosystem can afford to be complex.

TV comparisons do not apply

People keep using the television upfronts as the analog to online premium inventory, and the television scatter market as the analog of remnant inventory. That’s not the right metaphor; they’re not equivalent. And even TV will move to programmatic buying and selling in the next decade. But let me lay this old saw to rest once and for all:

  • In television, the up-front is a discount mechanism. Buyers commit to certain spend in order to get a discount. Publishers use the upfront as a hedge in order to mitigate later-term risk by the seller that they will not sell out their inventories.
  • The scatter market is still the equivalent of guaranteed inventory online (although it’s more “reserved” than guaranteed). It’s just sold closer to the date of the inventory going live. I’d argue that with the exception of the random “upfronts” run by some publishers online today, all online premium ad sales is the equivalent of the television scatter market.
  • Remnant is a wholly other thing in television — and isn’t part of the scatter market. TV limits remnant significantly (in healthy economies to about 10 percent of total inventory). We’ve mucked that all up online by selling every impression at any price, which has lowered overall yield and flooded the market with cheap inventory — most of which is worthless.

Time for a New Mobile Ad Format

By Eric Picard (Originally published on AdExchanger.com 11/19/12)

I’ve been designing, prototyping and deploying new ad formats in digital advertising for more than 15 years. I started one of the first rich media advertising companies, where we pioneered many of the ad formats that today are standard offerings – starting in late 1997.  And I ran a team at Microsoft that focused on building new ad unit prototypes for emerging media for several years, which created hundreds of prototypes that were shown to dozens of brands and creative agencies for feedback, and we ran many studies.

I tell you all this not to toot my own horn, but to explain that when I suggest that I’m going to propose a new ad format for the mobile industry, I’m not doing so idly.  I’ve been doing this professionally for my entire career, and the problem of putting new ad formats on devices is one that I’ve thought an awful lot about.  In fact, the format I’m going to suggest is very similar to one I proposed for another new device that was an innovative music and media player.  But I’ll hold off on the specifics for a bit.

The biggest problem with mobile advertising today is the ad formats being deployed. The screen is very small, and even a very small ad unit that isn’t well integrated into the screen experience of an app or mobile website causes a dissonance that is simply unacceptable to most users.  And app developers see this clearly – using the presence of ads not really to drive ad revenue, but rather to annoy the crap out of consumers in order to push them to pay for the premium version of an app.  This is a very backwards approach to advertising experience, but one that has been used repeatedly over the course of digital evolution.

Ad experience design is a very tricky problem – because ad experiences need to walk the razor’s edge between grabbing the audience’s attention while not pushing them over into frustration.  For this reason, in many ways, ad experience design is far harder than standard user experience design for applications.  Unfortunately the vast majority of startups and even large companies that deploy apps and mobile sites simply slap tiny mobile banners onto their applications, and wait for the dollars to roll in. That isn’t likely to happen for most companies, because the ad experience is horrible.

So I decided that instead of simply complaining about the ad experience of mobile, I’d propose to the industry through this article a new ad format that I believe will fix the core problems with mobile ads. I hope somebody picks it up and runs with it, because I firmly believe (after many years of thinking about these problems) that it’s the right solution for mobile. And I believe the same principles behind the format I’m suggesting would work well for tablets.

Let me start by saying something perhaps a little controversial – it’s impossible for companies to differentiate from each other by using proprietary ad formats.  Note that all rich media companies offer essentially the same ad formats.  And this is one reason I’m not bullish on the current so-called “native ad format” movement.  Unless you’ve got the reach of Google, Twitter or Facebook, rolling your own ad format is stupid.  Advertising’s core principle is about reach – advertisers try to reach as broad an audience as possible that matches their target customer persona. Creative teams can’t cost effectively create unique ad formats for every publisher. This means that once a proprietary format starts getting scale, other companies copy that format and they begin to perpetuate. But we’ve only seen this happen with “native” formats when the company that created the format had large scale.  So all paid search ads pivot off Google’s format, because the same creative needs to be uniform across search engines. And when formats that were pioneered by one rich media company got traction, every other rich media company adopted those formats too.  Ad formats don’t work as product differentiators.

So what will work?

First:  The format must be integrated into the design of the application (app or web).

App and M-Web developers must build their user experience *around* the ad vehicle. So the ad vehicle can’t be crappy – it needs to fit neatly into a standard App experience. It needs to provide utility to the advertiser (enable attention to be captured, and ideally to drive activity) and it needs to nestle carefully into the utility of the application it sits in.

Second: The screen is small, so the ad needs to use the whole screen.

Interstitial advertising has been around since the early days of the web – Unicast promoted the format broadly with its Superstitial format, which then was copied by all the other companies.  But most of us who use mobile apps will probably agree that a straightforward interstitial experience is incredibly disruptive and annoying.  So putting up a full screen ad that a user has to stare at before accessing their content is simply unacceptable. What’s the answer?

Way back in 2006 I wrote an article that discussed the (then) current trend toward trying to drop short 5 second videos at the end of pods of content on television to combat fast forwarding on DVRs.  We did some research back at the time at Microsoft that showed that consumers got annoyed with advertising content about 5 seconds into the roll of a video.  We surmised at the time that for non-video content, a few seconds of static “sponsorship text” would be a good way to introduce pre-roll videos – that placing a short sponsorship message in front of the ads would soften the transition – especially if it was limited to a couple of seconds.  We’ve seen this deployed to great effect at Hulu.

I believe the answer is simple: Create a multi-part ad format that has different stages and experiences.

First it’s a full screen ad unit with basic sponsorship text: This app is proudly sponsored by “insert advertiser name here.”  Maybe the company logo can go on this screen as well. At the bottom of the full screen sponsorship, in small text, a message states: To see more, swipe the ad.

Then the full screen unit should shrink down to a “leave-behind” banner that needs to be persistent, needs to be small, and needs to be “swipeable”.  The leave-behind needs to take up the entire bottom of the screen – from left-to-right side.  The creative content in this banner may not take up the entire screen width, but can be centered in the ad unit ‘space’ and ideally the background color of the ad should be matched by the background on the two edges of the ad unit (this is technically easy to do in apps) such that it doesn’t ‘hover’ in the middle of the screen. It’s also important that the same is done with the first and second interstitials – they should cover the whole screen, and be centered in the screen – not locked “off center” to the upper left-hand corner.

The banner should have no more than three to five message transitions (animation points) that can tell an enticing message to the user to facilitate them swiping the ad.  That should be followed by a short “swipe here” animation that is instructional for users to see that they need to swipe the ad to open a bigger ad experience.

Upon swiping the ad unit, a full-screen ad should expand out of the banner unit that is fully interactive and immersive. This can be a “mini-game” experience, a video, an interactive unit that enables commerce or opting into something (a Facebook Like, tweeting a message to your friends, etc).  It should not open a mobile web browsing experience that bounces the user out of the App experience, because once a user is trained that doing anything in the ad is going to bounce them away from their game, they’ll never interact with another ad.

For Apps that have natural transition points (e.g. Moving from level-to-level in a game, or similar), the ad unit can expand out for no more than 5 seconds, and if the user chooses to interact with it – can stay up until the user closes it.

The ad transitions are extremely important to get right.  The initial interstitial unit should smoothly slide down off the screen leaving the banner unit there. The expansion of the banner to take over the whole screen also should be extremely smooth and feel “well crafted” to the audience. Also the initial interstitial should only be shown once per session to avoid annoying the audience. This won’t preclude multiple ads or advertisers per session – but will create scarcity and value to the session sponsor.

The other critical issue here is transition timing.  The initial ad experience needs to be no more than 3 seconds.  The animation frames of the leave-behind banner need to last no more than 7 to 10 seconds. Any automated expansion of the ad unit should leave the expanded page up for no more than 5 seconds.

I believe that if this ad unit were deployed uniformly across apps and mobile web experiences, the industry would see CPMs increase significantly, and the mobile advertising space could enjoy an interesting renaissance. I’m sure there are other answers to this problem – other formats for instance – that would work equally well, or even better.  But if the industry doesn’t lock to a standard format quickly – I fear that the space will continue to languish and won’t see the growth it deserves.

As I said above, ad formats don’t work as product differentiators.  But the largest players do have the ability to use their reach as a driver of format adoption – which is good for the industry. Apple, Google and Microsoft should work together here to drive adoption of a great uniform ad unit that can work across mobile devices.

Follow Eric Picard (@ericpicard) on Twitter.

How ad platforms work (and why you should care)

(By Eric Picard, Originally Published in iMediaConnection, 11/8/12)

Ad platforms are now open, meaning that startups and other technology companies can plug into them and take advantage of their feature sets. The ad technology space is now API driven, just like the rest of the web technology space. The significance of this change hasn’t hit a lot of people yet, but it will. The way this change will affect almost all the companies in ad technology will have an impact on everything: buying, selling, optimization, analytics, and investing.

Companies in our space used to have to build out the entire ad technology “stack” in order to build a business. That meant ad delivery (what most people think of as “ad serving”), event counting (impressions, clicks, conversions, and rich media actions), business intelligence, reporting, analytics, billing, etc. After building out all those capabilities, in a way that can scale significantly, each company would build its “differentiator” features. Many companies in the ad technology space have been created based on certain features of an ad platform. But because the ad platforms in our space were “closed,” each company had to build its own ad platform every time. This wasted a lot of time and money and — unbeknownst to investors — created a huge amount of risk.

Almost every startup in the ad platform space has existed at the whim of Google — specifically because of DoubleClick, the most ubiquitous ad platform in the market. When Google acquired DoubleClick, its platform was mostly closed (didn’t have extensive open APIs), and its engineering team subsequently went through a long cycle of re-architecture that essentially halted new feature development for several years. The market demanded new features — such as ad verification, brand safety, viewable impressions, real-time bidding, real-time selling, and others — that didn’t exist in DoubleClick’s platform or any others with traction in the space.

This led to the creation of many new companies in each space where new features were demanded. In some cases, Google bought leaders in those spaces. In others, Google has now started to roll out features that replicate the entirety of some companies’ product offerings. The Google stack is powerful and broad, and the many companies that have built point solutions based on specific features that were once lacking in Google’s platform suddenly are finding themselves competing with a giant who has a very advanced next-generation platform underlying it. Google has either completed or is in the process of integrating all of its acquisitions on top of this platform, and it has done a great job of opening up APIs that allow other companies to plug into the Google stack.

I’ve repeatedly said over the years that at the end of the natural process this industry is going through, we’ll end up with two to three major platforms (possibly four) driving the entire ecosystem, with a healthy ecosystem of other companies sitting on top of them. Right now, our ecosystem isn’t quite healthy — it’s complex and has vast numbers of redundancies. Many of those companies aren’t doing great and are likely to consolidate into the platform ecosystem in the next few years.

So how does the “stack” of the ad platform function? Which companies are likely to exist standalone on top of the stack? Which will get consumed by the stack? And which companies are going to find themselves in trouble?

Let’s take a look.

How ad platforms work (and why should you care)

Pretty much every system is going to have a stack that contains buckets of services and modules that contain something like what you see above. In an ideal platform, each individual service should be available to the external partner and should be consumable by itself. The idea here is that the platform should be decomposable such that the third party can use the whole stack or just the pieces it needs.

Whether we’re discussing the ubiquitous Google stack or those of competitors like AppNexus, the fact that these platforms are open means that, instead of building a replica of a stack like the one above, an ad-tech startup can now just build a new box that isn’t covered by the stack (or stacks) that it plugs into. Thus, those companies can significantly differentiate.

This does beg the question of whether a company can carve out a new business that won’t just be added as a feature set by the core ad platform (instantly creating a large well-funded competitor). To understand this, entrepreneurs and investors should review the offering carefully: How hard would it be to build the features in question? Is the question of growing the business one of technical invention requiring patents and significant intellectual property, or is it one of sales and marketing? Is the offering really a standalone business, or is it just a feature of an ad platform that one would expect to be there? And finally, will the core platforms be the acquirer of this startup or can a real differentiated business be created?

The next few years will be interesting. You can expect these two movements to occur simultaneously: Existing companies will consolidate into the platforms, and new companies will be created that take advantage of the new world — but in ways that require less capital and can fully focus on differentiation and the creation of real businesses of significance.

How Do Companies Make Any Money in Digital?

(By Eric Picard, Originally Published in AdExchanger 10/25/12)

In 2007 I wrote a paper that analyzed the lack of investment from 2001 to 2006 in the basic infrastructure of ad technology.  The dot-com bubble burst had a chilling effect on investment in the ad tech space, and as an industry we focused for about six years on short term gains and short term arbitrage opportunities.

This period saw the rise of ad networks and was all about extracting any value possible out of existing infrastructure, systems, and inventory.  So all the “remnant” inventory in the space, the stuff the publisher’s in-house sales force couldn’t sell, got liquidated at cheap prices.  And those companies with the willingness to take risk and the smarts to invest in technology to increase the value of remnant got off the ground and succeeded in higher efficiency buying and selling, and lived off the margins they created.

But we lost an entire cycle of innovation that could have driven publisher revenue higher on premium inventory – which is required for digital to matter for media companies. There’s been lots of discussion about the drop from dollars to dimes (and more recently to pennies) for traditional media publishers. And while the Wall Street Journal and New York Times might be able to keep a pay-wall intact for digital subscriptions, very few other publications have managed it.

In 2006 the ad tech ecosystem needed a massive influx of investment in order for digital to flourish from a publisher perspective.  These were my observations and predictions at the time:

  • Fragmentation was driving power from the seller to the buyer. Like so:
  • A lack of automation meant cost of sales for publishers, and cost of media buying management for agencies, were vastly higher in digital (greater than 10x what those things cost for traditional on both the buy and sell side).
  • Prices were stagnated in the digital space because of an over-focus on direct response advertisers, and the inability of the space to attract offline brand dollars.
  • Market inefficiency had created a huge arbitrage opportunity for third parties to scrape away a large percentage of revenue from publishers. Where there is revenue, investment will follow.
  • There was a need for targeting and optimization that existing players were not investing in, because the infrastructure that would empower it to take off didn’t exist yet.
  • Significant investment would soon come from venture capital sources that would kick start new innovation in the space, starting with infrastructure and moving to optimization and data, to drive brand dollars online.

Six years later, this is where we are. I did predict pretty successfully what would happen, but what I didn’t predict was how long it would take – nor that the last item having to do with brand dollars would require six  years. This is mainly because I expected that new technology companies would step up to bat across the entirety of what I was describing.  Given that the most upside is on brand dollars, I expected entrepreneurs and investors to focus efforts there.  But that hasn’t been the case.

So what’s the most important thing that has happened in the last six years?

The entire infrastructure of the ad industry has been re-architected, and redeployed.  The critical change is that the infrastructure is now open across the entire “stack” of technologies, and pretty much every major platform is open and extensible. This means that new companies can innovate on specific problems without having to build out their own copy of the stack.  They can build the pieces they care about, the pieces that add specific value and utility for specific purposes – e.g. New Monetization Models for Publishers and Brand Advertisers, New Ad Formats, New Ad Inventory Types, New Impression Standards, New Innovation across Mobile, Video and Social, and so on.

So who will make money in this space, how will they make it, and how much will they make?

I’ve spent a huge portion of my career analyzing the flow of dollars through the ecosystem. Recently I updated an older slide that shows (it’s fairly complex) how dollars verses impressions flow.

The important thing to take away from this slide is that inventory owners are where the dollars pool, whether the inventory owner is a publisher or an inventory aggregator of some kind.  Agencies have traditionally been a pass-through for revenue, pulling off anywhere from 2 to 12% on the media side (the trend has been lower, not higher), and on average 8 to 10% on the creative side depending on scale of the project.  Media agencies are not missing the point here, and have begun to experiment with media aggregation models, which is really what the trading desks are – an adaptation of the ad network model to the new technology stack and from a media agency point of view.

The piece of this conversation that’s relevant to ad tech companies is that so far in the history of this industry, ad technology companies don’t take a large percentage of spend.  In traditional media, the grand-daddy is Donovan Data Systems (now part of Media Ocean), and historically they have taken less than 1% of media spend for offline media systems. In the online space, we’ve seen a greater percentage of spend accrue to ad tech – ad serving systems for instance take anywhere from 2 to 5% of media spend.

So how do ad tech companies make money today and going forward? It’s a key question for pure transactional systems or other pure technology like ad servers, yield management systems, analytics companies, billing platforms, workflow systems, targeting systems, data management platforms, content distribution networks, and content management systems.

There’s only so much money that publishers and advertisers will allow to be skimmed off by companies supplying technology to the ecosystem. In traditional media, publishers have kept their vendors weak – driving them way down in price and percentage of spend they can pull off. This is clearly the case in the television space, where ad management systems are a tiny fraction of spend – much less than 1%.

In the online space, this has been less the case, where a technology vendor can drive significantly more value than in the offline space. But still it’s unlikely that any more than 10% of total media spend will be accepted by the marketplace, for pure technology licensing.

This means that for pure-play ad tech companies with a straightforward technology license model – whether it’s a fixed fee, volume-based pricing, or a  percentage of spend – the only way to get big is to touch a large piece of the overall spend. That means scaled business models that reach a large percentage of ad impressions.  It also means that ultimately there will only be a few winners in the space.

But that’s not bad news. It’s just reality.  And it’s not the only game in town. Many technology companies have both a pure-technology model, and some kind of marketplace model where they participate in the ecosystem as an inventory owner. And it’s here that lots of revenue can be brought into a technology company’s wheelhouse. But its important to be very clear about the difference between top-line media spend verses ‘real’ revenue. Most hybrid companies – think Google for AdSense, or other ad networks – report media spend for their marketplaces as revenue, rather than the revenue they keep. This is an acceptable accounting practice, but isn’t a very good way to value or understand the value of the companies in question. So ‘real revenue’ is always the important number for investors to keep in mind when evaluating companies in this space.

Many ad technology companies will unlock unique value that they will be the first to understand. These technology companies can capitalize on this knowledge by hybridizing into an inventory owner role as well as pure technology – and these are the companies that will break loose bigger opportunities. Google is a great example of a company that runs across the ecosystem – as are Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL.  But some of the next generation companies also play these hybrid roles, and the newest generation will create even greater opportunities.

How publishers sell ad inventory

By Eric Picard (Originally published on iMediaConnection, August 09, 2012)

Ad inventory is typically broken down into four buckets: sponsorships, premium guaranteed, audience targeted, and remnant. Each of these buckets can be sold through a variety of sales channels.

Revenue distribution across this “layer-cake” inventory model flows downward — with the vast majority of inventory coming from premium and a significantly lower amount of revenue coming from the remainder:

The process of an advertising sale begins with the media buyer, who sends a request for proposal (RFP) document to numerous publishers. These RFPs typically are written in prose and define the overall goals of the advertiser in question, and of the specific campaign being executed. A typical RFP has between 50 and 100 elements that are laid before the publisher as acceptable or desirable outcomes, and these elements (attributes or attributes of the buy) are generally descriptors of the audience, of the media the advertiser is looking to run on, of the acceptable (and unacceptable) content to be associated with, etc.

Advertising inventory is the base unit sold by a publisher to an advertiser. It is measured in “impressions,” which are defined as an opportunity to show an advertisement to a person. Impressions at their most basic are blank vessels made up of opportunity. Inventory is generally defined in advance by the seller based on a variety of factors, and it is these predefined impressions that are contractually agreed up on between buyer and seller.

Nearly all impressions sold are made up initially of one or two media attributes based on content association (e.g., MSN>Entertainment or MSN>Entertainment>Celebrities; Yahoo>Autos, or Yahoo>Autos>News). Or they’re sold just based on category — in some cases blind, meaning without the knowledge of which publisher the impression ran on. Further refinement of the inventory is based on other attributes such as above the fold, rich media units, or a variety of quality scores. Additional media attributes included in the definition of a piece of sold inventory include various types of targeting and other types of intelligence and filtering such as inventory quality scores and contextual targeting.

Beyond media attributes, there are numerous audience-based targeting attributes available for the buyer to request, or for the seller to offer. These include such attributes as geographic, demographic, psychographic, behavioral, etc.

It is the combination of these various attributes that define the inventory that is sold. Inventory is sold in a number of ways, including on a guaranteed basis (a buyer contracts with a seller for a fixed volume of inventory between specific dates) and on a non-guaranteed basis (if inventory is available that matches, it will be sold, but the seller doesn’t make any guarantees on volume).

In order to predict how much inventory will be available, publisher ad platforms need to look at historical data with seasonality and apply some very sophisticated algorithms to make a guess as to how much inventory will be available during specific date ranges. These “avails,” as they are called, become the basis for how all guaranteed ad sales are done.

But ad inventory has many very complex and difficult-to-predict issues that are endemic to the problem — the problem of predicting how many impressions will exist in a specific month is sort of like imagining how many cars will cross the Golden Gate Bridge in a given week. Predicting this based on historical data isn’t too hard. And predicting the color of the various cars that might cross the bridge is probably feasible with some degree of accuracy. Maybe even predicting the general destinations of the cars crossing the bridge is possible. But trying to predict how many red Toyotas driven by women with an infant in the car who have red hair and who make more than $125,000 annually is probably not a solvable problem.

This is akin to the requests given on a daily basis regarding ad targeting. This type of prediction is extremely technically challenging; nobody has been able to accurately predict how much ad inventory will be available in advance for more than three to four targeting attributes in advance. Therefore, publishers rarely will sell inventory that contains more than three to four attributes because this causes an immense amount of work during the live ad campaign for the publisher’s ad operations team. (They must monitor ad delivery carefully and adjust numerous settings in order to ensure delivery of the campaign.)

Inventory is sold within a contract called an insertion order (I/O), and each sold element is typically called a “line item” on the I/O. Line items correspond to a variety of attributes within the publisher’s inventory management systems. A simple example would be MSN>Entertainment. But a more complex example would be MSN>Entertainment>Women>18-34.

Beyond a typical guaranteed media buy, there are several other mechanisms for selling ads. Some ads are re-sold by a third party such as an ad network (examples include Collective Media, ValueClick, Advertising.com, etc.). Some ads are sold through an automated channel such as a supply-side platform, or SSP (examples include Rubicon, Admeld, PubMatic, etc.). There are also ad exchanges that can sit in the middle of all the transactions, and as the industry has matured, the difference between an exchange and an SSP has become less clear. These exchanges and SSPs then create a marketplace that allows ad networks and various demand-side platforms (DSPs) to compete for the inventory in real time. We’ll refer to this as real-time bidding (RTB) even though in some cases this term doesn’t apply exactly.

The management systems for buying RTB inventory are generally called demand-side platforms (DSPs). In RTB media buys, it is extremely rare to have more than three to four targeting attributes (just like in guaranteed media buys), not because of prediction but because inventory that exists for each campaign or line item that contains more than three to four attributes delivers with extremely low volume. In fact, the amount of inventory available on a per-impression basis as you layer on more targeting attributes generally drops significantly with each new attribute.  This means that a typical line item for an RTB campaign would look very much like the one for a guaranteed buy: Entertainment>Women>18-34.

For a DSP to spend an entire media buy at more than four targeting attributes, the buyer would have to manually create hundreds or thousands of ad campaigns that each would then be manually optimized and managed. It isn’t actually feasible to do this at scale manually.

In summary
In a perfect world, advertisers would be able to find all available ad inventory that matches their goals, with as many attributes as exist on all impressions. The problem is that existing inventory management and ad serving systems are not designed to deal well with more than two to three concurrent targeting attributes, whether for guaranteed media buys or RTB.

So why do advertisers and publishers prefer to sell ads on a guaranteed basis?

Inventory guarantees serve several purposes. The most critical is predictability; media buyers have agreed with the advertiser on a set advertising budget to be spent on a monthly basis throughout the year. They are contractually obligated to spend that budget, and it is one of their primary key performance indicators. Publishers like to have revenue predictability as well, which is solved by selling a guarantee on volumes for a fixed budget.

For all the innovation in the ad-tech space over the last decade, it’s fairly impressive that very few of the core problems of a publisher have been solved. At the end of the day, 60-80 percent of the revenue that publishers bring in comes from their premium inventory, sold on a guaranteed basis — which represents generally less than half of all their available inventory. Nearly all the ad technology innovation in the last decade has focused on what to do with that other half in order to raise the median price of that revenue from nearly zero to a bit more than zero.

It seems to me that there is an opportunity to focus on something else. (And you might imagine that I’m doing just that.)