Category Archives: Online Media

The Fifth Wave Of Ad Tech: Privileged Programmatic

By Eric Picard (originally published on Adexchanger.com Friday, March 10th, 2017)

The first seven years of the programmatic revolution were driven by three major efforts.

It began with the creation and propagation of the massive new infrastructure needed to support real-time bidding. That was followed by the connection of all demand to all supply in the programmatic infrastructure. New ad products, formats and platforms then emerged, built on top of this new infrastructure.

This was a significant revolution – what I’ve called the third and fourth waves of ad technology. We’re now entering a fifth wave: privileged programmatic.

As the programmatic ecosystem matures, we’re seeing massive adoption of these new tools and technologies by the largest advertisers and media agencies now spending at scale. During the first seven years or so, many ad networks procured and resold media and some large marketer early adopters broke ground – many of which are now reaping the dividends.

But the very largest budgets are now coming into programmatic, and the game is changing. To illustrate the change, let’s talk about the historical evolution that the financial markets went through as they hit their maturity threshold during the rise of electronic trading.

Lessons From High-Speed Traders

In the highly recommended book “Dark Pools: The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the US Stock Market,” by Scott Patterson, there is a clear narrative that will start to feel familiar to those working in programmatic media.

When the electronic markets were created, the early winners were typically hedge funds established and managed by the same humans who built the electronic market infrastructure. They knew that traders that responded the fastest to auctions could get significant advantage over other participants. Thus began the high-speed trading (HST) revolution. High-speed traders made millions of dollars a day on high-volume trades at very high speeds.

As the market matured, large traditional stock market players entered the electronic trading business and had their lunch eaten by the upstart high-speed traders. They found this to be unacceptable. The basic logic was, “If I’m spending billions of dollars a year on your electronic exchange, I need some privilege that gets me ahead of these little upstarts who have ‘know-how’ but are tiny players compared to me.”

The biggest players went to the exchanges and demanded privileged bidding mechanisms to allow them to win in the auction even if another player bid higher or bid first. They removed the advantage built in by the high-speed traders.

Nobody warned the HST companies. Within weeks in some cases, many simply went out of business. They had no idea what happened, but knew they suddenly weren’t winning in the auction. Eventually a few found out that the unpublished bid mechanisms that allowed them and the large brokerages to win in the auction had been uncovered and made available more broadly. But most of the damage was already done.

Privileged Programmatic

Privilege in an auction environment is not necessarily a bad thing. Much like the RTB exchanges in advertising, the electronic markets were seen as the great equalizers – fair unbiased auctions – but the reality is that the HST companies had their own type of advantage based on infrastructure knowledge. A real business argument can be made that buyers spending vast amounts of money should be able to negotiate for privilege with the sellers. That’s exactly what is happening in programmatic advertising.

Have you noticed that many of the biggest early players in programmatic have come upon hard times? Suddenly algorithms that were designed to provide advertisers with performance while still stripping off big dollars via an arbitrage model stopped working. Why?

Over the last few years we’ve seen the massive adoption of new privileged mechanisms in programmatic. Whether we discuss private marketplaces (PMPs), header bidding, first-look or programmatic guaranteed, they are predictable artifacts of the maturation of the programmatic marketplace. And don’t let any early knowledge you’ve gathered on these mechanisms create a false sense of comfort – PMPs from three years ago often look nothing like the configuration seen today. These mechanisms are not created equally.

For publishers, this maturation is very good news. Many large publishers viewed programmatic as a “rush to the bottom” in the early days and now see programmatic mechanisms bringing balance back to the marketplace.

Many publishers expressed frustration as programmatic created for the first time in digital media an information asymmetry that favored advertisers. Publishers had no idea why advertisers bought media from them over the open exchange, and now with these privileged mechanisms, the conversation has moved back to media buying and sales teams are empowered to negotiate and structure deals that drive customer value.

The hallmark of the first seven years of programmatic was a bottoms-up reinvention of buying based on data-driven decisioning and performance – and the biggest lever on performance was price of inventory. Early adopters were astounded to find their desired audiences for a low cost on the exchanges, even at the same publisher sites where they were simultaneously executing direct buys at much higher prices.

But those same savvy early adopters who realized huge discounts by buying the same users on the same publishers over the open exchange saw the writing on the wall. They recognized that prices were rising on the best users as the competition in the auction rose – since unsurprisingly, the same users seemed to be of interest to all advertisers in the same sector.

The savviest advertisers went directly to publishers and made PMP deals to access inventory with mechanisms that gave them advantage over their competition – which is also known as privilege. By putting their PMPs in increasingly higher priority within the ad server, setting up fixed-rate, variable and hybrid-rate deals and using new tools like header bidding, the most knowledgeable buyers stayed ahead of the competition. Publishers saw that these new mechanisms drove much higher CPMs, in many cases higher than direct buys, and importantly gave them insight into why advertisers bought from them. Eventually, the very most desirable audiences on the largest and best publishers evaporated out of the open auction.

The market is tipping over on itself – with open auctions being relegated more and more to purely direct-response advertisers that are not selective about which publishers their advertising runs on. For large brands, especially those spending large budgets, which also tend to be those that care deeply about running ads on high-quality publishers, things have gotten a lot more sophisticated.

Programmatic is no longer about low-cost inventory; it is now the infrastructure for transaction where the buyer and seller are handshaking and establishing connections to the consumers that brands need to reach. Programmatic is the mechanism to bind together the new tools that empower the advertiser to take control of their audiences and apply real science to the art of advertising. Publishers now can gain insight from working through these mechanisms rather than being left in the dark.

Sophisticated publishers already know this – and are driving programmatic elements or line items in their core I/Os as part of their direct business. On the buy side, the trend is for agencies to blow up their trading desks and embed programmatic buyers into direct buying teams.

This is a clear wake-up call for publishers that are still not treating programmatic as part of their direct sales or which haven’t changed sales compensation to remove channel conflict. Same for advertisers and media agencies who are segregating their programmatic buyers from their direct buyers.

Deal design has gotten extremely sophisticated, and the trend is toward increased sophistication, not simplification. If you are driving programmatic sales at a publisher and your deals are very one-dimensional, you’re probably missing something.

If you’re buying programmatically today and haven’t analyzed the core audiences you’re reaching over the open exchange, broken out by publishers that you’re also buying directly from, you’re behind your competitors.

And if you’re a marketer, question your media partners about all of these things. You have time, but not very much.


4 Comments

  1. In effect, were seeing “networks” appear that advertisers use. Yes! ad networks are back but the publishers are acting like their own middleman. The buyers can now group together publisher networks and create their own ecosystem of their own choosing. Tis a fun time to see the same philosophy repeat itself
    • Gerard, it’s not quite the same thing, neither philosophically nor structurally. Ad networks were arbitrage mechanisms designed to extract money from the ecosystem. This is a direct relationship between buyer and seller. The seller and buyer pay only technology fees and deal with the negotiation costs.
  2. Eric,Great piece. We definitely live in interesting times. The pace of change is such that the costs of both technology, talent, and training to keep up, may out weigh the benefits gained. Are we as an industry encouraging brands to sit on the sideline and wait for the dust to settle? Also, and most importantly, what do you see as wave six?

    Reply

    • Eric Picard March 20, 2017
      Hey R.J. This is a trend that is finally culminating after a long incubation. I don’t see it as a time for anyone to sit on the sidelines – this is the holy grail we’ve all been waiting for: Publishers are empowered to sell and build value-based relationships with buyers. Advertisers get value from their customer data investments and the ability to intelligently decide who to reach, at what frequency, and how much to pay for that exposure. Wave six? I just got Wave five out to you – let’s start there.

Viewability in programmatic media: An honest conversation

By Eric Picard, Ari Buchalter & Mike Monaco (Originally Published on iMedia – October 1, 2015)

An advertisement — whether it’s a banner ad, video pre-roll, mobile pop-up, or anything else — needs to be viewed by a consumer for it to be valuable for the company placing the ad. But does that mean advertisers should only pay for ads that are “viewable”? The answer is complicated.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) defines a viewable ad as at least 50 percent in-view for at least one second. Even with a standard in place, vendors measuring performance use their own proprietary means for calculating “viewability” scores. Despite commonalities, no two vendors net the same score. It’s up to advertisers, agencies, and their ad-tech partners to determine which viewability vendors are providing the most accurate score. These scores are not just important post-ad placement. In the programmatic space, knowing in advance if the ad is viewable is key. Vendors have rolled out pre-bid viewability targeting as a result, and programmatic buying platforms should have this capability.

Viewability is not an issue for advertisers and ad-tech companies to solve alone. Publishers are reacting to the demand for more viewable inventory. Some are redesigning their websites to promise higher numbers of ads in view, even guaranteeing viewable space.

Should advertisers only buy from exchanges or publishers guaranteeing viewable inventory? Of course not, and especially not in programmatic buying. Viewability is only part of the equation in making a decision of when and where to place an ad. If you have a segment of highly responsive users, like shopping cart “abandoners,” it might still be a high-value ad buy even if the viewability score is not at 100 percent. You risk missing a potential convertor, and possibly at a lower CPM, for the sake of one metric like viewability.

For clarity, just because an impression does not get scored as viewable — or doesn’t have a high probability of being viewable — doesn’t mean the user didn’t view the impression. We recognize that this is a confusing issue because viewability is based on a variety of methodologies that often include some consideration of probability. So when buying in the programmatic space, viewability is not necessarily the primary score that should be used, although it can certainly be a valuable metric.

There is a false conflation of viewability and fraud — meaning that sometimes the market has believed that when an impression is viewable, it is by nature not fraudulent. This is not the case, and it’s important to understand that the two things are not the same. Fraudsters have become wise to the fact that markets care about viewable ads, leading to a new type of fraud: view fraud. They can easily manipulate web behavior in order to pad a flimsy viewability metric. In fact, a 2014 study by White Ops reveals that when examining the viewability score of fraudulent entities versus real humans, the fraud actually exhibited a higher viewability.

In the programmatic space, we can swiftly push aside view fraud as an issue by optimizing to real advertiser outcomes, which are harder to manipulate. Optimizing to outcomes such as product purchases or validated account sign-ups are two great examples. Even for brand marketers, or those without online purchases to measure, a curated list of other success metrics can be used; downloads, email submissions, content viewed on site, time spent on site, and pages viewed are all such examples. These are much better success indicators than viewability.

In either case, a marketer can introduce A/B testing in order to see what benefit the media served had over an unexposed group. This methodology is easy to implement, with one nice byproduct being that in order to optimize to real outcomes, the ad has to actually be seen in order to prove lift. Even media at a slightly lower percentage viewed can drive better performance lift if the audience is more responsive.

In addition to A/B testing, you can also consider scrubbing out any conversions where the ad was deemed unviewable. While not perfect, due to the technical limitations described earlier, the focus on the viewability-required business outcome will promote better media planning decisions for future campaigns.

Publishers understand that viewable ads are in high demand, so they charge a premium for this inventory, often in the form of private marketplace deals. In cases where publishers are charging a fixed CPM or high floor price, the money you spent to pay that premium likely overshadows any waste you might have encountered from purchasing open-market non-viewable ads. Choosing a better KPI should solve for viewability by default, but there are still some marketers fixated on 100 percent viewability as a goal.

Unfortunately, percentages don’t tell you anything about media cost. If you are able to achieve 80 percent viewability, but at half the cost, and consequently serve more of those highly responsive cart abandoners, why would we necessarily care about achieving 100 percent viewability? You may argue that the more expensive ads are more “premium” in nature, but without considering additional KPIs, what does premium even mean? In an ideal world, we’d be serving 100 percent viewable ads to every user we identify to be high value. However, due to the vendor and supply constraints described earlier, this simply isn’t feasible in the present state of the market.

The pursuit of high viewability might be worthwhile, but instead of relying simply on a percentage metric to define success, remember what outcomes you are ultimately trying to achieve. Being able to tout 100 percent viewability does not get you any closer to driving true business outcomes, and in fact, can distract you from the metrics that do correlate to your outcomes — finding the right audience, supply mix, and creative messaging, and then valuing each element appropriately.

Eric Picard is vice president of product planning for omni-channel media at MediaMath. Co-author Mike Monaco is MediaMath’s vice president of programmatic strategy and optimization, and co-author Ari Buchalter is president of technology at the company.

Why Do Web Pages Load So Slowly In A Broadband World?

By Eric Picard (Originally Published on AdExchanger.com – Wednesday, September 30th, 2015)

If you ask anyone, anywhere, if they like advertising, the answer will likely be a laugh and quick “no.” From a small number of people, you will get a virulent “hell no!”

But most people recognize that the content they consume is free because of advertising, and they have been willing to accept the quid pro quo of free content funded by advertising for nearly all media, for nearly all time. That’s changed over the last few years, and the easy installation of ad blockers – which frequently improve the experience of viewing web pages – has negatively impacted the ad-supported Internet.

We’re in this situation as an industry because we’ve abused our relationship with consumers. We’ve failed to design pages with the user experience optimized around the content first, with the advertising experience seamlessly incorporated into that content. That is not a call for native advertising. It’s a call to actually design the advertising and content experiences together – and to ensure that both work well and satisfy consumers’ need of great content for free.

What I mean here is that the page needs to load quickly, with the content loading first, followed by ads and then invisible code to track users. In addition to loading quickly, the page needs to be beautiful and have high utility for the user.

We all have had the horrible experience of tapping a click-bait link in social media that leads to a web page with a photo gallery of 20-plus images, each of which require as many as three clicks to move to the next image. Each click also leads to a new load of advertising. That’s the most egregious example of what is frustrating consumers today. It should be equally frustrating to advertisers and agencies – who are basically footing the bill for terrible experiences and likely getting no value from those ad impressions. 

Unfortunately, the mean load times of nearly all content pages on the Internet is not much better than these “bottom-of-the-barrel” sites, with a few notable exceptions. Once you move beyond the very best publishers, the cliff over which the consumer stumbles is pretty high. The vast majority of sites don’t load much faster than the very slowest.

Why has the web become a wasteland of user experiences, and why do web pages take almost as long to load today as they did back in the days of dial-up? Is this fixable?

A History Lesson

As I’m finding more often these days, we need to look back in order to look forward.

In 1997 when I started Bluestreak, one of the first rich media advertising technology companies, the bandwidth available to nearly all Internet users was dial-up constrained to either 56K baud (that’s bits audio) or even 14.4K baud. That’s worse than your worst mobile data connection today. Yet we were able to deliver amazing ad experiences. But that was almost 20 years ago.

Bluestreak’s technology was Java applet-based and designed to support the needs of low-bandwidth users at a time when publishers had extremely conservative file size restrictions on advertising.

Our initial load of image and code was less than 1 kilobyte (KB) of data, which would render an ad on a page with a message that read, “Loading.” A subsequent download of less than 5 KB would get an initial image onto the screen. The total subsequent load of a rich media banner would be less than 64 KB. And these were rich media ads – not static banners.

In 1998 we rolled out expanding banners, rich media applications with multiple pages and all sorts of “special effects” and various interactive behaviors. The following year, we launched some of the first video ads online. We made wonderful things happen for advertisers and consumers within the very tight constraints of bandwidth and file-size limits.

With bandwidth basically unlimited today, why do pages load so slowly when we proved almost 20 years ago that great ad experiences could be loaded on dial-up connections?

Solving The Problem

Publishers really own the bulk of this problem because slow page loads relate to how pages are coded. Software for delivering web pages must be optimized such that the site’s visual components and content load very quickly. This is not an overnight change – it may require entire web experiences to be recoded. Finding quality engineers in the publishing space who understand how to code pages properly is a challenge. But this is a critical and almost existential issue for publishers, and we’ve repeatedly seen how good user experiences drive up the value of pages.

To that point, advertisers and agencies need to hold publishers accountable for the user and advertising experiences. They should stop buying advertising from publishers that don’t solve this problem, or at the very least push hard on publishers to ensure that they design pages that load quickly and are not bandwidth hogs. This last part is particularly important for mobile – where the user’s data plan is being impacted by all the content being loaded on the page, including the advertising.

When buying ads programmatically, advertisers and agencies should use a technology provider like Trust Metrics or Integral Ad Science to determine if the advertising experience being provided is high-quality and brand-safe. The technology provider can scan a web page to determine if there is quality content and page layout, with a small number of ads and sufficient white space, or if the page is an “ad farm,” with dozens of ads.

Creative agencies need to design ads that load quickly and optimize file size. This means building teams with coding skills to build fast-loading HTML5 ads and working with rich media vendors to build optimized ad experiences.

Similarly, rich media ad companies need to embrace the idea that desktop web users need fast-loading ads – even if they are on broadband – and that rich experiences don’t require massive file sizes or bandwidth.

And agencies should vet these companies and ensure that they are following best practices. While desktop users typically have “all-you-can-eat” data consumption plans, that’s not the case for mobile. Many of the pages we visit on mobile are non-optimized desktop sites that load even even more slowly over mobile devices. If the consumer’s data plan takes the hit of all the ad content loading, it’s injury to insult.

Users are not blocking advertising because they hate advertising. They hate the horrendous experience of visiting terribly coded and designed web pages with too many and slow loading ads. If the experience of viewing the web using an ad blocker is significantly better because pages load faster and look better, this is purely a problem that publishers, creative agencies and rich media companies need to fix.

Our industry is the problem, not the consumer. So let’s fix it.

How Microsoft Almost Won Digital Advertising

By Eric Picard (Originally published on AdExchanger.com, Wednesday, July 8th, 2015)

The announcement last week that Microsoft is effectively selling off its display advertising business to AOL made me a bit nostalgic. I was recruited by Microsoft as it geared up for a major foray into the advertising space.

Although I only worked there from 2004 to 2010, I think my perspective on the company’s evolution and decision to leave the display advertising business holds some value.

When I joined Microsoft, there were 20 people on the product planning team responsible for advertising technology products. The engineering team for ads was about 400. By the time I left in late 2010, the business team had grown to more than 300, and the engineering team had more than 1,500 heads. And that doesn’t include the sales and marketing organizations.

While I was at the company, we acquired seven ad tech companies, reviewed hundreds and engaged on about a dozen. We invented whole swaths of technology that the market, in general, isn’t aware of. We drove massive innovation and investment in the space. We could have won it all.

Moving To Microsoft

I had started one of the early ad tech companies – Bluestreak – in 1997. We had raised a large war chest of venture funding – and acquired several companies after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001. In late 2004 I was recruited to Microsoft by Mike Hurt and Joe Doran.

During my interview, Joe disclosed that Microsoft had come to the realization that digital advertising was critical to its future. He showed me printed slides showcasing Google’s revenue growth, funded completely by ads. Google would soon make more money than Microsoft from each copy of Windows.

In no small part, this revelation drove the decision to fund Microsoft’s search product, especially the advertising engine behind it, referred to as Project Moonshot at the time, later to be called adCenter. AdCenter was about a year from launch, the center of innovation and scale for the company. Microsoft’s broad analysis showed that digital advertising was critical to the ongoing funding of software, which was increasingly being bonded to the Internet. Joe needed someone who understood the ecosystem and could help drive the future strategy of the company. He laid out an enticing opportunity: I could help drive the investments that Microsoft would make across the ad technology landscape.

Joe described a scenario where digital advertising was potentially a core monetization mechanism for Microsoft software products that would either serve as their primary revenue source, enhance revenue, or offset lost revenue from piracy.

Over the course of the next few years I met an extremely impressive cast of characters.* They ranged from the core business team under Joe to some of the most brilliant engineers I’ve met and executives from whom I learned an immense amount about business and technology.

Microsoft’s Not-So-Secret Weapon: Engineers

When I talk to people about the value of world-class engineers, they often fundamentally misunderstand what I’m talking about – because they’ve never worked with world-class engineers.

There’s a whole set of assumptions that are wrong, such as the belief that engineers build what business people ask them to build. Or that engineers are socially goofy and can’t understand business issues. That engineers would never get anywhere without business people who translate the market to them.

The engineers who I worked with at Microsoft – especially at senior levels – were in many cases geniuses. While there was the occasional social stumble, this was less common than you’d expect. And any of the senior engineering leaders could easily transition to CEO or non-engineering leadership roles at most companies – and many have.

In the first few weeks at Microsoft, I met a handful of engineers with whom I’d form long and fruitful relationships. Tarek Najm was the engineering leader who started the adCenter team. He’s one of the most brilliant people I’ve met – extremely inventive, high-energy and curious. Tarek took the lead in trying to catch Google’s AdWords product. With a relatively small team, he built a superior monetization engine from scratch.

One of Tarek’s lieutenants on adCenter was a program manager named Brian Burdick, who became one of the great unsung heroes of the advertising technology space. Brian is the one who ultimately invented RTB.

Tarek’s lead engineer for display advertising was a wiry man named Phani Vaddadi – who brought with him his two lieutenants, Alam Ali and Brian Tschumper. These three guys formed a back-room brainstorming group with me. Among other things, the four of us came up with some ideas around ad-funded software that we incubated and brought to market, which ultimately became the mechanism by which ads were delivered into Xbox.

There were also numerous trials in a variety of devices and applications, from the ill-fated Zune to trials of ad-funded Office and Windows in various markets across the world where piracy was an epidemic.

During my first year, we launched new brands, including Windows Live – if you can remember that one – and innovated on advertising formats. I crafted a set of principles regarding when and what kind of advertising was appropriate for which content experiences. It was based on the idea that modality of the user experience should drive whether we showed ads at all, such as when a Hotmail user is composing an email, or whether the ad could be disruptive, such as covering the page where a user is reading an email.

2005-2006: The Plan And Beginnings Of Execution

In addition to being responsible for overall ad technology strategy, I led a group focused on “emerging media.” This included mobile, OTT and addressable TV, video game advertising, device-based advertising, ad-funded software and a category known as “other.” Working with Joe, his direct reports and some of their direct reports, we crafted a comprehensive vision and plan for winning the ad technology space.

The strategy that evolved was pretty comprehensive and clear: build, buy or partner analysis on all opportunities in the space. Where we had existing investment in heads and technology, we’d increase our investment in alignment to revenue opportunity. We would acquire other companies in the space that owned strategically valuable components and held significant market share. We’d partner when there were assets that were not strategically important to own – but were needed for our customers or to operate our business.

The overarching vision was to be the platform of record for buyers and sellers, and use the scale of our technology investments to drive prices down while claiming a small percentage of all transactions. Our vision was that we’d automate buying and selling, and build direct connections between buyers and inventory owners wherever possible.

In 2005, Joe asked me to pick up all the M&A coordination work. Over the next few years, we reviewed hundreds of deals and pursued about a dozen.

Video

I engaged on a massive video and television advertising project that went through various iterations for nearly three years. Steve Ballmer had asked Joe to rationalize all the video advertising projects across the company and ensure that we had one cohesive strategy. Within three weeks I found six major initiatives across three divisions of the company that all were trying to build a comprehensive video or television advertising product suite as a standalone. It took several quarters, but eventually we rationalized all these projects and packaged them up.

I suggested that we should either partner or create a joint venture with broadcasters, networks and studios to offer a digital version of their content over the web. It would be integrated into all of Microsoft’s consumer-facing video consumption assets, including Xbox, Windows MediaCenter, Microsoft TV, Windows MediaCenter and MSN Video. This was before YouTube, while Netflix was still mailing DVDs. Our various business discussions with broadcasters may well have been the kernel of the idea for Hulu.

We had significant investment across numerous divisions and technologies – and we supported video advertising for one of the largest digital video providers, MSN Video. We invested in software to run video ads in any Microsoft product or device.

In-Game

On the video game front, Kevin Browne reached out to us while investigating the emerging area of “in-game” advertising. He said that some new companies were driving significant revenue to game studios by dynamically inserting ads into the video game, usually in a billboard-like model.

He suggested that the Xbox division wanted the capability to support in-game advertising but it wanted the overall monetization and advertising sales to be centralized outside of its team. Joe and I had agreed upon a strategic framework for technology investment such that if any player in an emerging market had gained significant market share that seemed sustainable, we should consider them for acquisition.

Massive fit that bill exactly: It had about 80% market share and was growing. While there were other companies in the space, Massive was the standout – nearly defining the category. It became the first of several acquisitions I was involved with for the company. It also taught me for the first time exactly how hard it was to get acquisitions at Microsoft to work post acquisition.

Mobile

Microsoft has obviously lost many opportunities in mobile, not least of which is in mobile advertising. But in the days before the iPhone, when the smartphone market was made up of Blackberry, Microsoft and “other,” Windows Mobile had a chance to be big.

And we saw mobile as a big part of our strategic footprint. We invested in core assets in the mobile space. To bolster our European footprint, we acquired ScreenTonic in France.

Nobody imagined Facebook back then. Nobody imagined that Apple would build a smartphone. And Google was a threat we all feared. In 2005, Google acquired Android – but nobody got it.

Programmatic

In 2005, I first heard about a paper written by Brian Burdick, with help from others on the adCenter team. He proposed something called an Open Listings Exchange (OLX) to mirror the financial markets when ad exchanges went digital. His paper was a revelation. I believe it was the first time anyone proposed the concepts we now know of as real-time bidding (RTB) to the market.

In my purview of emerging media was that category called “other.” It was in this “other” category where the OLX lived. Today, we call it “programmatic.”

The adCenter team proposed building a broad overarching platform that was open and available for all parties in the space to develop against and plug supply and demand into. When we pitched this to Bill Gates and asked for 1,000 engineers to run after this opportunity, he balked.

This led ultimately to our acquisition of AdECN, which had an early ad exchange that didn’t quite meet the technical need we envisioned for OLX. But that wasn’t until 2007.

Search

Also in 2005, Microsoft brought in David Jakubowski to build a new product marketing team for adCenter to effectively bring adCenter and paid search ads for our search engine to market. David hired a stellar team of leaders that included Brian Boland, James Colborn, Jennifer Kattula and many others. With great product managers like Jed Nahum, Erynn Petersen and Saleel Sathe on Joe Doran’s team, along with others working with David’s team, adCenter and related products and technologies went live.

What Went Wrong

Over the next few years, we significantly grew our investment in advertising technology, with much of the investment going toward our defined build, buy or partner strategy. We acquired DeepMetrix as a web analytics provider, Massive for in-game advertising, Screen Tonic for mobile advertising and AdECN as an advertising exchange.

All of these acquisitions were done with the expectation that we would bite off a big chunk of a market and grow – but as I learned, Microsoft had a hard time ingesting acquisitions at the time. There are many reasons why. Suffice it to say that DeepMetrix, ScreenTonic and Massive didn’t provide the catalysts we’d hoped for to jumpstart these marketplaces. Of all of them, only the AdECN acquisition seemed to have real promise because Brian Burdick took over engineering as CTO and ran after RTB.

2007: aQuantive

Numerous times in our strategic analysis of the space, our team recommended running after DoubleClick. Ultimately, our executive chain was unwilling to consider such a large acquisition in the 2005-2006 timeframe, so we went after other opportunities.

By late 2006, we had been pushing our vision externally to target opportunities with video and even OLX. We’d met with every large media company and every large company in the TV and video content space. Mostly these strategic discussions were driven by Yusuf Mehdi, Joe Doran, me, folks in the corporate strategy group and Tarek Najm.

In 2007 Yusuf, who had been the CVP who managed search, MSN and advertising, was promoted to the title of SVP and chief advertising strategist. This signaled internally and externally that Microsoft was very serious about investing in digital advertising. Since my team owned ad tech strategy, I was asked to dotted-line report to Yusuf as we started considering big strategic opportunities.

By 2007, with Yusuf’s promotion, we started reviewing much larger and more strategic deals and investments. We recirculated across the video content space and held numerous meetings about our OLX vision and the desire to invest in an alternative to Google, which resonated with strategic partners. Executives from agency holding companies and media companies frequently expressed extreme interest in Microsoft developing as the alternative to Google in paid search and across all digital media.

We began to get very serious about a few big acquisitions that we’d developed an appetite for. One was DoubleClick – the other was Donovan Data Systems.

DoubleClick was the only company that met our strategic framework on the ad platform side. It had a huge position – approximately 65% on publishers and about 45% on agency desktops with DoubleClick for Publishers (DFP) and DoubleClick for Advertisers (DFA). Importantly, we started hearing about a new large project internally called the DoubleClick Exchange.

We investigated and ultimately passed on acquiring Right Media at the end of 2006. We were now fervent in our belief in the OLX vision, which had matured over two years. OLX could be catalyzed by combining the supply from DFP with the demand from DFA, with Microsoft inventory as an anchor tenant. We’d have the opportunity to really take off.

We saw Donovan Data Systems as a perfect fit in our strategy. It had a huge percentage of agency media buyers using its systems, and was a big Microsoft customer.

Unfortunately as we neared a swing at DoubleClick, which would have been the centerpiece of our strategy, it ran a quick process and stepped into exclusivity with Google. We tried unsuccessfully to break them out of that exclusivity and were prepared to throw a ton of money at it – but Google prevailed.

The alternative approach that Yusuf, corporate strategy, Joe and I came up with was less than optimal. We’d basically acquire and roll up several major assets. We bought AdECN to create a center of gravity around our OLX vision. We continued discussions with Donovan Data Systems and got very close to a deal.

And we began conversations with aQuantive.

Since aQuantive was based in Seattle, it was easy for our executive team, who hadn’t been deeply ingrained in the strategic view so far, to step in and participate directly in conversations. And things accelerated quickly – so fast that negotiations moved beyond the pale of expectations – with the valuation of aQuantive eclipsing the next most expensive acquisition at Microsoft by a wide margin.

Ultimately, Microsoft decided that aQuantive was the big bet we would make in the space. The strategy was to leverage the buy-side footprint of Atlas, which was similar to DoubleClick’s 45% market share, and attach it to the AdECN exchange to form the basis of OLX. While I continued to push hard for Donovan Data Systems to augment that Atlas footprint, the decision was made to focus on aQuantive and build out an automated optimization engine that would connect Atlas with AdECN, providing automated bidding capabilities. Microsoft’s ad network inventory would anchor the exchange, including owned and operated remnant inventory with a small amount of premium inventory. And we would create synergy with our existing adCenter customers.

Things didn’t proceed as planned. It took a long time to get the new aQuantive team up to speed on our OLX vision, and they were skeptical. The aQuantive leadership team became the business leadership team of the new advertising organization that swelled to 1,500 engineers and 300 business people The aQuantive executive team never embraced our OLX-enabled advertising platform business strategy – they felt that the astronomical price we paid for the company validated their previous strategic direction. They felt strongly that we needed to incrementally grow revenue from our base, which is how they’d grown their company. What they missed was that their existing revenue had very little impact on the strategic imperatives that Microsoft cared about. We needed to move the needle by billions of dollars, not millions.

The plan had been for Yusuf to lead the new division, with his core leadership team making up the leadership ranks. During the final stages of the aQuantive negotiations, a new path was forged with Brian McAndrews and his team stepping into the lead. I really liked those guys – and had been friends with many of them for years ahead of the acquisition. But ingesting and digesting that acquisition was really hard for both companies. And adECN died on the vine of that ingestion. We weren’t allowed to start testing live inventory through the exchange because an executive wouldn’t sign off on the revenue risk.

Ultimately we lost our opportunity. Prior to that acquisition, we refuted the idea that Microsoft couldn’t be agile and responsive to the market. After the acquisition, we crawled into our cave to digest a big meal – like a dragon. By the time we emerged from our cave, the world had evolved past us.

We ran instead after a giant partnership with Yahoo on search. We reduced our investment in display and other forms of advertising. That defocus culminated finally in the exit we saw last week from everything but search and paid search.

But there was a time when Microsoft almost won. We were duking it out with Google and focused on a major win, not just participating. We led the market. Many of those in this story went on to huge careers in advertising – with several now at Facebook.

We almost had it.

* While posting a comprehensive list of people on Joe’s team back then would be nigh impossible, there are some key players that should be mentioned. Those included Alexandra Tibbets, Jed Nahum, Michael Dwan Matt Carr and Mike Hurt and Some real powerhouses that worked under them, giving the bench on this team extraordinary quality and depth, including Ryan Mackle, John Genna, Meera Bhatia, Sloan Ginn, Aaron Sandorffy, Michael Weaver, Dean Carignan, Gabriel Nanda, Gabe Bevilacqua, Mark Jacobson, Gary Hebert, Jilani Zeribi, Khan Smith, Erynn Petersen, Saleel Sathe, Maziar Sattari, Jenn Dorre, Bart Barden and Matt Romney, as well as many others I’m sure that I’m forgetting, with apologies.


14 Comments

  1. Augustus July 8, 2015
    Are these the same “world-class engineers” that wanted to convert DRIVE to run on Microsoft’s in-house ad server that couldn’t support flash, CPC/CPA cost methods, or 3rd party publisher inventory in 2007? Or the ones that claimed adCenter was fully “converged” and display capable in 2008? Or maybe it was the ones who attempted and failed to build a publisher ad serving system from scratch after spending 6 billion to acquire a company that had all these pieces. Let’s not shit ourselves, the failures were abundant. Trying to pass it off as aQuantive leadership’s inability to see a larger, Microsoft-wide vision is to ignore the inherent flaws in the Microsoft strategy you claim to have helped craft. Did you really think a network or exchange anchored with 90%+ Microsoft owned and operated inventory was going to be a solid platform play? Were you seriously banking on converting demand from adCenter to spend in display? Was keeping Microsoft’s targeting data confined to O&O inventory and off the network (and ultimately the exchange) just something that was done because everyone got in a room and decided that they hated making money?You’re right that we almost had it. If it weren’t for that $6 billion, we (AQNT) would still be having it.
    • Eric Picard July 9, 2015
      Hi Augustus, nice to hear from you. Let me avoid a back and forth snipe-fest and just address a few factual issues with what you said, and maybe answer a few of your questions.1. “couldn’t support flash, CPC/CPA cost methods, or 3rd party publisher inventory in 2007?”That’s actually wrong on all counts with one caveat. Microsoft’s Display Ad Platform is (and was) a pretty remarkable platform. It was not designed to support external users logging in – which was literally a user permissioning and data segregation issue. Frankly – that’s not a problem that required world class engineers to solve.

      2. “Or the ones that claimed adCenter was fully “converged” and display capable in 2008″

      adCenter was never claimed to be “converged”. I don’t recall the date we began supporting display ads in adCenter (actually the pubcenter product) but I don’t believe it was 2008. Given that the convergence project (systems integration) was literally never completed, and there’s plenty of reasons I could give for that (e.g. plenty of blame to go around), that’s just a silly statement. Many core systems became shared, but obviously since Atlas was able to be sold off, it remained standalone.

      3. “inherent flaws in the Microsoft strategy you claim to have helped craft. Did you really think a network or exchange anchored with 90%+ Microsoft owned and operated inventory was going to be a solid platform play?”

      The market clearly has shown that companies *without* the vast volume of inventory Microsoft could have passed into an exchange were able to be very successful both before and after the timeframe I’m talking about (Right Media and AppNexus are obvious examples) your point doesn’t make much sense. AppNexus really took off after he additional supply from Microsoft was added. So yes – I think it was a very solid platform play. The market shows that to be true. Obviously Google made lots of rain with the DoubleClick platform as well – but given that there are other examples (Rubicon, Casale, OpenX, AppNexus) yes, Microsoft certainly could have done it. Given that we had solicitations from dozens of huge publishers and literally every major agency holding company, who literally asked us to build such a platform, yes – I think we could have done this.

      4. “Were you seriously banking on converting demand from adCenter to spend in display?”

      Banking on it? No. But was it applicable? Obviously it was – Google was clearly able to apply its AdWords demand against display (e.g. Google Display Network.)

      5. “Was keeping Microsoft’s targeting data confined to O&O inventory and off the network (and ultimately the exchange) just something that was done because everyone got in a room and decided that they hated making money?”

      I’m not going to name any names. But this was literally the plan of record prior to the aQuantive acquisition. The plan of record was to open up all MSFT targeting data (effectively offer a DMP) and all inventory short of a set of premium established inventory onto the exchange. So you’d need to tell me the answer to your question.

      What I was told at the time was that doing so would put too much revenue risk on the O&O inventory to even allow a few million of impressions come out of hotmail to run adECN tests. And there was a lot of discussion about liquidity and asymmetry that would have been easily addressed if we were allowed to actually run tests. Not sure what more can be said about that.

      Eric

      • Augustus July 10, 2015
        Eric, we’re talking about a scenario where thousands of people lost their jobs or at least had their careers significantly derailed as a direct result of terrible strategy + execution. So I agree, let’s get the facts straight.1. “couldn’t support flash, CPC/CPA cost methods, or 3rd party publisher inventory in 2007?”This is just a fact. Even up until about a year ago, AdExpert couldn’t support performance cost methods. I’m not even sure it can today. Point is, shortly after the acquisition, there was an engineering-led effort to convert DRIVE (a top 5 ad network at the time, mind you) to AdExpert by Microsoft. I personally was asked directly by the MSFT engineering team which of those features (among a laundry list of others) the network could live without, preferably all 3, was how it was phrased.

        2. “Or the ones that claimed adCenter was fully “converged” and display capable in 2008″

        Again, this happened. I won’t name names either, but let’s just say the head of engineering at the time announced exactly this statement at an all hands. I was there. A few months later, he left the company and we all discovered that this claim was without merit. A silly statement, I agree.

        3. Let’s not act like Right Media is a shining example of platform success, and I think AppNexus would be just fine without Microsoft inventory. Look, the anchor tenant plan was a great one, I’m not arguing that. But when the anchor tenant is the only tenant, you don’t have a platform. The publisher tools business was established and growing within aQuantive (and RAPT), and shortly after those acquisitions, the strategy to move all of those pub-side tools to a different platform is what killed it. Publisher customers were FIRED, if you recall. Fired them. They were paying money, Microsoft said, “nah, don’t want that business.”

        4. Search and display were separately managed budgets then, and they still are today. Again, just a fact. If the plan was to change the way the industry spends across these 2 formats, you needed a lot more than one more checkbox in the adCenter UI.

        5. Great, something we can agree on. Tell me this then, why was targeting data kept off of DRIVE immediately after the acquisition, and remained off of the AdMarket platform for the remainder of its existence? I can send you a Quick Wins doc where this is laid out clearly as something that would have made an immediate revenue impact within 90 days, and yet it was promptly shut down by Microsoft leadership… on the engineering side, btw.

        Your vision for adECN at the time was indeed a great one. Missteps were made by several folks (I know the ones you are referring to) that prevented the exchange strategy from taking hold and flourishing. But Google has been able to successfully execute a display network and an exchange, both best in their respective classes. That combined vision is something that was absent throughout the process, or at least never agreed upon in a way that allowed for successful execution. Those of us in the rank and file felt most of the pain resulting from these decisions and lack of solid leadership. It would be nice if ALL of the leaders responsible took their fair share of accountability for the disaster.

      • Eric Picard July 13, 2015
        Augustus, as I feared things went down a didactic path. So let me try to address the intent of the article rather than going back in and picking apart your reply to my reply.My motivation for writing this article was that the press response to the AOL announcement was to basically repeatedly state, “Yeah, Microsoft never knew what they were doing in advertising.” That simply is not true. The strategic blunder that the company made was in acquiring aQuantive and losing three years that they were never able to recover from. This was what I was alluding to in my article by referencing the digestion of a meal that was too large. Keep that in mind when reading my further comments below.Since I left Microsoft in 2010 (when it became clear to me that the company was not going to continue to invest in anything ad related but Paid Search) I no longer have access to any of the direct paperwork such as various presentations, and internal memos – many of which I wrote. But having a semantic argument about what was said by who at a meeting in 2008 at this point seems superfluous. I’ll just say that I wrote most of the decks that were presented at engineering leadership / all-hands meetings post-acquisition – and I think your memory and mine are very different.

        I will address one thing that I haven’t, which you brought up in both of your comments – regarding the publisher tools business. aQuantive had acquired Accipiter and renamed it Atlas for Publishers (or something like that.) I have nothing but respect for Brian Handly and the many folks from Accipiter that I knew over the years. But that platform was ancient and architecturally needed a complete rewrite. It was simply not possible for that platform to be the center of gravity of the business going forward. You reference this as if it was as simple as attaching RAPT to Accipiter and backfilling with DRIVE PM. That wasn’t going to work on any level – just the handful of sales done with large publishers after the acquisition proved that Accipiter wasn’t salvageable. It’s unlikely you were aware of those issues, but I can tell you without any hesitance that this wasn’t going to work.

        I can also tell you definitively that the decision to move away from plan of record on the post-acquisition timeline was not made by engineering. I was in those meetings. Your perspective is missing key facts – but I’m not going further on that.

        My point in this article was not to point fingers at anyone and blame them for Microsoft’s subsequent failure in “non-search” advertising. I have huge respect for Brian McAndrews, Mike Galgon, Karl Siebrecht and Scott Howe – they’re all very talented and intelligent executives. If this article seemed like it was taking pot shots at them – that certainly wasn’t the intent. See my comment above about dragons and meals.

        The issue simply is that there were vast and complex systems across both companies, and a consensus based decision about which systems to bet on was allowed/caused to go on for more than 2 years. The big lesson to bring away (although I was Cassandra in this one – having learned this lesson earlier in my career) is that clear definitive executive decisions about paths forward (whether engineering or business) need to be made quickly and followed through on. But that wasn’t the point of my article – so perhaps there’s another article in there about how to do acquisitions well and what to avoid.

        I will respond directly to one statement you made, “But Google has been able to successfully execute a display network and an exchange, both best in their respective classes. That combined vision is something that was absent throughout the process, or at least never agreed upon in a way that allowed for successful execution.”

        This is exactly the point of my article – the entirety in two sentences. Our vision of the future of the market was exactly the same as Google’s prior to the aQuantive acquisition. And that vision was shared across engineering and business from the lowest to highest levels. Unfortunately it took more than two years to get that vision accepted and understood across the executive team post-acquisition. And that’s the tragedy of Microsoft’s advertising business, the lost years while the market surged past us. When it was clear that nobody was going to bless adECN as the exchange for Microsoft, I didn’t raise any objections when Microsoft bet on AppNexus. At least there would be one platform in the market that matched our overall objectives – and we’d own some of it.

  2. Robin Laylin July 8, 2015
    Eric, thank you for taking the time to describe this period at Microsoft, one with so much potential for not only advertising business pursuits, but also benefitting and leveraging Microsoft Enterprise identity, server, desktop, analytics products to deepen reach and value. Thanks again for the excellent summary!
  3. Great write up as usual Eric. This tale reminds me of a Yankee fan talking about how great their team would have, could have been if only this that or the other had happened. And since they bought the superstars, had all the resources in the world, unlimited funds and still sucked whose fault is that?I am amazed at how much money Microsoft threw at this industry and lost. To me its a lesson in how not to run a business and a very real example of how large companies are seldom, if ever able to compete in emerging businesses.
    • Eric Picard July 10, 2015
      Alan – thanks for your comment! I absolutely hear you. But the reality is that this is more along the lines of Xerox Parc lamenting the Graphical User Interface being credited to Apple. 😉My main motivation for writing this was that most press I read in response to the AOL deal got this all very wrong. Repeatedly I was reading sentiment stating that “Microsoft never knew what they were doing in advertising.” That’s just simply not true.Microsoft’s in-house team was ahead of the market curve. And we were executing well toward that plan. Not without missteps, mind you. But there seems to be a sentiment that Microsoft didn’t know what to do in the ads space, which isn’t true – we were doing very well.

      As far as the lessons you suggested – it’s really hard for big companies to take on new challenges and succeed. So we’re in agreement. But Microsoft has built more large new businesses than any other company – so it can be done – the question is how to do it.

      Microsoft’s past had shown that big moves with either huge internal investments with giant teams (Office taking over the world or the huge investments and losses of Xbox before it became profitable) or large acquisitions driving big new incremental businesses (Great Plains driving MSFT’s enterprise business forward) were good patterns. But Microsoft had never faced a competitor like Google before – and they proved impossible to fast follow against. The Bing investment turned out to be much more like Xbox than Office.

      • Thanks Eric for your response. The issue is that neither the video game console market or search were emerging markets. They were both well established businesses for many years with many parties at play. So while I appreciate your response, it doesnt actually hold water.MSFT screwed up with a massive amount of enterprise level failure. My dealing with the company during this time (and there were many from several different companies) was one of arrogance and hubris. You guys thought you were smarter than everyone else (not you mind you, you were and still are very kind and humble guy). But that kind of arrogance always translates into failure. And boy did it ever in this regard.I realize that you gave MSFT a lot but they didnt give you what you truly needed. The reigns. And that is one of many reasons that they lost big time. But most of all is that they had no business entering into the ad business. I think that was and will always be their failure. Trying to muscle their way into a sector that really was about as far removed from their core competency as possible.

        On another note: I wish AdExchanger had more dialog on their site. This discussion is one of the best I’ve read here but they dont promote dialog between the writers and the readers and certainly dont provide a channel for engagement.

      • Eric Picard July 13, 2015
        Alan – thanks for your thoughtful reply to my reply. 😉I don’t think Display advertising was much of an emerging market at that time, but of course the movement toward exchanges and real-time bidding was an emerging space.I’m not sure who you dealt with at Microsoft in those days, but I will tell you that I was repeatedly surprised at the lack of arrogance and hubris I experienced across the board while working at Microsoft. Not to say there weren’t egos – but your experience was not the one I had.

        Microsoft was on a great path from 2004 – 2007 and making great strides toward an epic head-to-head battle with Google. But the lost years that happened after the aQuantive acquisition were not possible to recover from.

        Note – I firmly believe that if aQuantive hadn’t been acquired, they’d still be a successful business in the adtech space. So the tragedy cuts in both directions.

  4. Robin, who was another unsung hero in this saga is definitely right in his congrats for Eric on the story. There were so many other non pursued threads – around the world was part of the shame of it.
  5. Realist July 9, 2015
    Eric, it took some courage to write what you did. Don’t let the haters get you down. I agree more with Augustus, most the genius of Microsoft engineers is in building three-legged stools, re-inventing wheels and blowing through budgets. Moonshot projects that need 1000 engineers? Sorry but ad tech ain’t NASA.
    1. Eric Picard July 9, 2015
      Hi Realist. The reality is that large scale teams at huge companies frequently are less efficient than smaller companies. And remember at the time we were competing with Google, who had well more than 1,000 engineers working on the project. Microsoft’s “fast follower” approach that had worked well for all its major successes previously (e.g. Office) set the stage for large resource requests.Obviously we didn’t throw 1,000 engineers at adECN when we completed that acquisition. And we did bring the first RTB exchange to the world – unfortunately we just were not able to get it launched. It sat fallow for two years before it died on the vine.Again – obviously you never spent any time with the kinds of folks I’m referencing. If you’d spent any significant 1:1 time with Tarek Najm, Brian Tschumper, Sachin Dhawan, Nitin Chandel, Subir Sidhu, Scott Tomlin, John Beaver, etc… you wouldn’t feel like you do. My guess is you didn’t spend any time with the core engineering team at Microsoft. Your perspective isn’t informed by reality.

A better way for publishers to manage ad inventory

By Eric Picard (Originally Published on iMedia – April 16, 2015)

Publishers in general have, up until recently, thought of programmatic advertising only as a mechanism to clear unsold (remnant) inventory. Over the last few years, publishers have been able to begin integrating their programmatic sales more completely into their overall inventory pool. And those publishers that dived fully into the programmatic pool have been gathering significant learnings and gaining sustainable advantage over their competition. For those publishers who have not fully adopted programmatic methodology into their mainstream revenue operations, the time has come.

Today I’ll be using Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers and Ad Exchange as the examples of how publishers are operating. But other ad servers, SSPs, and exchange technologies support similar functionality to what I’ll describe here. I’m using Google’s because, frankly, its documentation is public, easily found via a search (shockingly), and easy to understand. If you’re using different vendors, feel free to reach out to them and ask about these concepts. I’m certain they’ll be able to accommodate you with similar approaches on their platforms.

Starting with the basics

RTB and direct make use of different infrastructure for decision-making, and ultimately it’s the publisher ad server that “owns” the direct ad sales, which controls the destiny of whether an ad impression is available to be purchased on the exchange.

Below is an example of how ad calls are made when a user visits a web browser and the page loads. This fundamental of our business should be understood before we dive into the deeper arcana of how programmatic systems interact with the publisher ad server.

When a user visits a web page, myriad events take place — most of which we’ll ignore in this article. The important thing to understand is that publishers code ad tags into their web pages, which call out to the publisher ad server. The publisher ad server returns unique identifiers to the page that tell the browser where to find the ads that have been selected.


This is how nearly all ads are served online today — and have been for more than 15 years. What’s important is how this is fulfilled under the surface of the impressions. There are numerous interactions happening within the publisher ad server, and the external systems — including standard ad platforms like third-party ad servers (DFA, Atlas, Sizmek, etc.), dynamic creative and rich media platforms (Flashtalking, PointRoll, etc.), and programmatic platforms such as supply-side platforms, ad exchanges, and demand-side platforms.

More advanced scenarios

All sorts of decisions are made in the milliseconds between the user visiting the publisher’s web page in a browser, and all of these various systems interact with each other. But we’ll leave most of these interwoven interactions aside for this discussion and keep to the critical ways that the publisher ad server interacts directly with whatever programmatic integration it has made.

Most of the time the publisher ad server interacts with an SSP (Rubicon, PubMatic, etc.) or directly with an ad exchange (Google’s AdX, AppNexus, etc.). While I’m giving examples in some parts of this article to illustrate the kinds of companies seen in the space, the reality is that the lines are very blurry, and some might argue that components of AdX and AppNexus operate like an SSP, and components of Rubicon and PubMatic operate like exchanges. Think of them as relatively interchangeable at this point.

Regardless of what vendor and mechanism is used for the programmatic supply integration (and often multiple are used), the publisher’s ad server interacts in somewhat specific ways with these systems. So let’s begin with the prioritization queue set up within the publisher ad server.

Most publisher ad servers provide functionality to allow the ad operations teams to assign the various contracts (insertion orders, or IOs) and specifically their subsequent contract line items against specific prioritization levels within the ad server. DFP has 16 levels of prioritization available, with the first 11 levels being set aside for “reserved” or “guaranteed” line items. Of these top 11, typically the first three levels are used for sponsorships — as the highest priority line items placed into the ad server.

The real reason advertising isn’t more relevant

By Eric Picard (Originally Published on iMedia – February 18, 2015)

I have been pretty publicly dismissive of the idea that we will see significant consumer value driven by ad targeting’s creation of more relevant advertising in the near future. Despite the frequent claim in the industry, I’d call this a false meme today; we don’t have nearly enough disparate messages from marketers to segment the population well enough. At the very least this future is further out simply because there are not enough advertisers spending enough money on enough distinct messages for enough distinct industry verticals, or enough products, to allow us to have enough relevant messages to show people.

Let me be clear: There are privacy issues with which we must contend. But if we step past them for the purposes of this article and look just at this issue of relevance driving value to the consumer, we have a long way to go. The current trend toward massive use of retargeting clearly isn’t hitting this mark if we just make our judgment based on anecdotal input from friends, family, and ourselves. How many times have you experienced (or been told by someone else about) the situation where you visit an online store, buy a product, and then get targeted with ads for the product you just purchased for several days afterwards on numerous websites?

Are the ads more relevant to you? Maybe. Do they add any value to you? Quite the opposite. You probably find the situation as annoying as I do. If I buy a new grill, show me products related to grilling — not the damn grill I just bought. If I buy a new pair of shoes, show me clothing or accessories related to the shoes. If I buy a new car, stop showing me ads for that car or even its competitors. Instead, show me ads related to the fact that I just bought that specific car, or even just that are relevant to a recent car buyer. But at the very least, stop wasting your money showing me the exact product I just purchased.

Frankly, there are reasons why the scenarios I suggest above aren’t happening. About 10 years ago, I had a conversation with an executive at a major publisher who was complaining about how irrelevant the ads on the website were to him. He hated the fact that he kept seeing a “toenail fungus” ad when he didn’t have toenail fungus. Instead, he would love to have seen ads for rock climbing gear, as that was his passion and he was currently looking for new gear.

I explained to him that the toenail fungus ad was creating both category and brand awareness so that if and when he eventually got toenail fungus, he’d remember that he could fix the problem. I also noted that we currently had literally not one ad from an advertiser that sold rock climbing gear available to target to him, so we could not meet his ad targeting needs in that way. This caused him pause. He finally got the point and was willing to concede that maybe he was a good target for toenail fungus ads — but that he hated the creative of the ad and found it “disgusting.” I explained that we could adjust the creative acceptance policy of the site to deal with that issue editorially and that maybe the ad would be more effective if the images were less graphic.

In those days, before programmatic advertising, the solution to the problem seemed like it was just around the corner. But now, a decade later, we still haven’t solved the issue. For clarity, I do very much believe that there will be a tipping point — that as we add the infrastructure and data needed to micro-segment audiences, we will see major changes. Once we have the ability to show a high-quality ad experience and effectively segment users to put ads in front of them with the same level of segmentation as a niche magazine content experience, advertisers in the myriad niche segments of advertising will flood the digital channels with creative that can be matched to the right user. We should explore this a bit.

Consider this example: We are trying to build an advertising experience that is more relevant, and the profile of the person is a 45-year-old male suburban homeowner who is an avid golfer and sports car enthusiast, with teenagers in the house. We can probably find some number of ads that are relevant. But if we want to really add value to that person, we need to have deeper profile information with a better experience of where he is in the buying cycle for those individual areas and categorization of creative messages to help tailor the ad experience for the individual.

Example: The avid golfer. There’s a whole ecosystem around golf that could be useful in creating value to the user beyond just showing ads for golf equipment in general. For instance, if our golfer was shopping for a new driver, it would be relevant to show him ads for drivers. Or if several new clubs had been purchased recently, maybe the ads should focus on balls, bags, shoes, or clothing.

Targeting our golfer based on specific product matches are pretty obvious, but equally interesting would be if he lived in the northeast, it was winter, and he’d recently showed interest in booking a vacation. In that case, the systems should be tailoring the vacation advertising around golfing destinations. This means ads for all sorts of products and services need to be categorized by the messaging used within them such that this kind of matching could be accomplished. Similarly, tailoring ads for numerous products and services around golf should be possible and make those messages more relevant to our golfer. But obviously to make that experience work well, we’d need lots of products and services that could be tailored around the “concept” of golf. Otherwise, we’d show this poor guy the same five ads all the time.

Our systems are on the cusp of these capabilities today. In fact, some of these scenarios could be activated by specific vendors in the industry. But the capabilities need to be ubiquitous enough that marketers drive those scenarios into their advertising creative and into their media plans. So it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Marketers aren’t driving these scenarios to their vendors, so the vendors haven’t yet activated the capabilities to fulfill the scenarios.

We will get there. But it could take some time.

The New Premium: How Programmatic Changes The Way Advertisers Value Inventory

By Eric Picard (Originally Published on AdExchanger.com Thursday, February 5th, 2015)

Five years ago, if I told anyone in our industry that I wanted to buy or sell “premium” inventory, we’d all picture the same thing: inventory that was bought or sold directly between a media buyer and publisher’s salesperson. Maybe it would be home page inventory or a section front, a page takeover or rich unit. Or perhaps it would just involve a specific publisher that we agreed equated to “premium.”

New programmatic technologies are radically changing how we think of inventory overall, especially the term “premium.” Inventory is no longer one- or two-dimensional – the definition has become much more complex. It is a multidimensionally defined set of attributes that includes traditionally “publisher-controlled” inputs, such as page location, dimensions of the creative, category and content adjacencies. But today there are additional overlaid attributes that flesh out the definition.

Advertisers can bring their own data to the dance, which we’ll hesitantly call “first party,” and overlay additional data sources, which we’ll hesitantly call “third party.” And beneath the surface level attributes are underlying components that can be much more dynamic. These components can help predict how effectively an impression can drive a campaign’s goals or outcomes.

Programmatic buying platforms historically were tied to open exchange inventory, but increasingly, they are used as primary buying platforms across open RTB, private marketplaces, direct publisher integrations and even to support direct buys. This more holistic approach ultimately leads to a “programmatic first” point of view, as the new inventory definitions being rightly demanded by advertisers become their starting point on media buys. While RTB “only” represents 20% to 40% of budgets today, it’s clear that the rapid growth of programmatic will drive these broader inventory definitions across the buyer-seller boundary.

Achieving Symmetry

Publishers are embracing the newly empowered media buyers, allowing them to bring their own data for direct buys. They are also allowing buyers to connect directly to their ad servers for programmatically enabled direct buys and buy-side inventory decisioning in real time. For the past few years, the asymmetry of information in programmatic – publishers had no idea why advertisers bought their inventory on the exchange – has been a sore point.

Publishers point out that if buyers work with them, they can open paths to the inventory, inclusive of audiences, that buyers are looking for on the exchange. As we see more collaboration between buyers and sellers on these points, pockets of highly valuable inventory that were lying dormant inside the publisher’s ad server (dare we say “premium”) will suddenly open up.

To use a mining analogy, publishers previously sold unrefined chunks of ore to media buyers, who found a variety of metals inside, but only some of it was valuable to them. So buyers started buying inventory through other marketplaces that allowed them to use their own tools and data to locate the chunks of ore that contained the metals they cared about. Now publishers are saying, “If you’re willing to pay us what you think that metal is worth, we can find more of it than you’re getting on those secondary marketplaces. But you have to work with us to get access to it.”

This new approach is both exciting and refreshing. The industry is getting over old suspicions and reluctance to share information. The asymmetry is becoming more symmetrical, and everyone involved gets more value. Days are still early, and only the most advanced players are figuring out how to make this work, but it won’t be long before this new way of defining “premium” is the standard.

Evolving Definition

How do we define “premium” in this new programmatically enabled world? Premium inventory matches the advertiser’s holistic goals, inclusive of where the ad will run – publisher, category, page location or format – and the multidimensional profiles of anonymous users behind the impressions, including first- and third-party audience data definitions, as well as geographic, demographic and other data elements provided by publishers and other parties. The advertiser believes the premium inventory will help fulfill their goals and drive outcomes that they desire.

That’s a mouthful, eh? How about this: Premium inventory matches the goals of the advertiser well enough that they’re willing to pay a premium for access.

Don’t Believe The Lies About Digital Media

By Eric Picard (Originally published on AdExchanger Monday, December 1st, 2014)

For years, there has been a series of bad memes spreading throughout our industry. Some of the big ones have caused a huge amount of misunderstanding in our space.

Here’s my favorite: “There is infinite supply of ad inventory. With this overabundance of supply, the cost of inventory will be driven to zero.”

This way of thinking caused the publisher side of the industry to fear and block adoption of programmatic buying and selling until the last year or two, when it was proved to be false.

A simple truth: All ad impressions (in a nonfraudulent world) are created by a person seeing an ad. I estimate that there are 5 trillion monthly digital ad impressions in North America. If we divide this against roughly 300 million active Internet users in North America, assuming they spend on average five hours a day consuming content on the Internet, that breaks down to approximately 100 ads per hour.

So we as an industry have 100 chances an hour, or about 500 chances per day, to reach each person in North America with a digital ad. Of the 300 million people we can reach, advertisers only care about a sliver of the total audience.

Once you break down the audience to the desired number of people to reach, with the relevant targeting, the question becomes: Of the 500 daily opportunities, how many times do you want to reach that group of people? It comes down to several factors: what mechanisms you, as a buyer, can use to identify them and deliver an ad to them, the format of the ad and how effective you believe your opportunity to reach them will be.

So, no – the number of impressions is not infinite. And if we believe that some percentage of the ads in that 5 trillion monthly statistic are fake, meaning fraudulent or simply not viewable, then the number of chances to reach consumers could be much smaller, from 100 to as low as 50 ad opportunities per hour.

Suddenly the lie is turned on its head and it becomes more about maximizing the opportunity with your target audience. And for those opportunities, the cost is definitely not heading toward zero.

Not True: Ad Inventory Can Be Defined By The Publisher And Divided Into Pools Of Undifferentiated Impressions

Ad inventory is made up of a group of individual, unique ad impressions. Every impression has hundreds of points of data surrounding it. The problem with this belief is that it assumes limitations that don’t exist. Publishers define inventory in broad, relatively undifferentiated buckets, which are the lowest common denominator from a complex media plan sent with a fairly detailed RFP by the buyer.

For instance, buying a million impressions of “soccer moms” from a publisher creates a very limited view of that inventory. The range of income, interests, product ownership or geography is broad for the individuals behind those impressions. And some “soccer moms” may be worth more than others depending on an advertiser’s campaign goals.

In a world where inventory is publisher-defined, this lowest common denominator approach was the only way to operate a scale media business. But that’s no longer the case. Buy-side decisioning allows the buyer to define the inventory – and that inventory definition by nature can be more complex than ever.

So what is an impression? Ultimately an impression is a human being engaging in a monetizable experience via a computer or digital device, in a certain modality. By modality, we mean that they’re either passively consuming content (such as watching a video), actively consuming content (reading an article or email), actively participating in an interruptible interactive experience (playing a game with breaks between levels) or actively participating in a non-interruptible interactive experience (writing an email or engaged in a video chat).

All the data about the person behind the impression is captured in first-party (buy side and sell side) and third-party data platforms. And all the data about the content being consumed, and the user’s modality, belongs to the publisher. It is by matching both types of data that we can truly unlock the value of inventory. The more open and transparent we make things, the more value we unlock. By giving buyers access to the unfettered truth of inventory and the ability to peruse and pay for their desired inventory, price ultimately tends to go up, not down. The old world of limited, siloed and blocked data is responsible for this lie.

As we’ve opened up inventory sources and unlocked access to audience and modality data, the market responded by equalizing prices. As a result, publishers can make just as much money from programmatic channels as direct sales. Publishers that are allowing demand from programmatic sources to compete directly with guaranteed inventory are becoming pleasantly surprised with the results. Publishers that started early on this path are gaining some significant advantages that could be sustainable over the long haul.

Not True: Publishers Don’t Let Buy-Side Systems Access Inventory Because Of Potential Data Leakage

This is an old misconception. Back around 2005, some publishers invested in technology to enable creation of “publisher first-party” audience targeting data. They tracked individual audience members’ activity on the publishers’ sites and put these content consumption behaviors into behavioral targeting segments. They could then sell these segments as inventory definitions, rather than just selling locations.

This was very useful when publishers had small pools of valuable inventory that would sell out, such as auto-related inventory that would sell out months in advance. So publishers tracked users who read articles in the “auto content” bucket and created a segment called “auto intenders” so they could sell ads targeted to those users when they were browsing other pages of the publisher’s content. If they charged $15 CPMs for auto content ads, they would sell behaviorally targeted “auto intenders” for $10. They’d deliver those ads on pages that were probably selling for $5 CPMs, more than doubling the yield on those impressions.

The problem is that only the largest publishers with big user bases that consumed lots of their content could assemble enough valuable behavioral data. The small window into a person’s web-surfing behavior that any one publisher had access to was not enough to really create sustainable value. However, that data was created, sold and valued by the market, although it was less valuable to buyers because it originated from user activity on just one publisher, rather than data pooled across publishers.

Right around that time, the first behavioral ad networks, typified by Blue Lithium, figured out that they could supercharge their behavioral targeting segmentation by buying guaranteed targeted buys from publishers and stealing segmentation data from the publishers. They maximized reach by keeping the frequency cap as low as the publisher would allow, then dropped their own cookies on those users and added the publisher’s targeting definition to their own.

For instance, say a buy of “auto intenders” from Yahoo had a frequency cap that was set to one. If the ad network bought 1 million impressions for a $10 CPM, they would add 1 million unique users to their own cookie pool of “auto intenders” for just $10,000. They could then find those same users on cheaper sites, and eventually buy the inventory over ad exchanges for less than $1 but sell it for $8, allowing them to arbitrage the market. Since these networks could turn small expensive direct buys into feeders of their behavioral targeting pools, and then extend those buys to cheap inventory sources, publishers obviously became very concerned about this “data leakage.”

Most publishers, other than the very largest, stopped investing in their own first-party behavioral data technologies, leading to the creation of the lie that publishers are deathly afraid of data leakage. But what people missed is that most publishers simply gave up fighting this battle. Instead they partnered with third-party data providers that paid publishers for the rights to collect behavioral data.

They would then push the behavioral segments back into the publisher’s ad server so they could sell the data as part of their direct buys. The data leakage problem led to the creation of the third-party data marketplace and the tracking of users across publishers, which marketers find more valuable.

The real value that publishers can provide is not in turning the behavior of their audiences into targeting data. Instead publishers can give buy-side decisioning systems access to data about the content being consumed (category-level data) and what users are doing on those pages (modality data). They can also enable the buyer to bring their own first-party data, which is far more valuable for buyers than anything the publisher could assemble.

Everybody wins when publishers open up competition between decisions made by a demand-side or buy-side ad platform and direct buys booked through their sales force. When given the opportunity, buyers are willing to pay similar or higher rates for access to this inventory, compared to what they’d pay for publisher-packaged inventory that only offers publisher-based ad decisions. The two methods competing with one another increases the value of the inventory and maximizes the yield for each impression. It’s a “win-win” or a non-zero-sum game – a good thing for everyone.

Programmatic buying: The FAQ every marketer needs

By Eric Picard (Originally Published in iMedia – November 15, 2014)

I was at the ad:tech conference in New York last week, and in one of the sessions, three different people asked about programmatic. They didn’t ask any nuanced questions. They effectively asked, “What is programmatic?” They were embarrassed that they didn’t know, but after the first person spoke up, others in the room were emboldened.

For someone so steeped in the programmatic space, this took me by surprise. Certainly, I thought, no one in our industry doesn’t know what programmatic is. Adding to my consternation was that this specific panel was focused on SEO — and I figured that anyone working in search must be in the know on what was happening in programmatic. So I walked around and asked people for the rest of the conference what they knew about programmatic, just so I could see how out of touch I was from the mainstream. While most people were relatively up to date, I was surprised by the lack of general knowledge and the amount of misinformation there was out there.

So I figured it was time to step back and go over the very basics in this classic frequently asked questions (FAQ) format.

What does the term “programmatic” mean?
The term “programmatic,” which I’ve been told I coined back in 2009, really just is the umbrella term for automated buying and selling of media. While this is how I use the term, and what the market generally tries to use it to mean, many people use it to refer just to one part of the “programmatic ecosystem” — real-time bidding (RTB).

What are ad exchanges?
Much like in the finance world where stocks, commodities, and derivatives are sold over “exchanges,” we now have mechanisms to sell advertising over exchanges. Think of this as an auction-based mechanism to sell ads. Most exchanges are second-price auctions, meaning that whoever bids the highest for an ad wins the ad impression but pays the price (sometimes plus one penny) that the second-highest bidder was willing to pay. And nearly all of these exchanges have moved to RTB. Ad exchanges typically perform the function of providing liquidity to the marketplace, letting supply and demand match fluidly. Ad exchanges are not typically where the dollars accumulate; they’re a relatively inexpensive conduit through which demand and supply flow.

What is real-time bidding?
RTB is an auction-based mechanism for media buyers to bid on advertising at the impression level, as the ad impression takes place. When the ad impression takes place, a call is made to the exchange, which submits the impression to all bidders (participants with seats on the exchange). Those bidders have a very short time — usually less than 100 milliseconds — to respond to the auction with their bids. Unlike in the world of paid search, where all the demand for ads sit within the ad system of the search engine, ad exchanges federate out the auction, meaning that each bidder contains its own demand and only submits what it chooses to the exchange. This makes the exchange more of a clearing mechanism, rather than the revenue-generating mechanism that the paid search auction is.

What value does an advertiser or media buyer get by using RTB?
RTB enables a media buyer to specify exactly what their goals or outcomes are and look only for ad inventory that matches against those goals. Sometimes those goals are performance based; sometimes they are audience based. In other words, buyers can specify what audiences they want to reach and buy only those ad impressions that match. This is very different from the experience of buying from publishers directly, where the publisher specifies the inventory definition. Over RTB, the buyers specify the inventory definition and only buy what they want.

Are exchanges only available for banner ads?
RTB and programmatic exchanges are not in any way limited to one inventory type. Pretty much any available media inventory (ironically except for paid search) is available this way. Display, mobile, video, social, and even some traditional media such as television, radio, and print are either already available over exchanges or will be soon.

How do I buy ads on an exchange?
Buying mechanisms for ad exchanges are typically referred to as demand-side platforms, or DSPs. Some ad networks also enable exchange buying but in some cases are not transparent about this (i.e., they might be buying ads on the exchanges and reselling them to their customers). DSPs are available from companies like MediaMath, Turn, DataXu, The Trade Desk, AppNexus, and others.

How do publishers sell ads over exchanges?
Publishers that are quite large can sometimes offer their inventory directly over an ad exchange. Some even have their own. But most publishers use an aggregator of one kind or another — either an ad network or a specialty platform called a supply-side platform (SSP). SSPs are kind of the inverse of a DSP and have specialized software for managing supply on the publisher’s behalf. Some exchanges are incorporating the functionality of SSPs directly such that publishers don’t need a separate vendor to support this need. And some SSPs are beginning to behave as exchanges on their own.

Can I buy directly from publishers programmatically?
Yes, many publishers make their inventory available over the exchange, and most DSPs can specify publishers they wish to include in a buy. Many publishers also have rolled out “private marketplaces” using either ad exchanges or supply-side platforms. These private marketplaces are kind of like private ad exchanges where the publisher makes its inventory available only to specific buyers. These have all the benefits of RTB to the buyer but give the publishers more control over floor prices they want to set — or even fixed rate deals they want to support with specific buyers or advertisers.

Can I execute direct buys, or guaranteed buys, programmatically?
Yes, there’s a whole subset or category of the programmatic ecosystem that is appropriately called programmatic direct. Solutions in this space are less well defined, as it is newer. But the general goal is to provide more automation to the buying and selling of media. These buys can happen over display, mobile, video, social, and even television, radio, and print. The ecosystem has vendors supporting the needs of buyers and sellers independently — and a few that are hybrid solutions. Companies in this space include Bionic Ads, Shiny Ads, Yieldex, iSocket, BuySellAds, and others. Many DSPs are now plugging into the programmatic direct inventory sources as well, allowing one-stop-shop buying of both RTB and direct inventory.

Is programmatic replacing more traditional ways of buying and selling media?
Yes. Interpublic Group, one of the biggest agency holding companies, has stated that it wants to move 50 percent of its media buying to programmatic methodologies by 2015, and ultimately do that across all media types. In public and private conversations across the industry with executives at both marketing and media agencies, the zeitgeist is definitely moving in this direction. Publishers were the holdup until the last few years, when they started to see the benefits of programmatic selling on their own. Many publishers are finding that programmatic selling provides higher yield, either because their cost of sales are lower or because the inventory is being used more efficiently.

MediaMath Acquires Rare Crowds And Its Founder, Eric Picard

By Zach Rodgers (Originally published on AdExchanger, November 10th, 2014)

MediaMath has snapped up Rare Crowds, a small, 2-year-old startup founded by ad tech trailblazer Eric Picard, AdExchanger has learned.

Under the all-stock transaction, Picard will join MediaMath as VP of strategic partnerships as the media-buying platform builds out products around private marketplaces and “automated guaranteed” inventory (i.e., direct site buys).

The deal has the markings of an acqui-hire. Picard, whose title at MediaMath will be VP of strategic partnerships, is the only exec from Rare Crowds’ small team going over to MediaMath. Co-founder and CTO Scott Tomlin will consult with MediaMath through the transfer of Rare Crowds’ technology.

A well-known figure in the ad tech space, Picard founded Bluestreak, an early ad server and rich media platform. Later he was an architect of Microsoft’s ad platform strategy, and he also held a senior product role at TRAFFIQ before that company exited ad tech and repositioned as an agency.

His responsibilities at MediaMath will include oversight of the company’s relationship with Akamai, from which it acquired Advertising Decision Sciences – along with its pixel-free ad targeting technology – in January 2013.

“MediaMath is making an investment in moving beyond real-time bidding, and taking RTB technologies really far forward into other parts of the ecosystem,” Picard told AdExchanger. “The company is investing in the rest of the media plan that is not currently accessible.”

Rare Crowds was initially focused on helping publishers better package their inventory in a programmatic selling environment, but in the last year pivoted to the buy side.

Here’s how Picard described the Rare Crowds value proposition in an AdExchanger interview two years ago:

“The whole industry has been very focused on prediction. We have to predict how much inventory we are going to have so we can sell it in advance, when you are talking about premium inventory. In RTB, all of the systems that have been developed really allow you to target much better and do not have to worry about prediction.

We’re finding this hypertargeted inventory that has more than four attributes, that’s what we define as a ‘rare crowd,’ all the way out to 12 or 15 or 20 attributes. If it exists, we’ll find it.”

Rare Crowds was backed by angel investors including Hulu’s SVP for ad sales, Peter Naylor, Interactive Advertising Bureau founder Rich LeFurgy and Mediasmith CEO Dave Smith.