SapientNitro's Patrick MacDougall Talks Automation and Client Data

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SapientNitro Patrick MacDougallIn 2006, Planning Group International partners Patrick MacDougall and Gaston Legorburu sold their agency to Sapient for $36 million. Today PGI's core technology offering, the 12-year-old online marketing platform BridgeTrack, is still at the heart of the parent company's ad optimization regime.

Both MacDougall and Legorburu are still with the company - Legorburu as global chief creative officer and MacDougall as VP of technology. In the below interview, MacDougall describes SapientNitro's ad platform, its philosophy for managing campaign data, and its role as an ad tech sourcing partner for clients.

AdExchanger: What's SapientNitro's overall approach to platforms?

PM: We had the fortunate position to have to manage a very large ad spend in 2000, when people were saying that display ads just don't work and Internet advertising didn't make sense.

We built out a platform that really had to optimize everything we did. We had to make the most of it, and that's been our approach ever since.

Over the last 10 years, as you know, there have been a lot of advancements in platforms. We're using DSPs quite a bit, from a media buying perspective. We're getting them to reach the audience for us, and then we're using our tool set to do creative optimization. It's a combination of the two halves: get the right folks, and then tell them the right things.

We're definitely also using a lot of ad networks from a performance perspective for our direct‑response clients, so a little more black box there, but wherever possible we do integrate our [BridgeTrack] ad platform to get impression‑level data so we understand response.

Our platform is where we aggregate everything. When you start thinking about the very sophisticated direct‑response clients ‑ financial services clients are one of those types ‑ we have to give them a lot of data for managing budgets week over week, and we have to have a good grasp of spend, so we leverage our own platform and we make sure that's our integration point.

Would you summarize BridgeTrack's capabilities?

It has an ad server; we're a full email service provider; we have a content management system; and then we have a CRM engine that we use. We use it for third party media, we use it as a site-based [media buying solution], but we also do quite a bit of cross‑channel retention with it.

Have you been able to invest the development resources in it that you would like, in the last six years, since you guys sold it and joined up with SapientNitro?

We've maintained an investment in the tool. Very early on during the acquisition, we thought about turning it into a product and really trying to sell it to the market, but we pulled back from that strategy because it really wasn't where we started.

Meanwhile, vendors with similar products are pitching you and your clients. How do you approach those inbound pitches, when you have your own technology?

I've just had a huge wave of them, everything from the DSPs to Adobe. At this point, given where they're at, especially relationships in the data market and some of the automation around all that, I'm seriously considering what an integration would look like. I could see a future where we license one of these products with somebody.

We have a great relationship with Adobe across their product suite. It could be them. They're focused on the API‑driven media space. We still need some solutions around our direct buys, so an integration where we take what we have, take the best of what they have, is possible. The DSPs also have some interesting platform options too.

You're in the middle of this decision now?

It's just that I've been getting more and more of these pitches. The platforms are getting more mature. I'd say Turn was probably one of the first DMP pitches I had gotten, several years ago, but it was still a bit early. It was a little hard to gauge what they really had. I think at this point, from what I've seen, the offerings are more stable.

We were definitely in a "wait and see" scenario. Our whole approach to DSPs as they came out is, "Let's work with them and see where this space goes, and make sure there's value in it."

How would you measure up SapientNitro's impressionlevel audience buying versus the "traditional" digital approach, in terms of client spending and volume?

For direct‑response clients, it's probably close to 80 percent of our budget, especially if you include search. However, there are some unique clients. We have some B2B clients where we almost don't use it at all. It's a pretty specialty case, but we have a scenario where we have to reach bankers, so there's a few direct buys that we do, high CPM but high conversion rate. It really depends on how discretely that audience has to be defined.

Obviously, you can move a lot more inventory with fewer people when you're doing programmatic buying but do you have a core crew of people inhouse, working on those types of buys for all clients? How do you structure that, and how many people are working on it?

No, we don't. We don't departmentalize it. Our approach is more that we have a media planner/buyer, and our preference is that they understand the channels that they're operating in. We've been moving a lot more into integrated accounts, where we're doing traditional as well, so we may have a traditional specialist, but we're looking for most of our folks to do that work in pods, so to speak.

We still believe in an integrated strategy, and if we start segmenting that, it tends to dilute the value proposition.

So media planner/buyers on a given account team are responsible for both the direct buying and the programmatic?

Correct. Then, depending on their background, we may put a search specialist with them, but we do have folks that can even cover all of the display and search.

How does SapientNitro's ad platform strategy fits in with the larger Sapient organization. It's a very technologydriven parent company. How does that affect what you do, if at all?

One of the things that we're focused on is building out a digital marketing platform. You've seen some of the moves like WPP partnering with Infosys; the idea that we have clients where the entire infrastructure of what they do digitally for their marketing efforts, from setting up microsites to driving consumers to them, to conversion, is not necessarily something that they like to invest in, or have the proper IT support for.

We're building out entire digital marketing platforms where it would be a turnkey managed solution. In that space, we have integrations with BridgeTrack and a lot of other tools, where it's everything from the managed web and microsites, to the traffic that's driven to it, to the cross‑channel retention, and the site‑side targeting and ad delivery.

We're currently looking at a travel client that we have, where one of the things we might be doing for them is helping them build their own private marketplace, their own ad exchange. That might be part of the reason that I've been looking at some of these different platforms.

How central to your role is helping clients sort out the complex decisionmaking around technology?

It's what we've been doing for the last 10 years, the reason we originally built out a platform. If you go back eight years, with financial services, we've helped them host and build up their online applications to improve throughput and integrated verification services. Marketers tend to be underserved by their IT departments ‑ not because of lack of want, but just because of priority. So we've always felt that's the right way to go.

[We're] getting to the point where automation is so strong that advertisers will start licensing the stuff themselves. Then, I think the scenario is going to have to be, walk in to a client, understand what they already have, and fill the gaps. It's still an integration play. It's a consolidation play for the agencies, but I think, more and more, you may find that you have to work with what clients have.

Site analytics is the classic one that's been around for a while, but more as certain clients maybe buy into the DMPs or with Adobe.

I can see some of the larger agencies doing that, larger clients wanting to invest themselves. Then, I think the job will be to work with what they have and then add value on top of it.

That's for the large guys. Then, I think the same agencies will be bringing the tools that they've got in their arsenal to the other folks that it doesn't make sense for them to invest. Like I said, from our perspective, we're also looking to provide platforms that are an integration of everything that we've been talking about, from a managed services perspective.

Do-Not-Track is back in the news. What are your views on privacy and online advertising?

A lot of people are trying to be proactive, but aren't sure where to go. I'd love to see us get through it, because it's in a limbo stage right now. If the data market is impacted significantly I see the DSP, a lot of the exchange spaces, are going to be in big trouble. A lot of the automation tools are going to be in trouble, and I think some of the winners will be your Googles and your Facebooks, that have so much reach and the ability to describe the data that they have as related to their services.

I also look at a world without targeted ad delivery and I think it's not a great world.

By Zach Rodgers

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