Today's column is written by Michael Greene, Senior Analyst at Forrester Research.
The term "end-to-end" gets thrown around a lot in digital advertising circles and is increasingly part of the conversations we have with advertisers, publishers, tech vendors, and investors. It is also a preoccupation of AdExchanger, with the term "end-to-end" resulting in over 150 search results, a reflection of the litany of vendors (beyond just Google) claiming a complete solution (even if it is often in a very narrow area, like online audience data management or the tricky world of mobile video hyper-local targeting).
"End-to-end," so it would seem, is the perfect antidote to the highly fractured, point-solution dominated world of digital ad tech, not to mention the overwhelmed end users at advertisers, agencies, and publishers who are rightfully looking for somebody to deliver the holy grail of best-in-class features and best-in-class service all in one neatly tied package. To that end, some media and technology behemoths are clearly making credible runs at the end-to-end ad tech stack, even if some of their stacks suffer from a mix of "best-in-class" and "just good enough" technologies (Google), poor integration of disparate platforms (Adobe), or gaping holes in critical ad tech offerings (IBM).
But while these established vendors, or some other ad tech upstart, could conceivably solve for these issues over time through disciplined product management, innovative engineering, and thoughtful M&A, I'm convinced that the holy grail of end-to-end ad tech will remain universally elusive – at least for the foreseeable future. Why? The answer is deceptively simple: ad tech innovation, for all its growth, continues to lag dramatically behind technology-fueled consumer media innovation, and that's an immutable, natural truth.
Significant consumer media disruption is inherently unpredictable, and also stems more from art (selling the consumer things they never knew they needed but can't live without) than science (building a solution for a concrete, articulated customer need). Ad tech thrives on the latter, turning advertiser and publisher frustrations into marketable product solutions. But ad tech can't build towards challenges it can't predict, whether they come from an Apple-led mobile revolution, a Facebook-led social revolution, or some new company prepared to change consumers' lives and media behaviors.
In this world of significant consumer change, advertisers and publishers can try to latch onto an end-to-end solution, but the nature of ad tech development means that solution will inevitably always be playing catch up, engineered to solve the problems of a legacy time and place. Simplicity is still a noble goal, just one that's never going to be achieved effectively over time through a single solution.
Advertisers and publishers will be best served to stop chasing a pipe dream and instead arm themselves to be highly adaptive and technologically nimble in a changing media environment. This means learning from the best sorts of IT departments (believe it or not, they do exist) and embracing a few key technology non-negotiables (end-user data ownership and portability are good places to start) and developing deeper internal expertise for evaluating, on-boarding, and managing new technologies. To what degree this means integrating a wide array of vendors, or just managing a handful of highly strategic vendor partnerships, will differ for every organization. But no matter where you sit in this digital advertising world, change is going to be a constant. Might as well embrace it.
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