We Punched the Monkey And It Punched Back

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Chris-O-HaraData-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Chris O’Hara, co-founder and chief revenue officer at Bionic Advertising Systems.

I recently tried to explain what I do for a living to my 14-year-old son. I found myself telling him about ad tech.

“Basically, we make technology that helps marketers buy different kinds of banner ads,” I told him.

“You mean the kind of annoying pop-up ads that everyone hates?” he asked.

His look of profound disappointment said it all. I explained that the kind of work we do wasn’t just about populating the Internet with the “Lose five pounds with one stupid trick” type of banner. But even though we are getting a lot right, my explanations eventually started sounding pretty weak.

I have been working in this business since 1995. Aside from doing some ad implementation testing, I have probably clicked on about a dozen banner ads in as many years. Today’s robust, real-time ad tech “stack” has been purpose-built to optimize the delivery of the kind of banner ads most people already hate: standardized IAB units, retargeted ads, auto-play video pre-roll units and even the dreaded pop-up and pop-under.

Publishers without robust direct sales options depend on networks and exchanges to monetize the endless streams of traffic they create, and they happily collect their $1.10 eCPM (cost per mille) payments. Advertisers looking for cheap reach and performance plumb the depths of such inventory to find the rare conversion, and hope they are getting what they pay for rather than a shady “last view” attributed banner.

Today, the highest and best use of the standardized banner has enabled marketers to leverage their first-party data to bombard site visitors with retargeted ads – an effective tactic, since they are essentially paying to accelerate a conversion that has a great chance of happening on its own.

As an industry, it seems pretty clear that we will look back on this era in digital ad technology and see how primitive it was. Have we built a trillion-dollar real-time ad-serving machine for punch-the-monkey ads, or have we really innovated and created disruption?

RTB Is Dead, Long Live RTB

The recent acquisition of [x+1] by Rocket Fuel is a great sign for our industry. It basically validates the idea that, for programmatic RTB to be effective, real data science must inform targeting. [X+1] is one of the best at cross-channel targeting, and they have already started to figure out the cross-channel attribution puzzle.

An everlasting always-on stream of RTB banners for branding and retargeting might prove to be a hugely important part of unlocking a broader multichannel strategy – if the data can dictate it. If data-management platform technology can be leveraged to truly optimize addressable marketing, then RTB will survive and thrive. With consumers always on the move, and every form of media starting to be addressable, real-time programmatic will be something marketers have permanently switched on, and we’ll see the true value of the pipes we have created.

Programmatic Direct

How about inventory that is relatively standard, but a bit nicer than that found within the exchange environment? Transacting on this tier of inventory works quite nicely with all kinds of one-to-one connections within RTB, and buyers and sellers are quickly leveraging the pipes to make private marketplace deals.

If I am a quality financial publisher, why wouldn’t I sell within RTB for $8 CPMs, rather than pay a $200,000 salesperson to sell at $12 CPMs? The math just makes sense. Delivering higher tiers of inventory at scale to private buyers is a great use of RTB, but not a panacea for overall inefficiency in media procurement. But, we have seen those RTB pipes service entire new classes of inventory, and start to appeal to brand marketers.

Workflow Automation

The problem with getting really good inventory has always been the difficulty understanding rates and availability. That’s why the RFP exists today, and isn’t going away anytime soon. Publishers will always want full control over the really good stuff. Because they know their inventory better than any algorithm, there will always be a need for human control and creativity. Big, custom sponsorships and custom-curated native executions will only increase over time, as more television and print budgets shift into addressable digital. You just can’t automate those deals. Marketers and agencies will demand programmatic efficiency to compress an expensive, 42-step process for securing guaranteed inventory. This is one area that programmatic RTB has not been built to handle (these deals are neither “real-time” nor “bidded”), but we are seeing real innovation from a number of companies trying to bring programmatic efficiency to guaranteed deals.

It’s hard to explain everything that we are getting right to a 14-year-old who spends more time on mobile apps than in an Internet browser. His assessment, in surfing the desktop Internet, is probably right – it looks like a lot of weight loss ads and sneaker retargeting. But, it’s still early days nearly 20 years after the first banner ad was served.

Follow Chris O'Hara (@chrisohara) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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