For Priceline, TV Is For Branding, Programmatic For Conversions

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Brett Keller, CMO, PricelineThere's been no shortage of talk about "programmatic direct," which involves using automated buying tools to support negotiated ad deals with presumably branding-oriented campaign goals. But for Priceline.com CMO Brett Keller, the idea is an illusion.

"We've been using TV as our branding vehicle from very the beginning of this company 14 years ago and we've had a commercial running practically every day since," Keller told attendees at Aol's Thought Leadership summit.

He said that while some spend has migrated to online video, the goal with the digital channel is conversion: "We've tried to move upstream and we'd love to get 'programmatic premium' – but we don't think it exists. For us, it's all about conversions, and that doesn't happen in online branding campaigns."

Also on the panel was Gilt Groupe CMO Elizabeth Francis. She flatly disagreed with Keller, telling panel moderator Don Kennedy (Aol Networks' SVP, Revenue and Strategy) that the discount luxury site network does see value for branding and DR within a programmatic framework. "Our goals are simply to do both: to drive purchases but also to drive awareness about our brand," Francis said. "Programmatic can satisfy both needs easily."

Gilt is particularly focused on expanding the use of automation for its own media buying efforts to promote mobile, where it now sources 50% of its revenues. While noting that other publishers are still searching for ways to match the high audience usage of mobile with commensurate ad spending, the secret is to take a longer-term view of ROI.

Francis said, "As we invest brand dollars, we take a long view. Particularly in the mobile space, we found that making the investment years ago is now paying dividends. The bottom line is that it's not one or the other; our most valuable customers are cross-platform. Developing that balance takes time and investment."

Priceline, meanwhile, is frustrated with the pace of cross-platform performance. The company had hoped for more visibility into video performance, but Keller described his colleagues as "tortured by trying to figure out the impact of someone seeing the video ads."

The problem is it's difficult to evaluate the wide variance of the data that Priceline gets. "We've had some studies that show fewer transactions, and then we get others that say we got a 60% lift, which we know is impossible," Keller said. "The best you can do is to buy as efficiently as possible, buy against quality players and constantly check video against other channels like branded search. But we haven't cracked any codes yet."

Keller did have some advice for what agencies should and shouldn't do when it comes to getting Priceline's digital business – namely, have a clear sense the company's marketing philosophy. And don't come to a meeting with a "big, bold idea" that doesn't reflect the shape and tone of the company's brand identity.

"For agencies, you had better understand who you're talking to," Keller said. "Understanding the brand" is a general rule when you walk through the door the first time. "If you come in and pitch something that's contrary to what we do and what we think as an organization, we're not going to be able to do business. The meeting will be over quickly," Keller said.

Keller also stated that he leans on agencies to understand the digital ad marketplace. For instance, he doesn't spend much time thinking about challenges in mobile audience measurement.

"We hope you guys will figure it out," Keller said, looking out at the 50-person audience. "It's reasonable to expect someone will come up with a next solution if and when the cookie drops. That said, we're not in the dark about these issues either. Priceline does staff people from the data space so we can keep up-to-date on the issues. But we look to partners to help find the right consumer and the right solution to reach them."

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