AKQA’s Media Group Prepares For Life With Xaxis

AKQAAs AKQA’s media team stares into the maw of WPP and its Xaxis audience buying unit, what does it see there?

Scott Symonds, Managing Director of AKQA Media, is certainly aware of Xaxis’s reputation as the most controlling of the holding company trading desks – an entity that has been known to force its solution on WPP operating agencies that have tried to work independently with DSPs, or to incubate their own “small desks” independently of the mother ship.

Naturally, Symonds is keeping an open mind.

In this conversation with AdExchanger, he touches on his team’s future with Xaxis; the programmatic talent challenge; and how AKQA became one of the few agencies to gain preferred vendor status for the Facebook Ads API.

Being independent, you haven’t had to deal with the politics of trading desks at the holding company level. Any thoughts on how joining forces with WPP and Xaxis might change your life?

It’s really heads down business as usual now. We also have a ton of affinity for our own tech. There’s a lot of passion for the technology we’re developing.

That said I’ve obviously been reading up on Xaxis. WPP is the biggest media buyer in the world. The Xaxis platform, I was excited to see it was one of the first exchange licenses at Facebook. I am excited about all that stuff. I’ll be watching it closely. I can’t wait to learn more from some of the WPP meetings we’ve got coming up.

As an independent, I am feverishly trying to make sure I have the tech stack infrastructure to compete and provide solutions to our clients independently. I want to use WPP as a test ground to make sure we have something compelling and interesting. It’s all about learning and seeing what’s out there right now.

How is programmatic buying permeating AKQA? What do you bring that’s unique? 

We acquired and integrated a search technology called SearchRev five years ago. That’s the backbone of our proprietary technology and the core of our philosophical approach.

We have a couple different segments of our business. One is performance based and search-centric. The other is more brand-centric, working [largely] with CPGs that want to create brand and product distinction.

As the exchanges mature and we have more control and transparency, and more publishers — including premium publishers — begin to work with the exchanges, there’s opportunity to support brands in a meaningful way by reaching the quality of audience we want and adding the sites and the context we want for brands.

We’re seeing greater comfort from our clients in exchange-trading areas, which took some time just as it did with [ad] networks 10 years ago.

As we get over that comfort level and can  hone delivery to a target audience, another area I’m really excited about is dynamic creative – having multiple messages optimized dynamically against nuances within our target audience… We’re fulfilling on this brand manifest destiny we’ve always had at AKQA, but have the toolsets to deliver on the media side now. It’s also embracing the technology centrism we’ve always had as a development and design agency.

You’re one of the few agencies that have “preferred” marketing designation for the Facebook Ads API. Does that fit into an overarching platform strategy for AKQA, or just something you’ve got to do because it’s Facebook?

The technology we bought and have since developed with SearchRev, we believe in it because it took a more nuanced and detailed perspective on search. It’s the only technology that we know of that divides a keyword and clones it into every potential different performing variable of a keyword. So when you have a different browser, or a different city, or a different time-of-day, or a different ad copy in a performance profile, it clones it and manages it.

We believe in exploiting the detail of search for greater performance. We have this tech stack that can do that. It’s also built on an ad server platform so it has flexibility.

So yes, when Facebook made the Ads API available, we immediately redeployed our engineering team to work on that. We built something with similar philosophy, which breaks down broad demographic buying groups on Facebook and gives us individual reporting on sales. Instead of 25-44, we get reporting on every year. So we can say, “Yes 25-44 is your demo, but did you know 29-31 gives you twice the response rate?” We apply the same philosophy to Facebook. For performance clients, you can reallocate to where performance is. For a brand clients, that allows us to create more personalized and relevant ad experiences for them.

We are close to Facebook. One of the great things about being in Silicon Valley is to be able to partner and be at the forefront of the new generation of big media players, versus a New York-centric or broadcast-centric platform.

Facebook is probably going to be the biggest display ad seller in the marketplace. If you’re going to develop a technology that’s going to manage for a display provider, they’re not a bad place to start.

Plus our technology is Google-centric already. Google and Facebook are just passing Yahoo for the first time in terms of display sales, so if you’re going to have a technology that can manage against two publishers, those are the ones to work on.

The other point is, as a creative technology shop we’re a development provider, but to also have the Ads API and Insight API approval means we can really be a provider for Facebook and really GET social.

We can develop the content, develop the applications, have the true fluidity of the paid/earned. We don’t have to toggle between shops and have fights over who owns those domains. We can see how much traction we get with content or an app. And if it needs paid support, we can do exactly how much it needs. It’s a really exciting place to be from a media perspective.

The culture and skillset of media buying has changed dramatically in the last several years. The technical sophistication you need from staff has changed. How do you manage the mindset difference that has come into effect with the rise of programmatic buying and social?

A friend on the client side called me the other day. They have their internal teams, a search and display team, and they don’t know who should train who going forward.

I am extremely happy we’ve had this search-based technology centrism and capability for a long time. That deep technical fluency and bid-based buying and awareness has been a great training ground for the media team to expedite their fluency in these things. The flip side is also that the search team learns a lot about guaranteed impressions and qualitative learning and defining brand affinity.

There’s a great need to meet in the middle, but they are very different skill sets. You need to be very open minded these days. There’s a great advantage right now for those that come from a search background but have a flexible lateral thinking capability to adopt these toolsets.

As you see things like brand effectiveness research, creative optimization, and the unified stack a la Doubleclick Marketing Manager come together, is there a moment where it all clicks and brand budgets are suddenly released, or does spending increase on a continuum?

A lot of the work we’re doing now is knitting together our tech stack, our infrastructure. We are very interested in the DoubleClick stack. We’re a DoubleClick shop, so there’s a lot of opportunity for us to solve there. But does that release client budget? What’s releasing client budget is the growth in opportunity in digital — as we have networks and search and exchanges — as brands get comfortable.

The other big thing happening now is analytics are getting more sophisticated and more used. Clients see what’s happening better. Clearly when Kellogg’s speaks, they’re seeing results. They have econometric modeling and multi-mix modeling to feel comfortable they’re getting greater ROI from the more digital-centric mix.

Nothing moves budget like feeling comfortable that you’re getting the results you want.

The CPG guys are great too, because they’ve always been very results driven and very analytical, but it took them a long time to figure out how to build digital into their models. I’ve seen P&G talk about it, I’ve seen Clorox talk about it. Almost everybody’s talking about seeing the efficacy of digital in their marketing mix — and feeling more comfortable with it.

Follow AKQA (@AKQA), Scott Symonds (@jscottsymonds), and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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