Agency Hill-Holliday Discusses New Platform Media Practice For Digital

Hill-HollidayAdam Cahill is EVP, Co-Media Director, and Jenna Umbrianna is Platform Media Manager at Hill Holliday, a full-service communications agency.

Cahill and Umbrianna discussed the latest updates to Hill-Holliday’s digital strategy and display advertising, in particular. What’s new at Hill Holliday as it relates to the data‑driven advertising world?

ADAM CAHILL: The big news for us is that in January of this year we launched a practice area that we call platform media. Up until then we’d been very active in terms of exchange buying, but had been outsourcing the day-to-day management of the campaigns to our DSP partners. As an agency we believe that a large portion of media — digital/online media today, traditional/offline media tomorrow – is going to be transacted by people trading in marketplaces. And once we accepted the notion that that’s where a big portion of media is going, then it seemed like too important of a function to outsource. We felt like we needed to bring the capability in‑house in order to become great at it, and to give the people on our team the opportunity to learn the new skills they’re going to need to grow in their careers.

So what does that mean, structurally – people – for Hill-Holliday today?

ADAM CAHILL: Our first step was to take Jenna Umbrianna, who was part of our analytics team, and the person in the agency who was working with the DSPs in the most hands-on way for the past 18 months, and dedicate her 100% to platform media. Until we had a person who was totally dedicated to the space, we couldn’t make the amount of progress we wanted to.

So Jenna’s charter has a few components to it. One is to become familiar with the community – all of the DSPs and the constellation of supporting companies, and build relationships with them and figure out who we should be working with.

The second part of Jenna’s job is about education – educating our own organization that there is something big and different going on within the world of online buying, and educating our clients as well.

And lastly Jenna actually manages the campaigns we have in market, from strategy to implementation to optimization.

Jenna, what sort of connections can you make between this role and your previous analytics role?

JENNA UMBRIANNA: I think there are quite a few. Strategy in the DSP space is heavily rooted in analytics. You still have to have the components of the more traditional display space, but I think an analytics background is a good pairing to somebody whose background is Display.

The level of detail that goes into the actual strategy and then the setup of these campaigns, is a lot more intricate than when you’re just on more of the managed service side of the fence. For example, you might hear something like, “audience buy,” – how you initially understand it conceptually is a lot different than figuring out the best way to set it up.

Would you say this is a trading desk strategy?

ADAM CAHILL: I always kind of shy away from using that language because it just sounds so grand. Plus when you say the word “trading” I think it implies buying, selling, arbitrage, things like that. Which we’re not doing, and won’t be doing. We’re just interested in buying media for our clients more efficiently, more effectively.

We call it “platform media” because that seems like the best description of what’s happening: media is now being made available through terminals. It’s a different mindset in how you plan media, how you buy it, and then what you do once it’s in market. The media discipline is changing, and so what we’re trying to do is build a team of people who are very comfortable buying media in this new environment. So while Jenna is the lead of the discipline, once campaigns are up and running, they’re getting distributed throughout the organization. We have another six or so people from our media team who are very active, and that number will keep growing.

Where does this new unit fit within Hill Holliday?

ADAM CAHILL: The platform team sits within the media organization. It’s one of three important innovation areas for the media team. By the way, when I say “innovation” I’m not talking about cutting-edge experimentation, I’m talking about looking at the underlying shifts in the way people experience media and then building practice areas around them.

So platform media is one, this is the one that we properly launched in January. The second is mobile. We have two people now that are 100% focused on mobile. For that group, it’s mobile as media, but also mobile as a utility and things that you build, too. And then the third one is the newest: gaming. Again, it’s thinking about gaming broadly – games as a media vehicle, someplace that people spend increasingly large portions of their time. But it’s also the idea of adding game mechanics to real‑world things as an interesting marketing approach.

In each of those areas we’re building disciplines, and then also building a way within the organization to get them adopted. Which is actually the more interesting and important side of innovation, I think. It doesn’t take a genius to see that mobile or gaming or platform media are important things, but the real win is when you’re able to get the broader organization to adopt them into its natural routine, into everything we do. That’s how you make things scalable.

Is platform media something your client is requesting today or are you being proactive?

ADAM CAHILL: I can’t remember a time when a client initiated a discussion about this world. It’s all come through us saying, “This is important. This is what it means. This is how we’re going to go about using it for you.” Which makes sense. A lot of this world is about the mechanics, the plumbing. It’s not something that can be seen or experienced directly. It’s not a thing like Facebook, that everyone understands immediately.

Jenna, with your analytics background, and as you’re going over campaigns, are you seeing any gaps out there in regards to solutions you need from the marketplace?

JENNA UMBRIANNA: The most recent two that we’ve encountered… One specific to the DSP space, it’s the fact that the DSP space was easiest to sell in as CPA tool. Lots of scale, lots of volume, very inexpensive. But what about advertisers that want brand measures and brand movement? We still have to use in-banner surveys, lots and lots of volume, which makes it challenging for a small advertiser to do. And, the insights are not quite as real-time as you’d like to get in that space, because of the volume needed. So that’s one big gap.

The other big thing we’ve encountered recently is that as the space migrates to mobile, we’re trying to close the gap regarding cross‑channel attribution between the DSP display space and the DSP mobile space. Metrics are still in silos between the two. And then, the same problem with brand measures translates over to mobile.

Overall, for this platform‑buying strategy, is it mostly DR or is there significant brand awareness buying?

ADAM CAHILL: It’s actually been interesting in that most of the campaigns that we’re running through the platform team would be classified as brand campaigns. What I mean by that is, they don’t have online outcomes that we are trying to generate. They definitely have business goals, but if you look at who some of our better‑known clients are, these are companies that are trying to sell things in the real world.

So we’re trying to help them sell things, but the metrics that we’re managing towards are not cost-per-action online metrics. We look at behavioral metrics, but we’re more interested in attitudinal metrics, shifts in intent and so on.

Does this mean the brand dollars are moving into exchanges?

ADAM CAHILL: We never looked at exchange‑traded media as necessarily being DR media. We just saw it as a new inventory source to try to achieve objectives against. And so we’re buying the appropriate inventory that’s out there, the data, working with partners, using the technology, and just applying all of those elements to the campaign objectives that we have. There’s no reason that this space needs to be totally DR‑focused. I don’t know if there’s a broader trend of brand dollars moving this way, but I would assume that other people would have just as much success with it as we have.

What impact is this unit going to have on creative? Or has it already had some impact on creative? You’re an integrated agency, after all.

ADAM CAHILL: There’s going to be a big impact on creative, but I don’t think it’s going to be what people expect. I think there’s a huge creative opportunity, but it’s not going to be driven by dynamic ads platforms and multi-variate testing. The exciting thing about all of the data and behavioral signals we have access to today is that you can learn things you didn’t know, or wouldn’t have thought of, and then act on them. But if you think about dynamic ad platforms, the assumption is that you’ve thought of all the potential outcomes before the campaign launches and then optimize toward the best combination. What we’ve seen happening with our platform campaigns is that you learn things about audiences you could never have anticipated. So I think the creative opportunity is to actually be making creative over and over as the campaign evolves, based on what you’re learning. Which is not less work, it’s more, but I think we’ll see that it’s worth it in terms of impact.

What kind of milestones would you like to have accomplished in a year or two?

ADAM CAHILL: Let me start by talking about where we are now in terms of milestones. We’re much further along than I would have expected. All of our clients that are doing display advertising are active with platform media to different degrees, and 25% of our total digital spend is going through the platform team. I think Forrester projected that 14% of display spend would be exchange-based this year, so by that measure we’re ahead of the game. But our objectives really aren’t about dollars spent or impression volume. We’re trying to build out a capability, so the things I care most about are the number of people we have on our team who are experts in the space. Beyond our people goals the next set of milestones are about channels, specifically TV. Given the amount of TV buying we do and the fact that we have an integrated media team, we feel like that’s a big opportunity for our team to do great work.

Follow Adam Cahill (@adamcahill), Hill Holliday (@hillholliday) and (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. Pradeep Javangula

    Excellent approach to thinking about the media agency role in a more strategic sense to address many multi-channel issues. I like the way you are addressing insights and customer intelligence that clients care about and I’m sure you will break the silos of execution and attribution turf wars.

    However, I have one critique with the approach related to the quote about dynamic creative ad platforms.

    Dynamic creative ad platforms are NOT just about multi-variate testing. These ad delivery systems are built as a “personalized content distribution” vehicle for display and other inventory to enable discovery of audience tastes to creatives, offers and brand collateral. Without the flexibility that is allowed by these platforms, one cannot learn anything more than: “Creative 1 does well on placement P” and “Creative 5 does well with data element C from provider D”. Static creative experiences don’t scale in a multi-dimensional data rich environment. They are not enough to understand how performance maps to constructs that clients care about – like products, categories, offers, discounts, messages et al.

    Dynamic ad platforms are about the progressive determination of the signals from media and audience data as it applies to creative concepts and sub-elements. Dynamic ad servers enable that to happen with statistical and machine learning techniques. In fact, given that the last mile is the creative with all input variables, it is the one place where extremely fine-grained analytical insights can be gleaned about media and creative trends.

    >But if you think about dynamic ad platforms, the assumption is >that you’ve thought of all the potential outcomes before the >campaign launches and then optimize toward the best >combination

    This is not the right way to think about what dynamic creative ad servers do. That is not the assumption.

    By deconstructing the creative into it’s sub-component elements (like a wire-frame) they:

    a) Allow for for flexibility in the creative concepts and renditions leading to scale and discovery

    b) Provide insight into the right direction to move toward in terms of “elements of great impact” in the creative. They answer questions like – is it the offer or is it the headline or is the urgency messaging married to demo, behavioral, contextual, geo and intent data that drove higher engagement rates?

    –Pradeep Javangula
    Co-founder & CTO, Tumri Inc.