Ad tech startup Ad/Fin saw an opportunity to build a business by partnering with the ANA and Ebiquity on a programmatic study. Here’s the story of how it made enemies of agency holding companies – and got caught up in the industry’s transparency reckoning.
In early 2016, Ad/Fin met with leadership at Ebiquity and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) at its annual Media Leadership conference, where they decided to partner on a study to uncover hidden fees in the programmatic supply chain.
At the time, programmatic was still new to many in the industry and very much a black box. It involved dozens of hops on a convoluted supply chain that took tiny bites out of the advertiser’s media dollar. No one knew exactly how much money went to which vendor, and how much made it to the publisher.
On the same day that meeting took place, and at that same conference, former MediaCom CEO Jon Mandel informed an audience of shocked marketers that their agencies were taking advantage of this complexity to engage in unfair and biased relationships with vendors.
Tensions over transparency were nearing a boiling point.
Ad/Fin’s CEO at the time, Andrew Altersohn, was impressed by a study commissioned a few years prior by White Ops and the World Federation of Advertisers broadly examining industry fraud rates. The study was widely covered, and garnered a lot of attention for White Ops.
He thought that if Ad/Fin, which ingests and harmonizes log-file data on winning bid transactions, could secure a broad enough data set on programmatic media pricing, it could do a similar study calculating the actual cost of programmatic buying for brands.
“The industry as a whole would benefit if there was some form of independent, unbiased view of costs and performance of the market,” Altersohn said. “That’s what Ad/Fin was trying to do.”
But Ad/Fin had to team up with larger entities to get major brands interested in the study. It found partners in Ebiquity, whose chairman in North America at the time, PJ Leary, was friends with Altersohn, and the ANA, which was already on a crusade for greater transparency in the complex media supply chain.
Ebiquity would use Ad/Fin’s platform to evaluate programmatic spend for ANA members free of cost. The brands would get a granular copy of their data, which would be rolled up in an aggregated, anonymized report evaluating the programmatic “ad tech tax.”
What they soon found out was at the time, clients didn’t own their media transaction data; contractually, their agencies did. And agencies, in the midst of a trust breakdown with their clients after the ANA published a scathing investigation into their business practices a year earlier, were unwilling to give that data up without a fight.
“We knew it wouldn't be easy, but getting access to log-level data was harder and more cumbersome than expected,” Altersohn said.
By the contract
Initially, 58 advertisers expressed interest in the study. Only 28 signed on, and just seven were able to access the log-file data from their agencies required to participate.
“The data provides information about who was getting what portion of the pennies, nickels and dimes of the programmatic value exchange,” said Bill Duggan, executive VP at the ANA. “I think people that didn’t participate didn’t want that information out there.”
As brands struggled to get log files from their agencies, leadership changes at Ebiquity left most of the burden of completing the report on Ad/Fin. Leary stepped down in mid 2016 and was replaced by a new agenda.
But Ad/Fin promised ANA members that it would complete the study. Plus, it was hoping to sign some deals directly with those brands. So it continued to knock on the doors of major holding companies, while holding companies put up any blockade they could to sharing their log files with Ad/Fin.
Over the course of two years, Ad/Fin was able to analyze 16.4 billion impressions from winning DSP bid transaction logs. It was a large enough sample size to write a broad, 30-page study, published in May 2017, that turned up the volume on an industry conversation about the need for marketers to take more control over their contracts.
“One of the biggest insights was that advertisers perceive their relationship with their agency to be an agent relationship,” Duggan said. “While some agencies had that perspective, many had the perspective that the relationship is governed by the contract, which is a pretty black and white view.”
Over 95% of the transactions processed for the study were not bought by agency trading desks. Although they oversaw the majority of programmatic spend at the time, trading desks were the least transparent entities within holding companies and put up roadblocks to participating.
Since the study came out, 69% of ANA members have rewritten their contracts to gain more control over their data.
“Where there’s knowledge there’s power,” Duggan said. “The holding companies have always had much greater knowledge when it comes to contracts.”
While the study was helpful to marketers, it left Ad/Fin with just a handful of paying clients, little revenue and a widespread misunderstanding of what its product was meant to do.
In the two years it was working pro bono on the study, Ad/Fin could have made over half a million dollars based on rate card prices at the time, said Ravi Patel, Ad/Fin’s current co-CEO.
It didn’t help that in the process of the study, it made enemies of the world’s largest agencies.
“The agency groups were kind of cold to the idea of Ad/Fin because they had been a part of this ANA report, in which the implication was ad tech vendors and agency buyers are all stealing your money,” said Louis Jones, EVP of media and data at the 4A's. “That certainly hurt them.”
Brands that did approach Ad/Fin after the study wanted to use its platform for one-off programmatic audits that often lasted up to six months and were mostly non-recurring.
Other brands sought out Ad/Fin solely with the intention of catching their agencies and vendors in nefarious acts.
“Brands thought we were going to find bad things and get them millions of dollars,” Patel said.
Some agencies saw Ad/Fin as competitive, as they often charge their clients for log-file analysis as a service. When holding companies began investing millions in proprietary data platforms, they didn’t necessarily need an outside vendor to analyze their transaction data.
“It’s really a function of how much insight you have on whatever you own vs. what Ad/Fin can add to the perspective,” Jones said.
By late 2018, Ad/Fin still had little success cracking the major holding companies. Around that time, Altersohn left the company to pursue other opportunities. The board considered bringing on an outside CEO, but there was just too much baggage.
So in January 2019, Patel and Matt DeLoca, who joined as Ad/Fin’s chief revenue officer in August 2018, became co-CEOs with a goal to completely revamp the product and move away from positioning around transparency and log files.
“Nobody wanted to give us data at that level,” Patel said.
At the time, companies like Datorama were solving a pain point by collecting and harmonizing data streams in a unified dashboard. Patel saw an opportunity for Ad/Fin to offer a similar product by expanding its focus from just programmatic to cover all media channels.
Ad/Fin thought about renaming, but didn’t have the resources for a major brand relaunch. The company had turned over its entire sales team, which was too ingrained in its old messaging. Now, Ad/Fin is a lean team of 20 people, mostly engineers. It’s looking to potentially double headcount next year.
While Ad/Fin’s board continued to fund the company through the ANA study and its aftermath, its investors now have Patel and DeLoca on a tighter leash.
“They want to see a return, or at least an idea of a return,” Patel said.
To gain momentum, Ad/Fin is looking to partner with other vendors. It’s in talks to overlay its programmatic pricing data on Adobe’s DMP to tie audience data with transaction data. It’s also targeting midsize agencies and direct-to-consumer brands.
Ad/Fin is still in the process of repairing its relationship with holding companies. Patel has suggested offering discounted pricing to 4A’s members to get its foot back in the door. The 4A's is open to eventually launching an initiative with Ad/Fin but has other priorities first, Jones said.
“They’ve had to go out and wave the white flag,” Jones said. “In some cases, they did a few mea culpas. But sometimes that’s what it takes to move forward or change the narrative.”
As Ad/Fin sets out to rebuild its product and reputation, it’s learned an important lesson.
“This ecosystem is built on relationships,” Patel said, “And for the foreseeable future, it will be.”