MEC’s Astley Talks Audience Buying; Sees Media Agency Recruiting Targets Shifting

Rich Astley at MECRich Astley is Senior Partner, Practice Lead, Data Planning and Optimization at MEC, a WPP Group agency. How prevalent is audience buying today in the media plans that you see? Can you share a use case or two of where you see strength? And maybe where you are still waiting?

RA: It’s an increasingly important part of our investment mix across various types of campaigns.  In 2009 we started to see advertisers dipping their toes in the water but over the last 6- 9 months the floodgates have really opened.  The recent report from AdMeld / Forrester suggested 14% of advertiser spend will be invested in exchange traded media this year.  That’s pretty consistent with what we’re seeing, although in some verticals we’re trending far ahead of that percentage.

I’d categorize where we’re seeing success in two key areas.   Firstly – building custom audience segments, particularly for retail and CPG brands.  We’ve put a lot of work into testing data sources over the last 18 months and with the exception of one or two challenging categories which are notoriously scarce in audience or behavioral data, we’re seeing strong performance.  I frequently hear comments in the industry suggesting “third party data doesn’t work”.  I’m not sure I agree.  Rigorous testing, careful management of your media / data eCPMs, combined with the right measurement frameworks are the key ingredients for a data-optimized exchange buy, and that takes commitment.

Secondly and probably not surprisingly, is remarketing.  Centralizing targeting and messaging controls and the implementation of carefully managed third party tagging strategies has paid off with reduced waste and minimized data leakage.

The remarketing initiatives we’re employing for our advertisers are becoming increasingly like complex eCRM programs and the metrics we’re capturing to determine success reflect that shift.   I think that’s a great area of opportunity for the display industry.  There is no excuse for not delivering timely relevance in our advertising messages to consumers as they progress through their lifecycle.

How do you balance between understanding and managing clients needs and learning about the latest ad tech that may be of benefit to clients?

Keeping ahead of technology trends is vitally important in all our client relationships.  For the most part, our advertisers expect us to have a point of view on major developments within minutes or hours, not days and weeks.  That’s the pace of change we deal with and reflects a shift in the role and responsibility of agencies as we consult more and more on technology decisions.  We’re also talking to different types of roles within client organizations.  Site developers, heads of research and analytics, database owners – the conversations we’re having now are in a different world to just a few years ago and that’s exactly how it should be.

What’s your take on ad exchanges? And how is this sort of strategy fitting with your custom integration/guaranteed buys?

The instant availability of biddable supply at scale is a seismic shift in the display marketplace.  That said, I believe the exchanges have a long way to go to get anywhere near the perfect marketplaces they could be.  CPM floors, time-outs on bid requests, creative approvals – these are all issues we seem to constantly be up against.  There is no agreed framework of principles for exchange buying and the rules are constantly changing from exchange to exchange.  That’s frustrating as a buyer and a gating factor to growth in audience buying as a whole.  I’d like to see better standards in place across the exchanges to remove some of the stumbling blocks for both buyers and sellers.  It’s in the interests of exchanges to maximize volume potential and improve demand-supply transparency.  Ad Exchanges and DSP MSAs are the perfect example of this lack of standards- at GroupM, we’re working hard to push for similar levels of protection for our clients we’d expect with any other non guaranteed buy.  We’ll achieve this goal, but not without creating new standards for the industry first.

In terms of where exchange traded buys fit as part of the campaign mix, its typically one of several initiatives we employ as part of a broader campaign strategy,  often optimized as one component alongside guaranteed buys , search and social.  Increasingly we’re seeing earned and owned media efforts feeding the creation and retention of valuable audience segments for targeting.

Are you seeing privacy concerns from your clients as a significant gating factor in addressable display media? How do you see this evolving?

Absolutely – clients should be concerned with the number of recent class action lawsuits, inflammatory articles and proposed privacy bills.  Our advertisers deserve clear, decisive guidance through this and we’ve been providing that over the last few weeks and months as we have tested and rolled out the consumer notification icon across many of our advertisers at MEC and GroupM.  We’re firm supporters of responsible self regulation and have been working with the Industry Coalition to craft guidelines that make sense to consumers and don’t inhibit creativity and ingenuity in the industry.

It’s tough to say where this will go at this point.  Regulation has already begun but I think the industry has a long way to go before we can claim to be fully compliant with the 7 principles of the Self Regulatory Program.

What about creative? Is media running ahead of creative?  Should there be a tighter relationship? Any thoughts here?

The reality is that audience buying has opened up a whole new world of audience segmentation and time sensitive message delivery.  That’s tough for advertisers to keep up with from an offer management perspective and challenging for creative agencies to produce more assets in less time.  I think automation plays a role to some degree here, but not to the extent it will ever take the place of a good creative idea executed well.  I think those creative agencies that can embrace the best dynamic optimization technologies to manage versioning on the fly, lock step with real time targeting are going to be the ones that succeed in this new world.  In almost all advanced attribution reports we deliver for our advertisers, creative is still consistently one of the top factors in determining media performance and as a consequence, those campaigns where media and creative act in concert are invariably those which drive the best results.

In your estimation, how big of an issue is hiring for digital media agencies today? How do you overcome any challenges?

Hiring and retaining a great digital media team at an agency is a very different situation from a few years ago.  We’re recruiting individuals with very different skills and experience, and our competitors are no longer just other media agencies.  For audience buying in particular, where the skill-sets are relatively new and constantly evolving, it’s about creativity, commitment and passion for what we do.  It’s an exhilarating area of the industry to be working in and I think our teams enjoy the challenge of being at the forefront of driving change.

Looking ahead, what isn’t available in audience targeting and optimization that you’d like to have?

To me, the promise for audience buying is bigger than the exchange traded display marketplace.  As the investors of our client’s marketing budgets, multichannel targeting and messaging with a single view of the consumer is the ultimate end-goal and a future we’re committed to at MEC and GroupM.  The work we’re doing now in addressable TV, mobile and video is shaping an audience centric future for our investment strategy and is really just an evolution of our data-driven buying philosophy.  As we talk with exchanges, data companies, DSPs and other optimization technologies, it’s important to keep your head up to be thinking 3 years ahead, not just 3 days or 3 weeks.  That’s unfortunately something we rarely see working with start-ups whose horizons are generally set in the near term.

It’s going to be an interesting year – no doubt we’ll see more consolidation in the marketplace which means our strategy of building a proprietary, yet open, demand side infrastructure which puts client data first will be the right one in the long run.

Follow Rich Astley (@richastley), MECideas (@MECideas) and (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

Enjoying this content?

Sign up to be an AdExchanger Member today and get unlimited access to articles like this, plus proprietary data and research, conference discounts, on-demand access to event content, and more!

Join Today!


  1. thanks for the post Rich. Can you speak to the the value of “Context” in your CPG Audience buys? Do these marketers see environment as important? How do you define performance (outside of reach) for a brand marketer in an Exchange world?

  2. Relevancepolice

    Good vision, and great interview. Advertising agencies really need to start moving in the direction of becoming systems integrators and strategic implementation partners for large brands with technology enabling marketing automation. If the agencies view their raison d’etre as building a practice around the disparate technology elements, integrating the complex marketing eco system, then there are several good things that happen:

    1) You are going to be huge strategic partners, and sticky consultants for enterprises and cannot be replaced easily (much like CRM or ERP software in the early days) unlike today where you are seen as outsourced marketing tacticians. If you don’t do this – IBM, Oracle and SAP will gobble this up with very technology enabled resources and cost structures making especially the media agencies irrelevant.

    2) The first thing agencies ought to start with is by attracting great technology/engineering talent into the companies, and enabling technology and strategic leadership at the helm. Follow the example of how Accenture and KPMG did it. In this eco system, you should probably acquire companies with innovative product and engineering teams with next generation technology – that are not already part of the big guys like Google and Microsoft.

    3) It is abundantly clear that navigating this ecosystem requires more mature data-driven thinking, and ad servers and buying tools are too primitive. In some cases, you will have to build your own – again, this is what professional services companies used to do to serve their clients.

    4) You have to be completely transparent with advertisers about which channels are performing by taking a very scientific approach to conversion attribution. You actually hold the power with the budgets – don’t let it slip, it might never come back.

    5) Audience buying is here to stay, automated bidding strategies are here to say, dynamic creative is a requirement, real-time analytics is a must as is highly scalable data warehousing and customer intelligence software. A single console cross-channel marketing automation console is the holy grail. It doesn’t exist today, but can be bought/built with some investment. If you don’t spend the money and acquire – you will be relegated to oblivion.

    Do you think that agencies can do all of that? Don’t know. There is too much work, and not enough talent or gumption…