Beyond Publisher Relationships: Agencies Need To Lead With Ad Tech

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Barry Lowenthal, president at The Media Kitchen.

Media agencies are used to talking to clients about the strength of their publisher relationships. In fact, I think agencies used to brag about those relationships because who agencies knew mattered a lot to clients when they assigned new advertising accounts.

Relationships still matter a lot, and they always should, since it’s easier to get stuff done when there are good relationships in place. Now, however, it seems that clients care more about who agencies know at the platforms and what they think of specific ad tech solutions. This makes sense when the duopoly accounts for most digital media growth and every CMO worries about brand safety and competing with the CIO for budget.

Clients love talking about ad tech, especially right upfront in a new business meeting. To have deep meaningful conversations about ad tech, agencies need to rethink how they’re organized and staffed. Someone – and possibly a whole team – needs to be a platform expert and help client teams identify and integrate new ad tech solutions.

Creative agencies lean into digital producers to help explore idea feasibility. At media agencies, platform integrators are a core part of building out a tech stack and ensuring that KPIs can really be delivered. Producers are to creative agencies what platform integrators are to media agencies. 

Today agencies need to have well-vetted solutions for ad serving, social, search, programmatic, viewability, fraud, brand safety, data management, attribution, location, cross-device, site analytics and business intelligence. They also must continuously vet new options because the most promising solutions may come from companies that are just raising seed money.

To deliver the right stack, I don’t believe agencies should be building proprietary ad tech. Instead I believe it’s the agency’s job to vet the best-in-class solutions and recommend customized stacks based on specific campaign KPIs. There is lots of discussion around the kinds of capabilities and products an agency should provide clients, especially as they seek to compete with Google, Facebook and big consulting companies, including McKinsey and BCG. But from my experience, building ad tech is a complicated, difficult and expensive endeavor best left to better-capitalized and well-funded companies whose core competency is building technology.

As soon as an agency tries to sell its own ad tech, its objectivity may be called into question, and we already have enough problems with client-agency mistrust. And when proprietary tools built by agencies sit on other people’s platforms and use other people’s data, they are often just an additional layer, rather than an entirely new solution. Unless an agency can guarantee that its solution is best-in-class, it is forcing its staff to sell a subpar solution.

Agencies need to arm their entire staff with unbiased knowledge to help clients build the plumbing to protect their media investments. Sometimes that requires a whole reorg. Agencies can’t be afraid to blow up organizational structures that don’t support how media is managed today. Just like agencies need to map back to client hierarchies, agencies need to reinvent themselves to accommodate new media and technology.

That may require constantly retraining staff to give them new skills so they can have substantive discussions around which ad tech is better suited to specific campaigns. This commitment to reinvention can create new career tracks and make people much more marketable.

Retraining staff isn’t easy, but if an agency wants to be modern and credible, it must be conversant in how ad tech is integrated and activated. Every agency and client relationship would benefit by putting ad tech at the front of new business discussions.

Follow Barry Lowenthal (@barrylowenthal), The Media Kitchen (@themediakitchen) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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