Today's column is written by Andy Atherton, COO and co-Founder, Brand.net.
My former boss, Wenda Harris Millard, had one of the most quotable, and quoted, lines in the online media industry in 2008 when she said, "We must not trade our advertising inventory like pork bellies", referring to frenzied interest in online media exchanges – interest which for good reason shows no signs of abating. Her remark was intended as a warning to publishers to maintain differentiation and manage indirect sales channels carefully. But consciously or unconsciously, Wenda also surfaced a fundamental distinction that, oddly enough, doesn’t get talked about in the context of online media: the difference between a Spot market and a Futures market (media contracts are not yet exchange traded, so technically this would be a “Forward” market, but I will ignore this subtlety in the interest of simplicity).
Since Futures market buying (e.g., the TV “upfronts”) is the standard practice offline for Brand advertisers, and Brand advertising is (rightly) seen as a huge growth opportunity for online, it behooves those of us interested in catalyzing that growth to identify where current market capabilities and technology infrastructure are lacking. To do that, let’s take a deep dive into a specific example, moving beyond the fashionable, but vague, notion of “Madison Avenue meets Wall Street” to the technical and operational details required to make this actually happen. So let’s (1) walk through an example of a Spot media transaction, (2) replay the same example in the context of a Futures transaction, and (3) evaluate the key capabilities required to enable Futures transactions for online media.
(1) A Spot Transaction: The buyer (typically an agency) selects targeting criteria and expresses a willingness to pay for a particular impression. The targeting criteria can be “objective” (e.g., demographic, geographic), or “subjective” (e.g., past purchase behavior, purchase intent) and willingness to pay can be expressed in terms of CPM, CPC or CPA. This “bid” is transmitted directly or through an intermediary (network or DSP) to AdX, either through the UI or a real-time bidding (RTB) interface. AdX only accepts bids with objective targeting and CPM pricing through the UI. All other bids require some sort of translation (e.g., deciding what constitutes “purchase intent” for a user, predicting how expected CPA translates into a CPM bid, etc.), most often involving the use of a vendor-specific demand-side cookie, either by the buyer or the intermediary. AdX compares all bids for each impression; the winner is served a re-direct allowing its ad server to deliver an ad to the requesting page. AdX records the buyer, the seller and the price of the transaction, then moves on to the next impression. AdX provides up to date reporting on the outcomes (pricing, delivery) of this impression-by-impression auction, as well as centralized payment processing and some limited protection from counterparty credit risk.
(2) A Futures Transaction: For simplicity, we will assume the identical scenario above, except that this bid is for guaranteed delivery of a specific impression 3 months from now. This is the type of contract large brand advertisers routinely sign directly with content providers offline, and a handful of online publishers with both the size and sophistication to enable confident future transactions. However, this simple difference in timing has dramatic implications. (a) The seller isn’t soliciting bids for an existing impression – it must be sure it will have the desired impression available in 3 months. (b) With no current ad serving opportunity (including cookie, etc.) the parties must agree on some other way to describe this future impression exactly and to determine what it will be worth to them. (c) Each party must be confident that the other will be willing and able to honor today’s agreement 3 months from now.
These distinctions between agreeing now to transact now (spot) and agreeing now to transact in the future (futures) drive fundamental differences in the capabilities, and thus the technological infrastructure, required to make an Online Media Futures Market work.
(3) Key capabilities required to enable Futures transactions for online media:
- Forecasting: For the spot market, forecasting is helpful. For the futures market, it is critical. Without accurate inventory and price/cost forecasts, future delivery guarantees with sustainable economics are impossible; forecasting is the difference between a profitable business and out of business.
- Standardization: As I mentioned in the example above, the vast majority of the spot market business today relies on the use of a “subjective” demand-side cookie to value an impression and generate a bid. However, it impossible for a seller to predict future instances of a buyer’s cookie with enough accuracy to provide a future delivery guarantee at any scale. Furthermore, performance metrics (e.g., CPA/CPM) that are fundamental to value for spot market buyers change dramatically over time and in ways not visible to the seller (different offers, product prices, creative, etc). Even more problematic is cookie churn which means that most of the cookies that could theoretically be used to specify a transaction today won’t even exist in 3 months. For these reasons, a stable, non-vendor-specific (i.e., objective) set of targeting criteria is required for the futures market (e.g., Context, Demo, Geo, Quality). While these objective descriptors may seem “old fashioned” compared to some of the more futuristic online targeting capabilities used in spot market buying today, they map well (indeed, identically) to the targeting criteria large Brand advertisers use and have used for a century across their offline media. Objective targeting criteria are so widely used because data consistently shows they work. Operationally, they can be efficiently and predictably deployed across different media types and providers. Most importantly, though, they move cases of product profitably offline, where >95% of retail commerce still takes place. Marketing mix models and panel-based studies confirm that effective management of objective targeting criteria and frequency is fundamental to driving high ROI offline sales.
- Clearing: A lot can happen in 3 months. For a futures transaction to work, each counterparty must be confident, operationally and financially, that the other will honor the terms of the deal when it is time to deliver. Operational confidence means believing that the counterparty is capable of honoring its commitment - primarily, the buyer must believe the seller can actually deliver inventory exactly meeting the specification in the contract during the specified delivery window. Financial confidence is more of a two-way street. Buyer and seller each must believe that the other will choose to honor the contract and have the financial resources to do so, understanding the high likelihood that the spot price on the delivery date will represent a better deal for one of them than the contracted futures price. Anyone questioning the importance of this financial confidence need look no further than the huge spot price swings over the last year. If a buyer agreed in January of 2009 to buy impressions for April 2009 delivery at “50”, could it be confident that its counterparty seller would fulfill its delivery obligation in April 2009, when the spot market was at “75”? In working futures markets, the financial integrity of transactions is generally ensured by a clearinghouse that (among other things) holds collateral from both sides until they have met their obligations under the futures contract.
OK, the spot market and the futures market are fundamentally different. So what? These concrete, fundamental differences between spot and futures are important to understand for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, we want the online Brand media market to become large and sustainable. Markets of any type do not become large and sustainable without a high level of efficiency, standardization and predictability. Large corporations with complex operations cannot and will not tolerate supply disruptions or quality problems with key supply chain inputs whether they be corn, oil, steel – or media. Most large corporations view futures as important tools to reduce volatility in the cost of their commodity raw material inputs. As the same procurement teams that rely on corporate commodity hedging programs get ever more involved in media purchasing, this “futures” mindset will transfer to the raw material of media as well.
This is not pure supposition, the futures market is how large corporations already manage the majority of their brand media buying offline (where 94% of US Brand advertising spending occurs). Like it or not, large corporations operate this way because it makes sense for their businesses. So as online becomes a more material portion of the media mix (and/or the distinction between online and offline blurs), we should naturally expect to see the futures model become much more important. Increased involvement of procurement teams in online media purchasing will only accelerate that.
Despite the fact that futures is the logical way to transact online Brand media, the online media market to-date has largely ignored the distinction between spot and futures, even as it wonders “where is all that Brand money?” It’s time for that to change. Developing an online media futures exchange beside/atop the spot infrastructure that exists is the critical next step for online media.