Environment: Whither Goest Thou


The Sell-Sider” is a column written by the sell-side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Jim Spanfeller, CEO, Spanfeller Media Group, a new age media company.

It was a long-held belief in media buying circles that environment mattered greatly in the final efficacy of a media plan.  That getting in front of the right people at the right time was not enough. For a foolproof strategy, it was considered key to present your marketing communication at the right time, to the right people and in the right places.

It’s a belief that has been supported in the past by countless research studies delving into advertising efficacy.

In recent years, however, this philosophy has been pushed to the sidelines in a great many media buying operations. While one could argue that clients still hold this thought to be true, a great percentage of their end buys are shoved into automated audience – and audience alone – criteria when it comes to execution.

This trend actually started some time ago, it is not simply a symptom of the digital age. One can trace its roots back to network television buys. Certainly the initial efforts of buyers of network television were to place ads in specific shows, but as competition for reach increased and the marketplace matured, it quickly devolved into simply trying to get the best deal (as defined by the lowest CPMs) for a specific season.

Of late, digital buying has further intensified this thinking.  Planning and buying, especially by individual site or product, is time-consuming and hard.  Simple economics have greatly incentivized digital buying and planning operations to push as much money as possible into bulk audience buying.  The effects of this move have had a profound impact – much of which was not intended.

While the buying process has gotten more efficient, the end results have suffered greatly.  Ad placements in unproductive or, on occasion, debilitating environments happen all too often.  The purchase of inventory that never gets seen is becoming more and more transparent.  The data on top of which audiences are defined and bought is often incomplete, wrong or misleading.  And the advertising dollar that has long motivated content creators to do a better and better job has dwindled to a point where many have wondered whether it makes financial sense to create great content and innovative user experiences.

In the abstract, the ills of these efforts are clear.  In practice, though, the value of these practices seem totally worthwhile.

But let’s dig in here just a bit. Does an ad appearing in an environment of dancing cats and talking birds have as much impact as one in, say, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or, for that matter, People magazine?  Past research would suggest not. Perhaps that research is dated and out of touch with today’s consumers though. That said, have consumer relationships with high quality content really changed that much?

Common sense would tell us that the real answer is most likely, ”It depends.”  For some campaigns, an environment of dogs on skateboards might be okay. In fact, it might even be preferred.  But for most marketers, environment is crucial.  In fact, there is a new layer of ad tech companies that have grown up around this school of thought – adding yet another layer of complexity and cost in the ad tech space, all in the name of keeping blue chip advertisers away from toxic placements.

Unfortunately these technologies do not work as well as one would hope in terms of being a true inoculation from bad environments and poor placement — in part because for every white hat technology out there, countless more black hat products are developed.

The key takeaway is that environment matters to marketers – but at what cost?  How much more spend is appropriate to be assured of superior placements within editorial products that are high quality and generate consumer trust, respect and engagement?

The early promise of ad tech was to bring us to a place and time where a marketer could have their cake and eat it, too.  In practice, we have not seen the Promised Land just yet. But I do think we are closer than some might suspect.

The combined industry efforts around viewable inventory will have a positive affect here. Not a complete solution, mind you, but enough to make the ecosystem significantly more transparent.  And it is this very transparency that I believe is the core to a more fulsome long-term solution.

Having complete visibility into what is being bought and how the ad units are being served is entirely doable from a technological standpoint.  The obstacles to this occur on both sides of the buying equation.  For various reasons (some totally above board and in the name of good business practices…others not so much) publishers often want to remain behind a screen.  On the other side of the desk, buyers are often only concerned with margins, and not always their client’s margins.  In a day and age of procurement departments, even this is understandable on some level.

Overall I believe it is becoming clearer that we need complete transparency on all these fronts; specific inventory in specific environments will be the most cost- efficient way of getting great value to marketers. It will allow content creators to make an honest profit while taking big costs out of the buying ecosystem.  And by doing so, I think it will become obvious once again that targeting by content and context will be vastly superior to buying audience only around data that is, presently, all too often wrong. This does not mean that programmatic buying will not continue to increase, but rather that the core levers on when and where that buying occurs will be vastly upgraded.

Environments matter. They are the very reason consumers spend their most valuable resource, time, with today’s media.  It is this investment of time that marketers have long profited from.  We need a system that allows quality environments to flourish, not in the name of social good (although that is clearly a nice by-product) but rather in the name of good business.

Follow Jim Spanfeller (@JimSpanfeller) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. “This does not mean that programmatic buying will not continue to increase, but rather that the core levers on when and where that buying occurs will be vastly upgraded.” Well said, Jim! Also love your conclusion: “We need a system that allows quality environments to flourish, not in the name of social good (although that is clearly a nice by-product) but rather in the name of good business.” Let’s work together to make this happen.