Flipboard’s Programmatic Mantra: ‘Make Money, Maintain Quality’

Mobile programmatic is in the seventh-inning stretch: It’s come a long way, but there’s still a lot of work to do, says Rick Welch, head of programmatic advertising at Flipboard.

In the three years since Welch joined the mobile news aggregation app from Condé Nast in late 2016, more open exchange-oriented players have hit the mobile scene and more advertisers are willing to play around with private marketplace (PMP) deals.

But the shift to PMPs isn’t moving fast enough for Welch.

“I’ve been shouting about this since I was at Condé,” he said. “It’s beneficial to both parties: The CPMs are higher, there’s higher yield and higher-quality ads.”

Ad networks and the open exchange aren’t going away – both can be helpful connection points to smaller advertisers that lack the scale to set up a PMP. But it’s “time we moved to a PMP-weighted world, maybe 70/30, PMPs to open exchange,” Welch said, so that premium publishers can get their due.

Technology issues, however, are slowing the transition, rather than a lack of desire, at least on the publisher side.

“We’re waiting for the vendors to create technical compatibility in the programmatic direct space,” Welch said. “And while we’re waiting, I just have to work around it.”

AdExchanger spoke with Welch about desperate ad networks, why programmatic direct is so close to his heart and what it means to operate a collaborative sales team.

AdExchanger: Why aren’t apps all running unified auctions by now?

RICK WELCH: We want the unified auction thing to work, we’re working toward it, but we’re not there yet. An app like WeatherBug’s approach is to use certain technologies to get there, and Flipboard’s approach is still focused on the fact that we do also have a traditional sales team that will sell IOs and programmatic.

My big thing is to build a stack that works for unified auctions but also allows us to do as much programmatic direct as possible, because that is where we’re really going to win.

Why is programmatic direct so important to Flipboard?

If an advertiser does a programmatic direct deal with me, they don’t need to layer on all of the different third-party vendors who will tech tax you to death just to validate what they already know. Our advertisers still measure the inventory, of course, but you don’t need the same fraud and brand safety measurement if you know what you’re buying.

We know the value of our inventory – I’d put it in the same bucket as a Condé – and we want it sold at high yield. PMPs facilitate that.

Why do so many buyers tenaciously hold on to the ad network model rather than buying more through exchanges?

Because of the nuances that come along with mobile, some buyers are prone to say, “I’ll just buy it through a network, because the network went out and did all the work for me already by picking the inventory.”

But I’ve heard from Twitch and others that they don’t work with a lot of those networks. So when buyers throw their mobile ad budget on an app ad network, they miss out, because we and others like us don’t necessarily work with those companies.

I’m not saying, “Death to the ad networks,” because they still have a place right now, but they’ve started to disappear for desktop programmatic, and I imagine the same will eventually happen for mobile.

Do you work with ad networks?

Our position on SDKs [software development kits] has changed a bit over time. We were very strict and religious about not using them, because we’re so user experience-focused, but we realized that would potentially shut us off from some important demand sources.

You need to meet in the middle. We’re at a point where we have four or five of the major SDKs integrated, and that feels like a sweet spot. Our engineering and product teams have said it’s not hurting the user experience, and we’re able to earn.

It used to be a few years ago that publishers would get hounded, almost on a daily basis, by pushy ad networks looking to get their SDK integrated. Is that still the case, or has it tapered?

On average, five or so come through my inbox a week. It was dramatically higher a year or two ago, but they’ve started to realize that we’re just not going to ingest their SDK.

Some have even tried to offer sign-up incentives, like, “Here’s $100,000 to use our SDK.” Some ad networks must be getting a bit desperate when they offer that.

When Flipboard started selling programmatic in 2016, Rubicon was your first partner. Do you still work with Rubicon and have you diversified?

We’ve diversified significantly. Rubicon is still in the mix, we work with TripleLift and now we have Google, of course. And we’re working with Amazon. They all bring different things to the table. Google is the best at bringing volume, Rubicon and TripleLift have great service and Amazon has unique demand – all of those factors play a role in who we choose to partner with.

Flipboard’s sales team takes a collaborative approach to selling programmatic. What does that look like?

Some big companies have the luxury to hire two full-time sales teams, but that’s expensive and not necessarily effective in the long run.

We want all of our sellers to be educated and well-versed in programmatic so they can sell Flipboard regardless of the activation channel. We want to go together on sales calls. That’s easier said than done, though. We’ve seen a lot of other publishers fail at this and revert back to having two separate teams.

A lot of my role is programmatic product strategy, programmatic business development and stack-focused stuff, but I also do sales ride-alongs. If our sellers are going to an agency and they think someone from the trading desk might be there, they’ll take me or our data lead along.

How would you describe Flipboard’s programmatic philosophy in as few words as possible?

Make money, maintain quality.

This interview has been edited.

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