Brian Lesser is SVP and General Manager at the Media Innovation Group, WPP’s proprietary ad technology firm.
What is the Media Innovation Group (MIG)‘s role within WPP?
MIG is WPP’s technology-driven digital marketing company designed to help marketers navigate the increasingly complex digital landscape. At MIG, our goal is to build technology and leverage data to give agencies and advertisers access to the audiences they are trying to reach. We are very closely integrated with WPP’s agencies and help them make smarter media investment decisions on behalf of our clients by providing the right technology infrastructure and connectivity into the digital ad ecosystem.
What is the MIG’s current product offering?
Data is at the core of all our products. The first product developed by the MIG in 2007 was a performance data warehouse called Zeus. Since that time we have developed a series of applications that leverage the data we collect. The suite of applications is called ZAP, the Zeus Advertising Platform. ZAP integrates targeting, optimization, buying and analytics, giving advertisers better visibility into the performance of their digital marketing campaigns. Today we are announcing the release of ZAP 3.0. It’s loaded with updated features such as ZAP Segment Builder which makes ZAP’s segmentation capabilities actionable via B3; an enhanced RTB interface called ZAP Trader and ZAP Reporting, a way to further automate and customize our reporting and analysis tools.
Our technology supports B3, our very-successful media optimization business which allows our partner agencies to target audiences more efficiently across publishers, ad networks and real-time marketplaces like ad exchanges.
Is the MIG a DSP?
No. Definitions are getting somewhat fuzzy as everyone is now calling themselves a DSP but we prefer not to use that term. As I understand it, DSPs are very focused on automated buying and creating greater efficiencies in acquiring inventory, mainly through RTB. We have been doing that very successfully and at significant scale for over two years, both through our own proprietary solutions and by testing and partnering with nearly all of the leading third-party providers in the field. We certainly have all the capabilities of what is commonly known as a demand-side-platform, but our scope and ambition are much broader.
How exactly is your approach different from a DSP like Turn, Mediamath or Invite?
First of all, we don’t focus on one particular inventory channel, the way DSPs focus on exchanges. We buy from everyone who can deliver the audience that fits the marketing strategies that our agencies help define for their clients: direct from publishers, through networks, on exchanges, enriched with third-party data etc.
Secondly and most importantly, we want to do more than just help advertisers and agencies (re)claim value from various intermediaries in the ecosystem and acquire inventory more efficiently at lower rates. We build technology for our agencies to serve their clients’ needs more holistically – greater efficiency and lower rates is just one of many goals they have, in fact they probably care more about connecting with the right audiences and attributing ROI correctly across all relevant channels, not just display. We want to create lasting value by leveraging all the knowledge that WPP companies have of their clients’ overall marketing goals and interactions with their customers; and having that rich data inform agencies and clients’ decision-making, every step of the way. We think that kind of value creation will become a source of lasting competitive advantage for our agencies.
What about other ad holding company buying platforms such as Publicis’ Vivaki, IPG’s Cadreon or Havas’ Adnetik?
I think all of the agency holding companies are rightly focused on driving efficiency in a highly-fragmented market. However, there is far too much concentration on buying cheap media. I agree that in an inefficient market, there are bad actors that take outsize margins without adding value. But acquiring cheap media is the easy part. Our focus is on adding value to advertisers and quality publishers through data and technology. For example, we provide attribution modeling that allows advertisers to see beyond view-through or last-click. This reporting helps advertisers buy smarter (not just cheaper), but it also helps quality publishers in that it properly values user interactions that happen higher in the purchase funnel.
Also, we believe in the importance of proprietary technology to ensure the integrity of our client’s data. This is why WPP entered this space earlier and more aggressively than other ad holding companies and invested heavily in building its own technology development capabilities. We have been working on ZAP and B3 for three years now, and while we may not have as many engineers as Google, I am guessing we have more than the other holding companies combined.
Why the need to own technology? Why not outsource it to a nimble startup?
We need proprietary technology to leverage and protect our clients’ proprietary data. But our strategy is not to develop every relevant application ourselves. Parts of ZAP rely on partnerships with high-quality technology organizations. We build the pieces that are most important to protect client data and ensure WPP’s competitive advantage. We partner to incorporate the best point solutions.
The inherent dilemma of every third-party DSP is that you cannot unlearn what you learn from your clients’ data, no matter how separately you store it. Every buy that an agency sends through a DSP makes that DSP smarter, ultimately benefitting that agency’s competitors. In order to get from mere capturing of value into true value creation, you need closer integration of technology platforms with agencies and the ability to tap into proprietary data. Deep partnerships like that need to be exclusive and ideally as in our case, wholly-owned.
What’s your reaction to Google’s acquisition of Invite Media?
First of all, congratulations to Nat, Zach and the entire Invite Media team. This is something we have been anticipating. It validates our strategy of owning proprietary DSP technology. From our perspective, DSP’s are not reliable long-term partners for this very reason. We cannot predict who their owners will be, and therefore who will control the advertiser data.
From Google’s perspective this makes complete sense. It now owns buy-side and sell-side tools, and the real-time marketplace in between. Theoretically, Google’s visibility over advertiser data now allows it to monitor pricing across all exchanges, including Right Media and some advertisers and publishers may feel threatened by that.
Given the necessity for constant innovation in technology, how do you keep your team focused and incentivized, considering the current excitement in and temptation of the start-up world?
The MIG is a great place to be right now. Unlike our friends at startups, we don’t need to sell ourselves externally and are happy to fly below the radar. Instead, we have been hard at work for the past three years partnering closely with our agencies and building technology. We really hit an inflection point last year and we’ve run over 500 campaigns for 100 advertisers over the last 12 months in North America and the UK. We continue to grow at a very fast pace in our NYC and London offices and will be entering new international markets. Scale and proprietary data are a huge advantage in this business and we are betting that advertisers and agencies will prefer real results, data integrity and accountability over salesmanship and hype in the long run. Agency skills like creativity, branding and deep client relationships across channels will see resurgence once the ad technology gold rush dies down and the obsession with cheap inventory fades. There is a lot to be said for being owned by the world’s largest buyer of digital media and taking the long view – we have a clear strategy and are well-positioned to help our agencies and their clients benefit from market innovation.