Collective CPO: Ad Tech Is High School, And You Need To Float Between Cliques

eoin townsend collective v2Why would former MediaMath Chief Strategy Officer Eoin Townsend join Collective, a company that built its reputation as an old-school ad network?

On the surface, the move seems counterintuitive: a guy working for a provider of self-serve ad technology jumping to a company that made its rep performing media-buying services. Since mid-September, Townsend has operated as Collective’s chief product officer.

But some old ad nets have changed. While they haven’t abandoned their services-oriented models, they’ve focused increasingly on creating tech offerings. Count Collective among them.

“I’ve come out to build the self-serve technology platform, to integrate the content, services and technologies – what we call the assisted self-service model,” Townsend told AdExchanger.

Collective has 350 employees worldwide and, according to Townsend, works with 1,500 advertisers, with 77 of the top 100 brands running current campaigns through Collective’s systems.

It’s also made the obligatory dip into programmatic, though Townsend is quick to point out this extends well beyond the confines of RTB (half of Collective’s buying comes from direct or premium relationships, the other half in an exchange environment).

Collective, he said, manages private exchange-type environments and also automates elements of the direct sales process.

But Townsend is also aware that Collective, because of its roots, is usually placed in the same ad network box as companies like Rocket Fuel, Specific Media and CPXi.

“Thanks to Terry Kawaja, we are all in boxes,” he said. “Once you get labeled with something, it sticks, even though we’ve been talking about how, on any given month, over 50% of our business is done through the programmatic channel.”

So where does Collective want to be?

“The full multiscreen partner,” Townsend said. “And it’s something we’re all building to. We’re all trying to look at automating all aspects of the buying process.”

Townsend spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: How will your MediaMath skill set affect what you’re going to do at Collective?

EOIN TOWNSEND: There are a lot more connections than what people think. Obviously everyone looks at MediaMath as a demand-side platform and Collective as a traditional network. But if you look at Collective and the back-end systems they’ve built, they’ve engaged the programmatic space almost instantaneously. They’ve built some technology to service their own business. From an industry perspective, the challenge of multiscreen – integrated views across screen – is interesting to everyone.

What are Collective’s internal systems and will they be rolled out as client-facing solutions?

The easy answer is yes, over time. We’ve already started doing that with [publishers]. We’re the technology back end for companies that want to resell digital display, especially linked with TV and multiscreen, at the local level.

One of the hardest things to do is to scale your business at the local level. There are a lot of companies with amazing local sales forces that work to the midtier market, but don’t have the technology or scale to support that. We’ve allowed them to introduce digital into their more traditional advertising sales forces. We’ve already exposed some of that technology to the end client.

What do you introduce first when pushing digital technologies into traditional sales forces?

Traditional sales forces usually have some core outside solution they’re selling. It’s newspaper ads or part of their OO direct inventory or local TV spots. The next step is to extend their business into the digital space. You’re buying a print advertising deal? Let’s do digital along with it. You’re buying a TV spot? Let’s integrate digital across that. The easiest way to do that is through audience and performance across display first. Then it gets interesting when you link the data to do that with mobile and TV watching habits as well.

Is that a tech sale or a services sale, or both?

It’s absolutely a technology and services sales. When you look at the challenges of multiscreen access, it’s hard to divide views across screens and provide attribution across these pieces. Resellers and marketers are looking for that unicorn that can expand all formats and buying options. Unfortunately our industry is like high school. You have these cliques. These specialists. You have the jocks. You have specialists in mobile and specialists in video and specialists in RTB.

It’s not just a technology problem. If it’s just a technology problem, everyone can solve to it. It’s as much an operational challenge as it is a marketing challenge. You have to float between cliques to be successful.

Can you imagine 2,000 sales people trying to sell I/Os, all working with a single platform as their back end? You need to be focused on the operational and services challenges as much as the actual buying technology.

When I think of MediaMath, I think of tech self-service. At Collective, it’s sales plus tech. What was that transition like for you?

It’s an easy transition. I’ve always been a believer on the services side of the business. Think of it as selective self-service. People like to own different aspects, have transparency, have transparency of the programmatic space. Maybe they’ll engage at the reporting level, but not the workflow level.

I think it’s a little harsh to say, “My company’s strategy is just to be a self-service platform. If you’re not willing to be self-service, we won’t work with you.”

Compared to a company that says, “Look, this is about what you need. There are aspects you want control over and there are aspects we can help with.”

What percentage of Collective’s clients rely on its services, and what percentage mostly want technology?

That’s a hard question to answer because it’s rotating. I can give examples of clients that are 90% interested in the services and 10% interested in the technology. I have clients where you can flip that around.

We have our own sell-side relationships and our own exchange relationships that we bid directly into. But we use other technologies to get integrated into other formats and systems, which we stitch together. That’s what’s hard: stitching these things together. It’s not just about RTB buying, which is a commodity and is moving like a commodity in the industry today.

What percentage of your business comes from the demand side and what percentage comes from the supply side?

We’re predominately a buy-side system. Most of our clients are either agencies or resellers. We’re expanding into the marketer space as well.

The sell-side relationships we have are key because we’re not limited in terms of our supply base. Between 40-50% of our impressions can be bought programmatically, but in a more direct relationship, rather than through an exchange-based system. These direct relationships are both premium and unique, because partners we work with have chosen not to put all [their inventory] in an exchange.

You mentioned 40-50% of your buying comes from direct relationships. How will that change over the next two or three years?

There are two schools of thought on this. One school is that everything is going RTB. We’re all going to be one language, put into one big ecosystem.

I don’t believe that. I don’t believe RTB will be the one ring to rule them all. As publishers get more control over their data, more control of their inventory sources, that there will be more fragmentation in this space.

If you look at wild successes like BuzzFeed, they’re predominately built on native advertising, but will still look for partners to help them monetize. There’s going to be a whole bunch of different, unique relationships out there.

Will there be an uptick in direct deals or will it stay half RTB, half direct?

If you look at the self-serve platforms, it’s 99% RTB, 1% premium. You look at the other 1.1 networks, it’s all publisher relationships.

If you look at the companies successful in the future, if you look at inventory mix and what you buy, it’ll look more Collective than anything else. Winners will look more like us with a more balanced, differentiated mix between how we buy in traditional RTB channels and how we buy in premium channels, and how we buy without bidding in true premium partnership models.

How do you manage cross-screen ad buys for your clients?

At the end of the day, it’s understanding the data. And that’s key to managing cross-screen. Data from a targeting perspective, from a persistent ID, from an attribution perspective. All those are foundational layers key to being successful in a multiscreen environment.

If you’re looking at a self-serve platform, many treat data and data management as a pass-through: “Here’s data, here’s a bunch of data providers. Good luck. Choose which one you think is best and we’ll just pass through the price and go with it.”

Collective is willing to be the stewards of data, going out and finding the right data partners, linking it together to help clients drive that multiscreen delivery and attribution and reporting.

What type of data is this? Are you linking clients’ first-party assets, or working with third-party data providers?

It’s a combination. You get first-party data, you get third-party data. Mobile data has to be put in. It’s also about working and processing that data, and building the right models and deterministic IDs to help with the targeting.

So is there a Collective identifier based on these different data assets?

If anyone tells you they’re not doing that, they’re not solving the larger problem. The reality is we’re all building an aspect to the identifier. We’re all trying to solve this deterministic vs. probabilistic ID issue. You either know who the person is, or you think you know who the person is.

Do Collective’s data management tools also handle probabilistic identity management?

We do both. You have to, to get scale today.

Is that all in-house or do you partner with others to accomplish this?

We do partner. One of the things about the way Collective has matured over the years is the understanding that you have to make choices with your partnerships.

There are some core aspects of our technology, like the data-management core aspects or the targeting core aspects where we have vendor relationships. We’re not afraid to use other white-label solutions for execution to be successful.

You have to do that to be successful when you’re looking at multiscreen. It would be impossible to point to one company who’s built the uber bidder.

One of the criticisms against the ad network model is lack of transparency.

Collective has a strong stance on the transparency level.

We’re pretty clear about situations where we say, “Our execution is working here, but one of the partners is working a little better.” We’re fine doing less execution if a partner, once we overlaid our data on it, is more successful.

Collective figures the market is going transparent 100%. It’s not just about pricing, safety and viewability. It’s also about transparency around: “Hey, our system is doing this type of buying very successfully, but doesn’t work in this environment.”

A marketer I talked to gave me a really good insight on why the current self-service platforms have never gained a hold: When they try to scale, they find one partner does well in one aspect but not well in another.

Collective knows there will be situations where we do a really good job in X type of campaign dynamics, but not well in Y.

For Collective, what is X and what is Y?

It’s dependent on the campaign goal. We do really well with mid-funnel work. Sometimes there are more retargeting performance execution options that do better at the bottom funnel. We do well at the branding level.

We do really well at the multiscreen aspect, stitching data across these different executions.

Compare and contrast yourself with the other traditional ad networks: What’s the difference between you, Undertone, CPXi and Specific Media?

There are a lot of ways to differentiate ourselves from the old competitors. We’re completely open and transparent. Of that group, we’re more than willing to embrace the transparency issue, and we want to be leaders in that space from the network 1.0 world.

The other way we differentiate from that group is our use and management of data, which is completely different from the paradigm of the other traditional networks. They’re just looking for the cheapest in some cases.

That data is the entry point for us to be the true multiscreen option for our clients.

Doesn’t Specific Media have multiscreen capabilties?

There’s a difference between talking about being multiscreen and actually being multiscreen. Specific Media has VINDICO. I think they were surprised when they got that asset. I think they really wanted BBE and ended up with a video ad server, which is a powerful tool to get to that multiscreen phase.

But the reality is people like to put others into boxes. It’s easy to understand. This is a DSP, this is a work flow tool, this is a tag management tool. Over the course of this year and next year, we’ll see people break out of their boxes. And you’ll see the competitive differentiation between companies that successfully break out of their boxes and execute on more than what was their foundation.

I think you’ll see CPXi as well do things a little differently. There’s so much growth and everyone has been so siloed, you’ll see us all move into each other’s space and break down barriers between the way we describe companies.

 

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