The Fundamental Changes Happening In Programmatic Today

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Today’s column is written by Eric Picard, vice president of strategic partnerships at MediaMath.

Media buying and selling have been on a slow evolutionary course since the late 1990s. With real-time bidding at the forefront, the industry has evolved rapidly since 2007, but relegated primarily to direct response on the buy side and remnant inventory sales on the sell side.

Most media sales – about 80% of digital dollars – have still been done over the direct channel, with RFPs, negotiations and inventory purchased well in advance of the campaign’s “go live” date. Despite significant growth in programmatic mobile and video, programmatic still represents a tiny fraction of dollars spent in those media channels.

While we’ve heard a lot about “automated guaranteed” over the last few years, the sector hasn’t grown as quickly as many would like. Analysts have been bullish about its growth, with Magna Global estimating that 83% of digital display spending will be “programmatic” by 2017, largely driven by the adoption of automated guaranteed and other types of “programmatic direct.”

We see the kind of growth expected in the RTB space, but not in the automated guaranteed space. Although some were gaining traction, vendors had trouble making money and several leaders were acquired last year for fairly low prices.

The amount of traction has been debated behind closed doors, with the quiet consensus emerging that automated guaranteed isn’t really taking off. The question is: Why not?

Automated Guaranteed’s Biggest Hurdles

Until a few years ago, publishers were a bit squirrelly about RTB. Sales-driven organizations doubted that RTB could provide the value that direct sales have produced for 20 years, and there was a belief that RTB drove prices downward.

Five years ago, new vendors entered the fray to focus on solving an old problem: automating the convoluted process of buying and selling direct ad campaigns. They sold publishers on this idea and created pipelines that allowed publishers to create packages that could be pushed over an API to buying tools, and would automate and streamline the human interactions that take place during a media buy.

This is a very logical path to go down – billions of dollars are spent on these direct media buys and everyone agrees that this space is incredibly inefficient. So why not just build some automation and have the whole thing streamlined and driving growth of the market?

Several factors have limited growth of the automated guaranteed space. One is that publishers have treated it like a new sales channel to shop inventory packages, not as a means to replace the standard RFP-driven direct channel. Publishers use automated guaranteed as an intermediate sales channel between direct buys and remnant sales. They have tried to use it to open up more direct buys – effectively money that was never on the table before – and entice buyers to pick up inventory packages directly instead of using RTB.

But analysts, vendors and many sales executives didn’t envision this for automated guaranteed. The goal was to push direct sales into this automated process for selling and for buyers to adopt buying tools that streamlined the RFP process. While there has been some success with this model – particularly with dedicated buying tools in the direct space – overall it has been sluggish.

To exacerbate the problem, publishers tended to package inventory for this channel in ways they’d never do if they were responding to an RFP. One media buyer I talked to about this debacle laughingly said, “They’re creating media packages and pushing them through this channel that they can’t even sell with their sales force involved. Why do they think anyone will buy it over this channel if they can’t sell it with people?”

The implication is that most buyers aren’t interested in publisher-defined inventory packages that aren’t tailored to the specific campaign goals. And what most publishers have missed is that buyers have complete control over the inventory definition when buying over the RTB channel, which has been as much a growth factor as reducing waste or lowering average CPMs. Control always wins for buyers.

These various problems with the automated guaranteed channel have slowed adoption and growth of the programmatic direct space and produced a chilling effect on investment, leading to some of the vendor exits. But this is only in the automated guaranteed portion of the “programmatic direct” channel. There are many ways the market is beginning to improve and reinvent the media buying and selling process, and automated guaranteed is only one of them.

The final major issue here is that automated guaranteed is solving an old problem without changing the nature of the thing it’s trying to solve. It has made direct buys more efficient, rather than producing radically better direct buys.

As the automated guaranteed space was inventing itself, the RTB channel evolved much faster than anyone expected. Publishers began to begrudgingly admit that RTB wasn’t a “race to the bottom” as many feared and instead was driving significant revenue at a significantly lower cost of sales. As skepticism and suspicion evaporated, publishers have become open to bigger and broader uses of RTB.

RTB Growth

RTB has given us more value than direct buys and helped us find ways to radically improve upon direct buys. The largest vendors in the space, particularly DoubleClick and the closely related AdX exchange, rapidly innovated and released technologies like Enhanced Dynamic Allocation (EDA), leading publishers to experiment with the way they allowed direct and RTB demand to compete with each other over impressions in real time.

The result has been a significant increase in yield and overall rising CPMs in the RTB channel. In many cases, demand coming from RTB yields higher than direct buys. Using tools like EDA has not led to underdelivery or undercutting of direct deals.

And while “standard RTB” has grown rapidly and is now encroaching on inventory that traditionally was reserved for direct deals only, private marketplaces have been a real winner in the RTB space. While Deal ID as a mechanism for instituting a private marketplace buy has been somewhat vilified in the industry trade press, complaints are mostly unfounded. Private marketplace deals over RTB have grown incredibly fast and are poised to accelerate. We’ve also seen buying and selling tools rapidly advance and processes are becoming streamlined.

Buying teams within agency trading desks (ATDs) use various flavors of private marketplaces to enact one-to-one deals with publishers that largely replicate direct buys. They’ve also completed more extensive global deals with publishers that take advantage of the total demand they represent as an agency and share the supply among their clients. They are even using these broader deals as differentiators with their competitors.

Similarly, the demand-side platforms are creating differentiated supply deals with publishers that put them toward the top of the queue within the ad exchanges and, in some cases, help them bypass the exchange infrastructure altogether using RTB-based buying tools.

We’re now seeing that the ATD model itself is fracturing as media agencies pull the resources and capabilities of the ATDs in-house and push their media buyers to incorporate programmatic mechanisms into the standard buying process. Executives at nearly every large media agency and most holding companies are privately or even publicly stating that programmatic – primarily RTB mechanisms – will be incorporated into mainstream buying teams starting this year, if they haven’t done so already.

One major area of investment needed in order for media agencies to begin adopting RTB at large are tools for planning and executing buys that support the needs of a more “standard” media buyer. Specialists will certainly be helpful for the tools of today, but media planning and buying as a discipline is missing a significant window of insight and execution capability that could be coming from this channel. Tools for planning buys across direct and programmatic channels (RTB, private marketplaces, automated guaranteed and across various differentiated vendors) are desperately needed in our space.

As you might expect, vendors connected to the exchange infrastructure get access to data about all impressions defined by all criteria – including publisher, contextual, geographic and first- and third-party data segments. That data has yet to be unlocked for broad media planning and buying but soon will be. You might imagine this is an area where I’m spending a lot of my time.

I believe that success will be driven by broad shifts in the programmatic space, faster adoption of RTB-enabled buying and selling mechanisms, new programmatic offerings beyond RTB and tools to help less specialized buyers to be successful in programmatic.

Follow Eric Picard (@ericpicard) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

1 Comment

  1. The low price acquisitions you mention require scrutiny into those business’ technology, strategy and tactical execution to fully understand why the end game was a low price sale. The AG vendors’ “media mismatch” kept trading revenue low. It’s accurate that throwing up packages into a UI doesn’t necessarily mean buyers will use a platform. If the buyer can’t find what they want then the AG opportunity is DOA. With that solved there are 2 main challenges….
    1. Where’s the value?
    To create the “radically better direct buys” and better direct buying (because the process does matter) the buyer needs additional levers including planning, insights, accurate real-time avails and optimization capabilities. Most vendors in AG do not solve enough of the workflow, campaign management and connection points for trading media. Discovery, negotiations, planning and post investment tools for optimization and campaign management must surround the trading feature in automated guaranteed platforms. The transaction itself is not the extent of AG and if that’s all you have adoption will be sluggish and you won’t be able to build a profitable business (on the small margins clients are willing to pay). Speaking from our experience the value is when the technology is connecting operating systems with business systems. With close to $3B in ad spend planned and executed across our platform each year agencies utilize our integrations with buy side ad servers, billing systems and publisher side ad servers to drive efficiency and manage a single trade across multiple publishers. This becomes convenient via the automation.
    2. Behavior and organizational changes
    The single most challenging issue has been changing the behaviors and reorganizing buyers and sellers in market for AG. RTB had the good fortune of being a new form of media trading. This provided an opportunity to create new rules, habits and teams. There was a group of people in a corner at a holding co. building the “trading desk”. No bad habits to break, no jobs threatened and no rewiring of people required. It was all brand new, unlike AG. Agency account teams trading guaranteed media are not wired to use platforms but software for AG is starting to makes its way to the desktop. On the sell side the sales executive can use AG tools but the right conversation is happening with CFOs, COOs, CROs and the like. The operational efficiencies can immediately drive revenue to the bottom line but a true commitment to move guaranteed trading to automation can impact an organization in many more successful ways.
    Today we are arguably in year 4 of automated guaranteed’s life-cycle. A lot of the technology built prior to 2011 has been canned, rebuilt or changed beyond all recognition. I agree with the assertions of the 3rd party research firms, that within the next 2-3 years significant scale is realistic and expected. RTB was a revolution whereas AG is an evolution. The tools, the functionality and the processes around adoption of this Automated Guaranteed evolution are in much better health than portrayed in the article. We are seeing evidence of this reality in the increasing number of agency account teams testing and then expanding budget against this trading category.

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