Nathaniel Turner is Co-Founder, President & COO of Invite Media.
AdExchanger.com: What is Invite Media and how did it begin?
NT: Invite has built what we call a "universal buying platform," Bid Manager. In one sentence, Bid Manager allows an agency, ad network or media buyer to automatically buy and manage display media across multiple ad exchanges through one interface. We've integrated with all the usual suspects, including Yahoo / Right Media, Google / DoubleClick, and real-time ad exchanges such as AppNexus (and more coming). I can't get into a lot of the secret sauce of what we do or how some of our customers use the platform, but we feel that Bid Manager is really pushing the envelope with how display will be traded.
Invite got its start after one of my co-founders and I worked at VideoEgg for a summer, which gave us a crash-course in digital advertising (albeit video in that circumstance). Long story short, like typical college students we thought of an idea or two that wasn't protectable passed 6 months, and then constantly morphed the idea into what it is today. Honestly though, we can't take much credit for the idea transformation, as we surrounded ourselves with some tremendous investors and advisors who believed in us and gave us a ton of their time and feedback. Without them we'd probably be pitching small local businesses on online video ads right now.
How is the beta progressing? Projected launch data? Any performance metrics you can share?
We are extremely happy with the progress of the beta. We have seen tremendous interest and traction for the platform, and are up and running with well over a dozen clients (with many more in the queue). The pace at which this industry moves is mind-boggling. To be honest, our biggest concern two years ago was how quickly the market would evolve to adopt technologies like ours; now, I would say that is the least of our concerns, probably thanks to the economy. In terms of performance metrics, we aren't disclosing any specific numbers, but I will say that we are very satisfied with the progress thus far.
Do you consider Invite Media a services business or a technology business?
We are a technology business. We are not an ad network and we are not a services-only company. We are building and providing a technology platform upon which agencies, ad networks and media buyers can build and manage their business. We, of course, provide complimentary services to assist our clients, but that is only to enable our technology. I think that is a key differentiator for Invite. We learned early on from our advisors that many digital advertising companies bill themselves as tech companies in the beginning, and then 2 years later after taking the "easy" money from advertisers and providing services, they realize "oh crap, we forgot to build tech." You also can't just one day make the switch to be a tech company, as your company's DNA is decided pretty early on. This has been a huge point for us, and we made the clear decision early on to stay the course as a tech company. I think our clients respect that about us, as trust comes from knowing that our tech platform is 100% transparent and open. We want to give them the keys to drive.
Will IM provide self-service and full-service offerings?
Our platform, Bid Manager, is entirely self-service. As I mentioned previously, we have assembled an internal team, located at our new office in NYC (and often times out of our client's offices), that assists our clients in using our platform. We realize that the display industry has a long way to go in terms of maturity, and most of our clients are still scaling up and learning the space, so we can't expect all of them to already have teams in place that are ready to start buying and managing display campaigns internally.
You're like.. 23 (?).. what the hell do you know about media buying?
Ha! I hope a lot, but we're always learning. One thing I will say is that we've always said internally that age can be an advantage if you use it correctly (all of the founders are either 22 or 23), and I think with media buying it's no different. There's always a point where experience matters, but being able to approach a market with a fresh perspective without bias or preconceived notions on how things work can be extremely valuable. I can't tell you how many people I've run into (and continue to run into) who are resistant to change because they have "10+ years experience in media buying." In order to learn the fundamentals early on, we really just stumbled around and did our homework for a couple of years while our parents were still paying our rent and food bills during college. Having that luxury and very few life obstacles really freed us to learn the space. More specifically, we really just threw ourselves into the fire and managed media plans for clients, which exposed us first-hand to the moving parts of campaigns, how to make things work, what the metrics are, and my favorite, the absolutely mind-boggling vocabulary of terminology you need to know.
Can the agency model survive given the rapid transformation toward digital media trading? What are key steps in your mind that agencies must make to be successful in this new, trading environment?
This is a conversation I seem to now be having every day now, which means it's on a lot of people's minds. I think that both agencies and ad networks are going to go through some major transformations in the next few years. I personally see agencies having to adopt new technologies in order to build expertise and process around smart media trading. They can't continue to outsource and give up that knowledge-building process to ad networks. I also see ad networks losing the protectability of "owning" and managing a large scale publisher base, which in order to survive will start building expertise around client service and catering to advertisers, as well as furthering campaign performance. For the ad network, this also may mean a shift to being more transparent with the agency or advertiser. And of course, both will start (or continue) to take advantage of user-level data, which may or not be proprietary to the agency or ad network in some situations. In other words, I see the line that is currently separating agencies and ad networks starting to blur.
Do I think that every agency and every ad network will die in the next two years if they don't evolve? No. I think they're all in for change, but change isn't an overnight thing. However, before we know it, some ad networks will all of a sudden start looking more and more like agencies, and vice versa. When that happens, agencies will find themselves pitching an advertiser against some of the faster-evolving ad networks, and who do you think the performance-minded advertiser is going to pick? My hunch will be the one that can deliver better results, which in a measurable world will be the one with better understanding of media trading and use of technology, among other things. That's a key point. Sure, agencies provide many services that go beyond media buying (which there will always be a place for), the largest of which may in fact be "client services," but a handful of ad networks could be successful at following. Even if advertisers still (and maybe always) look to certain agencies for creative work and "brand story telling," agencies have to begin building expertise around smarter media buying now that the playing field is becoming flatter. I've heard numerous conversations where either (a) a major agency has asserted that they plan on spending zero money with ad networks in a few years, or (b) an ad network is scared that the value-add they thought they had with agencies is being eroded, and that they need to evolve. We're talking billions of dollars at stake here.
In terms of key steps, I think agencies need to start thinking "DEM" in addition to "SEM," which will entail applying the same expertise and measurability they have with search to display. In my mind, this first involves finding the right people to champion and lead the movement internally, which will probably be individuals who understand performance and measurability (which can't be said about everyone at a traditional agency). Maybe that person used to lead or work at an ad network or comes from a performance and measurability driven world, such as search. Second, agencies have to think strongly about the technology they use and the data they have. They have to grab the reins.
Who do you see as your key competitors?
Honestly, we're still trying to figure that one out. There are a lot of people who share the vision and the story, but very few that I know of that are taking our approach (and most importantly, have anything to show for it). There are also plenty of companies who provide the "function" at a pure client-services level, and will most certainly move in our direction in the future, but aren't offering the same thing in our client's eyes. All of these guys, however, are really educating the industry and are getting things moving in the right direction. Instead of pointing out specific competitors and where they stand in relation to us, I'll just list a few names that tend to come up in our conversations: MediaMath, DataXu, Turn, and Collective Media.
Will exchange traders be able to buy AND sell media with your trading software?
Yes. Clients can choose to "re-sell" any single impression to other bidders who operate on either our system or other third-party systems.
There is a lot of talk about better analytics and attribution capabilities for online advertising. Are you satisfied with ROI metrics that you're tracking? What needs to be changed?
I think the industry has a long way to go in terms of ROI metrics. So many parts of display aren't measurable the way advertisers and agencies would like them to be. Many traditional ad networks have been feasting on this lack of measurability for years, and will probably continue to do so for years to come. The inefficiency in the market due to this lack of complete knowledge is pretty astonishing. Attribution on things such as a post-view conversions, impact of display campaigns beyond direct response, and the cross-pollination affects on other online efforts driven by display are all parts of the industry that need maturity on how they're being tracked, measured, and attributed.
How does the online ad exchange model shift to a premium AND remnant inventory model from remnant-only?
It's a good question. I think companies like AppNexus (with their AdNexus exchange) will really be at the forefront of this model shift, and are making a ton of progress. New technologies like these will be required that successfully "work" with existing publisher ad servers (ex. DFP) and get the publisher comfortable with having all of their inventory (i.e., not just un-sold / remnant) available for auction. What this means is that the publisher needs to believe that if someone is willing to pay more than one of their internal campaigns for a premium impression, that it's worth it across the board. Not every premium publisher cares solely about that one dollar they get for 1,000 impressions like they do for unsold. They also care about things such as the signals they put out for the other 100mm impressions that they sell internally each month. Again, I believe that the reason we really haven't seen this to date has been because the publishers just aren't comfortable. A unified platform has to support concepts such as allowing the publisher to selectively approve or reject individual creative's and advertisers (i.e., competitive exclusions), to allow their inventory to be visible as part of a broader "bucket" of inventory with a site list and not be 100% transparent on every impression, etc…
How will Invite Media evolve in the next 12-18 months?
Come back and ask me that in 12-18 months
Follow Nat Turner @natsturner, Invite Media @invitemedia and AdExchanger.com (@adexchanger.com) on Twitter.