Programmatic has been going through its awkward period. Brands are rethinking their investments in the wake of concerns about brand safety, viewability, fraud and a murky supply chain.
But where other agencies and trading desks are pulling back on the open marketplace, WPP’s Essence is staying neck-deep, relying on its use of machine learning, optimization and old-fashioned human controls in order to buy inventory safely and effectively for clients.
Essence is based in London – the epicenter of this year’s YouTube brand safety crisis – and employs 300 people. Ryan Storrar, head of media activation for EMEA, chatted with AdExchanger about what he thinks the next big programmatic scandal(s) will be, and how Essence is trying to stay one step ahead.
AdExchanger: Many agencies and trading desks are using private marketplaces to ensure brand safety. Are they the right answer?
RYAN STORRAR: Private marketplaces are arguably the lazier option. There are ways to be brand-safe on the open exchange. It takes effort.
We use sentiment, and have an obscenely long list of topics that are filtered out, as well as specific [content] categories that are filtered out. We are also running blacklists of specific sites. Between those three, we catch the vast majority of brand safety instances.
And as a fail-safe at the pre-bid stage, we’ll check the page and pull out in the event the control is violated. We will not serve a creative, [but instead] an empty ad on the page if any of our brand safety conditions are violated.
Are clients getting savvier to issues in programmatic?
Clients are trying to understand what [brand safety] controls are available. If you understand the gaps and risks, you don’t see extremes like, “Let’s just pull the plug on YouTube entirely.”
The reality is we can take time to map out all the controls to put in place, and we will catch just about everything from a brand safety perspective. But it does require adequate coverage. And platforms are not perfect.
What is Essence doing to make the supply chain more visible?
Programmatic has been plagued by the same inventory being marked up multiple times by multiple players.
With Ads.txt, we are going to have flexibility into which exchanges or networks are marking up the inventory, and can buy through whoever has the least markup. That’s one place where we see programmatic evolving, and why I’m net positive.
How does Essence look at viewability?
[Essence optimizes for viewability] every day, and we have correlated viewability to brand outcomes.
This is where the power of machine learning comes through. We’re learning how to use those learnings to deliver more impactful media. And we are looking at how we can customize the rhythms we use for bid optimization based on signals like viewability, and then going further than that to look at context on the page, dwell time, etc.
We have seen [with machine learning] that we are serving fewer impressions in many of the campaigns by cutting out what is not impactful, and focusing on what works. CPM is the standard industry metric. Internally, we measure ourselves on quality CPM, or qCPM.
How do you calculate qCPM?
Think of it as a truer CPM which considers brand safety, geo[targeting] accuracy and viewability.
By focusing on qCPM, we’ve seen a maximization of viewability rates. And interestingly, a lot of our inventory is now more focused on premium. From a pure CPM point of view, it might be increasing. But if you look at the cost per qCPM or cost per point of brand lift, we are reducing that by focusing on impactful brand media.
Why are CPGs cutting their media spend?
A lot of what is being cut is not delivering incremental value to brand. The space has become commoditized to the point that audiences become numb to formats and placements, and the impressions are not impactful. From an investment point of view, we try to get a read on incrementality of what’s delivered.
Programmatic is an impactful channel when done right. Watered-down content spammed across the web is not going to deliver results for anyone, and that’s where you start to see huge brands pull back on investments.
What is Essence doing about that?
Our point of view is that creating captivating experiences for our audience, served in the right environment, will deliver results. If the content is constructive for the audience it’s being delivered to, there is a place for those ads.
We’ve talked about waste. But are there any platforms or inventory types that you think are underpriced right now?
The price will go up once this article is published. Instagram Stories are the opportunity at the moment. Adoption is limited today, and the cost will increase.
There is supposed to be a greater reward for brands with highly engaging creative on social platforms. How does that actually play out?
Viewability rates on Facebook terrify me. They are not great. As far as the next crisis, I think Facebook is going to get some press about poor viewability in their news feed.
One of the control mechanisms we have to mitigate against poor viewability is the caliber of the creative. We are trying to put guidance in what creates thumb-stopping content and increase the likelihood of a completed view and driving the right outcomes.
In order to be impactful on Facebook, it needs to be tailored to audio-off, and with video. There is still too much static inventory on Facebook, which has incredibly poor viewability. It’s probably a waste of money.
If certain formats aren’t driving results anymore, who does that hurt and who does that benefit?
I see it as a positive challenge for the industry. It will force innovation. Brands and agencies need to think of more inventive ways to deliver a captivating experience to a target audience. It’s not enough to take a standard banner and spam it across every exchange. There needs to be more rigor in the planning and execution of buys.
This interview has been condensed and edited.