Digiday Post : The Ad Tech threat agencies need to take seriously

My piece on Digiday outlining the threat of Ad tech disintermediation. First posted here.

I remember sitting with a founder of a well-known demand-side platform a few years back (feels like a lifetime), and he was warning me how the evil Google would disintermediate us all and destroy the agency trading desk business if we were not careful.

The irony now is that the worst culprits of all are the new, up-and-coming tech vendors who are chasing the direct-to-advertiser relationship at any cost.

As an agency, allowing a DSP or real-time bidding ad network to control all the programmatic spend may seem the same as giving an insertion order to an ad network, but it is far from that. The rules have changed with the rise of ad tech. Our whole business is based more and more on data. We need to manage, explore, test and learn with data, and the data needs to be held at the hands of the agency running the wider business, or remain in the advertiser’s hands should they choose to take the process in-house.

To release tens of millions of dollars to a managed service DSP is to release all of your intellectual capital to an external company where the same rules expected of an agency may or may not apply. We see clear benefits when we are able to apply the agency learnings to all the programmatic opportunities. Whether we are looking at cross-channel attribution, econometric modeling or online and offline synchronization of media spend, we can make activity work so much harder in that context — and tie it back to the advertiser’s own data whether on or offline. A third party, or siloed business, simply cannot do the same.

Agencies take heed: This is no longer just a question of outsourcing some digital buying but rather the outsourcing of your agency role and intellect to a third party. You may not recognize the danger, given the modest level of programmatic spend relative to massive TV budgets. But when this spend drifts away, a little bit of control goes with it. Not a good situation given the projected growth of programmatic.

Take a lesson from search. Two things happened in search that made it one of the biggest battle grounds of the agency world through the mid-2000s. The first was that the agencies ignored it when it launched, and the second was they fought tooth and nail to get it pulled back into the agency when it had grown into the mammoth beast that it is today. Today’s DSPs are yesterdays search villains.

An agency digital lead should fight to keep the programmatic business close. Yes, I am biased toward a relationship with an agency trading desk — not just because data-driven, programmatic buying will be the lifeblood of the future media agencies but also because the right agency/trading desk relationship is better for clients.

An advertiser might be attracted to cheaper options. A siloed, third-party provider might “feel” unbiased. But what happens when the market moves (which is does every day), and that marketer is tied to a single provider. They move at the the speed of the provider. Or they pay the significant switching cost. Yes, DSP technology evolves. But their lack of access to the ideal marketplaces may leave an advertiser handicapped. And how will the marketer know? It’s hard to measure performance without any comparison or opportunity to swap (short of making an extensive investment).

The agency relationship should give clients cross-platform, open access to all opportunities — and objectivity. Trading desks should deliver the benefits of relationships, learnings and experience with all of the best DSPs, plus perpetual evaluations of new and evolving partners. They must be able to provide the brand safety, starting with basics like full disclosure on where ads are appearing and how much of your budget was spent on media. It is fascinating to me that Rocketfuel discloses 60 percent margins and there are no concerned glances from advertisers. Really? 60 percent?

I have been warned all my life that Google is the bad guy, but it is becoming clear that as the story unfolds, we are seeing a very different picture. The VC-fueled pressure cooker we are in at the moment is creating disintermediation on a grand scale or at least the potential of it. And agencies and advertisers should both see that there is a major role for their partners in helping them steer through this time so that we don’t walk blindly into a repeat of 2001-2008, an era that both agencies and advertisers regretted longer term.

 

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