After ten years working for publishers, I joined the ad tech industry for the first time earlier this year.
The opportunity to come back to Vox Media excited me for a variety of reasons, not least of all my sincere belief in the future of the company, it was the specific role of “Programmatic & Concert” that made it something I truly couldn’t pass up.
As I thought about my career and the industry at large, it seemed that programmatic advertising was the proverbial chink in my armor. From what I could tell, it was clearly the future of this industry and being at the forefront of that future would be the best way to position myself for the long-term.
It clearly is one of the most incredible innovations in the history of advertising — the ability to reach any audience on a 1:1 basis, to tailor a specific creative message in a specific environment, with no waste, truly is incredible if you think about it. No medium, channel, or platform before it has ever offered up anything close.
Unfortunately, what I’ve found is that we’ve somehow failed to associate this high quality technology with equally high quality advertising. Today, programmatic isn’t associated with being “premium”, or even with being a sustainable solution for the open web.
Programmatic is largely known to the industry as a tactic fueled by cheap scale and low quality. This has created an open web ecosystem that for marketers becomes an exercise in compromise:
You can prioritize scale, by opting for the open exchange. Ad exchanges and networks provide an easy path for scale. But these options come at the cost of assurances around quality, relevance, or safety — running across sometimes hundreds of thousands of domains across “the long tail” via 300x250s and 728x90s that have been out of style for a decade Alternatively, you can choose quality, by executing dozens of 1:1 deals across premium publishers. In this case, in exchange for creating a better ad experience you’ll waste hundreds of man-hours developing custom ad units to accompany each buy, sacrificing the scale and ease of execution that comes standard with other options
This association with low quality is perpetuating a damaged relationship with audiences too, as trust in advertising is at an all-time low, and use of ad blockers is at an all-time high.
With programmatic accounting for 85% of the digital display market in 2019, it seems clear that automation represents the future of advertising online. Until it becomes associated with traits like quality and trust, this future will be one in which advertisers avoid the open web in pursuit of better solutions.
As former AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelley summed up regarding the state of programmatic earlier this year: “If I’m an advertiser, do I feel like I’m getting higher quality ads in better places? No.”
It’s with that sentiment in mind it becomes less surprising that three companies are gobbling up almost 70% of every dollar spent online -- a figure that is only growing, at the expense of publishers and media owners. This is nothing short of an existential threat: if we aren’t able to reverse the increasing dominance of the “walled gardens”, there are dire potential consequences for publishers great and small, many of which we’ve already seen.
It doesn’t take a wild imagination to follow these consequences to a logical conclusion: what’s at stake is the health of the publisher ecosystem, and the future of journalism as we know it. If programmatic is the future of the open web, then the future of publishing depends on sustainable, high quality programmatic solutions.
It does seem like the industry has started to recognize the need for change, and that marketers are starting to demand better.
In Cannes this past year, many of the world’s largest agencies, platforms, and marketers came together to form the “Global Alliance for Responsible Media” — a joint effort to create a more sustainable, healthy ecosystem for our industry.
While a commendable first step, it hasn’t yet translated to any real solutions that help marketers feel more secure about where their dollars are going, or where their brands will show up.
Meanwhile, the platforms have continued to abuse their position by creating plenty of their own issues around brand safety and accountability:
Google and YouTube’s never-ending parade of brand safety issues Facebook’s “overstated" video metrics
These actions betray the trust of advertisers, and yet their ad revenues continue growing at a healthy clip. It gives the distinct impression that marketers feel they have no choice, despite a clear desire for fresh alternatives.
So therein lies the opportunity for programmatic to offer a new, holistic solution — one that creates better experiences for audiences, a sustainable outlook for quality publishing, and a dependable environment for brands.
Easy to say, harder to do. There are no easy answers, and there’s no silver bullet — if there was, we wouldn’t be in this position.
For a solution to measure up as a real alternative that truly makes for a better ecosystem, it must check a lot of boxes:
Scale without compromise: If you want to create a truly viable solution for marketers, start here. Scale is easy to achieve, but what about quality at scale? In order to be a high quality alternative and a valuable tool for publishers, top-tier environments are a must.
Ads that work: Higher quality advertising most certainly means higher quality ads. The creative itself is the thing that will make a lasting connection with customers, and we’ve all known for a decade that the standard IAB sizes that make up the currency of the open web are not cutting it.
Reliable data: We’re at an inflection point in the industry, with laws like GDPR and CCPA set to become the norm, and browsers setting their sights on a “cookie-less” future. The current ways of targeting audiences online will be difficult to sustain This could be just one more thing pushing advertisers towards the walled gardens, or an opportunity for premium publishers to come together to cement their value with reliable data solutions grounded in editorial-driven 1P insights and contextually relevant environments.
Easy execution: One thing we know the platforms have nailed is ease of execution. And this is why any long-term solution for the future must be programmatic.
At Vox Media, we’re trying our best to lead with our own solution, and that leads me to Concert.
Concert was a “big bet” placed by Vox Media and NBCU in late 2016. The idea was simple — bring together a collection of the most trusted editorial brands online into a single marketplace, and underpin it with a creative product that works for audiences and advertisers alike. For marketers, it would equate to a centralized entry point to the “premium” web. For publishers, a new revenue source.
Three years in, we’ve made great progress -- it’s become a successful eight-figure business — but we still have a long way to go.
In 2019, we’ve added some key supply partners to increase scale to over 85% of the digital US population, while strengthening the notion of a single entry point to a broad swath of the premium web.
We also took the business programmatic this year, making the entire Concert portfolio available in every major DSP, both for guaranteed and non-guaranteed buys. One major learning from that is how challenging it is to get programmatic buyers to adopt a non-standard unit into their workflow. Finding new ways to evangelize our Athena unit while focusing on making it as turnkey as possible to build and buy will be a continued priority in 2020 — one step we’re taking to that end is launching an end-to-end self serve tool.
Perhaps the biggest advantage the platforms have is proprietary data. As the only publisher-led marketplace, we think there’s a real opportunity to create an industry-leading solution grounded in 1st party insights. This is something we’re working hard to develop as part of our 2020 strategy as well because the reality is, the future belongs to companies who have deep, direct relationships with consumers.
So there are still plenty of challenges ahead, but we’re investing in Concert to help lead our business, and hopefully to set a blueprint that can be part of a larger solution for our industry -- one that can lead to healthier growth for programmatic, and a more promising future for everyone in the advertising community. After all, as stakeholders in the future of the open web, it’s on all of us to work together to demand better, and to settle for more.
Digiday Programmatic Media Summit Fall 2019 | VOX Media
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VP, Concert & Programmatic
Programmatic is associated with
cheap scale and low quality
This leaves few easy choices for
marketers in the current open
How do we get the future of
Scale without compromise
Innovative, impactful ads
Automation & turnkey solutions
Concert is a top tier publisher
led marketplace that provides
a one-stop solution for better
ads in trusted environments,
It’s your entry point for the
premium open web.
Concert Is A Bet We’re Making
Concert Is A Successful Direct Business
Concert Is A Successful Programmatic
Concert Is Cutting Edge