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Friday, September 18, 2009

DoubleClick Ad Exchange: Myth (2009) and Reality (2012) of Display Ad Market Efficiency

Google has finally launched DoubleClick Ad Exchange with full plans to integrate the system with the AdWords platform. Although a long-anticipated development, it's still a "wow" time for our industry.

Google joins a number of other true exchanges of note, companies that have pioneered the idea of a true "bid-ask" system on display ad inventory. The most notable of these are ContextWeb, having gone so far as to dub their system "ADSDAQ," and Yahoo-owned Right Media.

The designers of such systems are the best ones to provide detailed explanations of how ad exchanges differ from ad networks, but transparency of bid and ask prices is probably how to sum it up. If you're a publisher in an ad network like AdSense or the thousands of others that have graced the industry since the 1990's, there is no direct communication with ad buyers. The intermediary tells you what you're going to get on a CPM or CPC basis, either in advance, or after the fact. You don't get to enter into a direct transaction with the buyer, and you don't have any clear sense of what the intermediary's "markup" is. That might lead publishers and advertisers to want to make a lot of individual transactions with one another, to cut out the intermediaries.

And that leads to a patchwork quilt whereby inefficient individualized ad buying and selling is taking place on "premium" inventory, and networks are stereotyped as buyers and sellers of "remnant" inventory only.

Meaning: the state of display today combines two unattractive qualities: a lack of transparency and a lack of efficiency. That there are too many networks just adds to the inefficiency problem: it's an industry ripe for consolidation.

Jonathan Mendez, in one ("The Market Forces Killing Display Advertising") of a series of complex posts, seems to agree that this is the sort of problem facing the display advertising sector. He also, however, predicts that the new exchanges will only make the problem worse: they'll "drive down media costs even further and become a new haven for performance advertising at the expense of [publishers]." If so, I suppose that's great news for advertisers. But there could be a different long-term dynamic at work. Mendez's point seems sound in that he integrates it with a perspective that shows market forces from search advertising being rudely applied to the formerly fat and happy world of display. In short, direct response is what drives much of paid search, whereas something else entirely (brand integration) is supposed to drive display, like it does on radio and TV. If display is being forced to play in the direct response world, those who formerly profited from that channel are at a loss as to what to do next as their margins (and raison d'etre) fade. If I interpret even 10% of Mendez's message right, it's sobering food for thought, regardless of how many brand channel strategists Google layers on top of its direct response and search-savvy core.

Perhaps, though, it's simply far too early to make this call. I'm drafting a potential counterpoint to Mendez's analysis that roughly says: maybe the display ad market today is simply prehistoric and inappropriately organized as far as buying and selling dynamics goes; what if it's like Google AdWords in the pre-CPC, fixed-CPM, non-tested, non-measured, clueless-buyer era of 2001? What if the number of participants in a well-designed auction matters a lot to publisher revenues, and we simply need more? What if measurement and attribution right now are in the dark ages, and the introduction of assists will help? What if new technology (features) to rate publishers, classes of inventory, characteristics of content, got built into the system for either manual or automated use? But that could be another 1,500 words.

For now, a few more thoughts on where the DoubleClick ad exchange may take us.

Here are some principles to consider:
  • Interoperability of networks: ecosystem sensitivity
  • Continued migration of ad dollars away from inefficient media
  • Applying the efficient auction principles of paid search to media buying as a whole
  • Chicken-egg scale issues
  • What kind of market is this? Will Google win with a capital W?
First, if a variety of networks can plug into the exchange and act as buyers, publishers may have a decent floor on their middling and remnant inventory. A "buyer" for a particular ad impression, then, could be any number of direct bidders participating in the DoubleClick exchange, or it could come in through outside networks who are also publishing in the DoubleClick exchange. That could mean a dual role for Google: (1) on one hand, hoping to create "the" platform for buying and selling ads, that improves the overall viability of the industry as it grows in size; (2) on the other, keeping the better outside networks in business, allowing them to buy and sell and even play around with arbitrage opportunities.

Second, the trend that won't appeal to traditional ad agencies and traditional publishers: dollars that can show clear ROI will be happier, so they'll be spend in this medium. The ongoing stampede continues.

Third - and this point is either scary or a forgone conclusion depending on your perspective - these principles will apply to all media someday: billboards, television, radio, product placement, etc. If you're a company like Google or Microsoft, you're thinking about organizing a platform to run that. Google did a pretty embarrassing job of doing this the first time around (radio, newspapers), which just proves you don't just snap your fingers and accomplish something like this. It's very early days.

Fourth, it looks like the early exchanges were sort of unsatisfying in the sense that their scale was understandably limited by how many participants were on either side of the transaction. If the buy isn't big enough, it's not worth the time to monitor your involvement with the platform. Signing up "sellers" (publishers) is a major prerequisite to making this work. And the pitch to them has to say something like: "we have millions of advertisers eagerly logging into our platform every day". Pretty much only Google (and maybe one or two other companies...maybe) can say that. This is a game-changer, potentially.

Point 4.5 is simply along the same lines, but it's probably important not to sidestep this issue. You don't draw up "market maker" logic in the abstract and then from there find great success. If the results to advertisers or publishers are lukewarm, they won't hide that fact, they'll simply stop using you. And unlike traditional ad networks and traditional media buying, your whole principle is that the exchange technology itself drives liquidity and sets prices. If that isn't working, you can't fall back on the sales team to grease the wheels; that would be incoherent. To date, some existing exchanges have suffered from the critical mass problems. Others have meted out condescending treatment to ad buyers, reverting to salespeople who promise to make a custom buy on the system, or work the system for you, as long as you commit to a certain budget. Hey guys, if you're trying to prevent me from logging in directly, then you're a mutual fund salesman exacting a fee; same old, same old.

So, point 5: is this a market like the one Amazon took by storm - a winner-take-all market where Google will enjoy market dominance? Or is it a market where first and second movers continue to do well (like the browser market, where Google only has 3% share, or the -opedia market, where the Google upstart product knol has nowhere the brand adoption of the original, Wikipedia)? How will Yahoo and Microsoft respond? For the record, I caught up with Jay Sears, EVP of ContextWeb, and he said: "We welcome Google to the ad exchange business. It's a terrific market validation to now have the two top exchanges in the market, including one that is independent."

We'll see how things shake out.

Something to think about: interoperable networks -- those less evolved creatures -- may do better in this ecosystem than competing exchanges. A clash of platforms is a true clash of superpowers; non-superpowers die. At most 2-3 leading platforms will win. Meanwhile, "app" creators (sub-players in the system) that work well within the leading platform are non-threatening to the leading platform makers, and don't need critical mass to be profitable within that environment.

In any case, to conclude by explaining what I meant by the title of this post: the display ad business is in a frustrating state, as every company developing products and services to serve that market seems to tell you in their booth pitch. The problem is that virtually none of these companies solve the problem; most make it worse, or sell you a futuristic solution adorned with "truthy" FAQ's, and then revert to old-school methods. In 2009, it's simply a myth that there is any satisfactory display ad system that is built to scale with a scaled-up marketplace of buyers and sellers. If that scale is reached - and I don't think it will be before 2012 - we may be in a quantitatively new ballpark.

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