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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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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, April 03, 2008

Google to Divest Performics

As some in the advertiser community had advocated, Google has decided to sell off the Performics division that came along as part of the DoubleClick acquisition. This would have put the agency in a conflict of interest position.

Next on the agenda...

Ahem. Microsoft? Don't you own ...

[Here's the official Google post. Hat tip Techmeme.]

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Friday, January 18, 2008

Google-DoubleClick Commentary

This short item about the Google-DoubleClick merger made it into B2B magazine. Although it appears so from the one quote, I'm not actually a full-on critic of the merger. I see it for what it is, a move that solidifies Google's dominance in the online advertising field, but I also noted the "glass half full" scenario, which is that this merger could allow Google to implement an innovative exchange model for online display advertising that would be significantly better than their current content targeting program in AdWords. Moreover, Google's motivation in terms of their continued wish to sign up new advertisers and publishers in their network, coupled with their "already scaled" efficient business model, means they might heavily discount any markup they charge for operating an ad exchange. That part of my comment didn't make it into the article.

What also didn't make it in was my note that Google would probably have to divest itself of Performics to avoid conflicts of interest in media buying - a topic that I went into some depth on. Kevin Lee must have said about the same thing, as that view was attributed to him.

As a market maker and platform builder, Google might be big and scary, but they're also likely to be a reasonably cheap and efficient enabler of business. (Sound familiar... like last generation's biggest technology monopoly?)

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Counterpoint on Google-DoubleClick

As is often the case, Danny surprises us with a level of detail in his rejoinder to Senators Hatch & Kohl about the impending Google-DoubleClick merger.

The short answer seems to be that Danny defends Google's position against certain distortions.

I'm not sure I feel as certain about the issue, but Danny has certainly clarified the logic. Antitrust legislation probably needs to ask whether it would be legitimate and likely that the company under review would grow into a dominant position in a new area even without the acquisition, or if this event would "make" the new entity into a monopoly where it was once a "player" in a more competitive environment.

Based on global economic precedent, you have to wonder what it all means. Does anyone regulate the consolidating beverage industry? Does Procter & Gamble get questioned for its massive reach and control of shelf space?

Did anyone question Quaker Oats buying Snapple? Sounds funny now, doesn't it? That's an acquisition that didn't lead to global dominance. In fact, Snapple tanked as a brand. Some acquisitions can just be expensive failures.

Here, the acid test needs to be how dominant the acquired company is - what it really controls in the industry it operates in, and whether that will lead to total dominance for the acquiring company. Google overpaid for DoubleClick based on the momentum of the industry and Google's favorable stock price and cash reserves. If they'd picked it up for $500 million a couple of years prior, no one would have whispered anything about regulation.

You could almost look at the parallel with Google Analytics and Google Website Optimizer. Google acquired Urchin, transformed and integrated the product, and moved into an increasingly dominant position in web analytics. With Optimizer, they developed a product in-house, fast gaining market share -- rather than acquiring Offermatica or similar software companies. The point is, none of these acquisitions arguably create a "closed territory" for a regulated service or something built on scarce public resources, such as may exist in banking, telecommunications, or transport. They still operate in the software industry where buyers have many choices, and there are no serious barriers to entry.

Until you get to Microsoft's size and level of dominance at the behavioral level, that is. And that's the territory Google's moving into. So literally taken, no move by Google is technically afoul of the law, but eventually, as with Microsoft, it all adds up. And then the feds will go looking for faults. And they are sure to find many.

To restate: the fact that the impact of all of Google's integrated activities is to give it massive control over multiple industries, enjoy monopolistic advantages, and become a leading repository of business and personal data, does not necessarily mean that a particular acquisition like DoubleClick conflicts with the letter of the law.

I guess the question will be, is this the straw that broke the camel's back?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, April 17, 2007

ContextWeb: The Would-Be Online Ad Market-Maker

A few weeks before the recent announcement that Google is buying DoubleClick, DoubleClick announced it'll be developing a "NASDAQ-like exchange" for the buying and selling of online advertising. Proof positive that the online ad space continues to heat up, rather than diving into an irrational "bust" as in 2000-2003.

Wait a minute, though, you may be saying. Aren't ad networks and the way ads are bought and sold today somewhat "market-like"?

Not as much as you might think. Check out Google's current contextual offerings, for example. As a publisher, do you think you can signal to the advertiser using an "ask" price? Do you have much control at all if you join one of the various ad networks and let their system allocate inventory, as opposed to using your own inside sales force? Nope. And what about the ability to stand out as a quality publisher amidst the crowd of remnant type inventory? Again, tough to do. So, tough to monetize to your fullest potential. Because the current market maker is not facilitating a true market. In that sense, DoubleClick's new promised offering, and Google's acquisition of DoubleClick, could constitute a significant step forward in online advertising efficiency.

DoubleClick won't be the only one working on a great way of putting online ad buyers and sellers together. ContextWeb, quietly licensing its matching technology since 2000, and more recently, acting as a media middleman in its own right, is working on a new "name your price" functionality in a new, highly automated ad marketplace system. I had the chance to walk through a demo yesterday with CEO Anand Subramanian and VP of Business Development Jay Sears. While the release isn't slated for a couple of months, publishers are already being targeted for a beta signup. The hook, "Ready to Make More Money than AdSense?," is not new to publishers, admits Subramanian. "Typically a publisher will become dissatisfied with their AdSense earnings, will install code from a competing network, but that will be even worse, so it's right back to AdSense," he says. But that's because these competing networks don't present a credible alternative. They represent the old school of what ContextWeb calls "Yet Another Ad Network," with fewer features, not a true marketplace, and no critical mass of buyers and sellers.

The company won't yet disclose the full range of features of its new system. To me, it seems to address the combined needs of advertisers and publishers very well, leaving neither the "prime inventory" nor the "long tail" unaddressed. ContextWeb's quiet long-term presence in the space seems to have given the company a wealth of ideas. A decent revenue stream from its current agency relationships, plus venture funding from, among others, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, has given them the long view needed to build a better platform.

If you're a publisher of quality content, here's hoping the days of "Yet Another Ad Network" will soon be a thing of a past in your balance sheet.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, April 16, 2007

Well, Maybe Not the "Ultimate" Irony

Because I'm a lazy writer, I'll begin this next sentence thusly:

"In the ultimate irony..." Microsoft invokes antitrust in response to the Google-Doubleclick deal.

BTW, stay tuned for my forthcoming post on the "Brain Exchange" over at ContextWeb on the topic of "Is Google Too Powerful?" My general (and somewhat evasive) commentary was written without the DoubleClick deal in mind.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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