The online advertising ecosystem is starting to feel a lot like "The Matrix." Thousands of tentacles of code are stretching out from every technology company, intertwining and joining the collective. Companies like AppNexus were built on the idea of a matrix -- an active ecosystem of application programming interfaces (APIs), linking together supply and demand with centralized data. Everyone is welcome to play in this new real-time bidding (RTB) universe, and Brian O'Kelley is only too happy to lay the pipes and switches that let all the ads flow through the cookiesphere.
Are you using a centralized bid management system for search marketing yet? If not, you should be. Google, Yahoo, and Bing make their search data easy to manage in systems like Clickable, Marin, or ClickEquations. At this point, search has become so highly commoditized that any company with a reasonable monthly search engine marketing (SEM) spend has access to analytics and management tools that provide 10-times more data and control than the average marketer needs. Want to manage social? There's little mystery left in that, either. Anyone with a computer and $50 can walk right up to the most powerful social ad platform in the universe (Facebook) and launch an ad campaign in five minutes flat.
How about the data ecosystem? Isn't that also fully commoditized? The real data players haven't changed (Experian, IXI, Targus, etc.), but the way data companies slice and dice the data has shifted somewhat. Products like Datran's Aperture enable marketers to get a household-level view of their advertising audience like never before and at very reasonable CPMs. If you aren't leveraging data to understand your client's shoe size, then your competition is. Data is ubiquitous, cheap, and effective. Once you've layered a dollar's worth of BlueKai intent data on top of an RTB buy and witnessed conversion lift, there's really no going back, is there?
So, in a world where anyone can buy any display ad they want in real time and everyone hasaccess to highly powerful SEM tools and data are readily available, what is left?
The obvious answer is the creative. Marketers better tell great stories that make an immediate impression across a three-screen world. The agencies and marketers that will win in the future are the ones with the greatest creativity.
But this column is about media. In a real-time world, where audience is king and data are available to anyone with the right (and increasingly ubiquitous) tools, who will be the winners? Clearly, the people who own the pipes are in a good spot. In search, that means Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. In display, the winners will be AppNexus and other switch builders. They are the Ciscos of the advertising world. You don't really see them, but nothing happens without going through a piece of their equipment. So, when everyone has access to search and RTB, what's left?
Yes, I said it. The future of this industry will belong to companies that can manage the one aspect of digital that will never go away: guaranteed, upfront buying. No matter how much real-time bidding a marketer does, there is always going to be a need to build brand associations and reach audiences where they go to be found. Was Absolut actually the tastiest vodka in the world, or was it the company's packaging and ultra-cool print ads in high-end magazines that made the brand?
As a marketer, I will probably put performance display and SEM into every campaign I do, but I am always going to need to buy that homepage takeover on ESPN.com for my sneaker campaign or take over a condition-specific section on WebMD for my pharmaceutical campaign. That is never going away -- nor should it. The combination of inventory commoditization and the growing cookie backlash will make premium guaranteed buying more important than ever. This is great news for the publishers producing quality content -- the type that attracts the best audiences.
In a world where everyone has access to everything, the winners may actually be the companies that can help marketers find the best data insights from search, real-time buying, and guaranteed buying. The conversation in the online space has been about the real-time ecosystem and the data and technology that drive it, and that's where it should be. But, the future of online advertising belongs to the content providers who will increasingly segment their quality inventory from the machines. When that day comes, the companies that provide an efficient solution for premium guaranteed buying will reenter the conversation. Get ready for the past to come alive.
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