11 Ways To Stay Competitive As Technology Evolves

Successful CIOs, CTOs & CEOs from Forbes Technology Council offer firsthand insights on tech & business

In a global economy characterized by instant communication, an abundance of information and cutting-edge technology, staying competitive is both imperative and incredibly difficult. And with disruption happening all around us, technology is perhaps the most competitive industry of all. So, how do you keep up when things are constantly changing? We asked 11 members of the Forbes Technology Council to share their strategies. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Find Something Competitors Can’t Replicate

Whether it’s your location, domain name, platform, patented product or some other competitive advantage, you must invest in permanent differentiation. Nearly all technology can be duplicated with the right resources and time. You must think about this deeply when taking your product to market and defending it when it succeeds. – Michael GargiuloVPN.com

2. Know Your Customers

Know what your customers need, what problems they have and what future avenues they’re pursuing. Know how your solutions solve those problems, fill their needs and expand their opportunities. Know how to differentiate yourself. Where are you stronger? Where are you weaker? Position your product to take advantage of competitive strengths. Figure out how to mitigate and then improve weaknesses. – Jesse BirdTCN, Inc

3. Prioritize Creativity

One individual can’t drive an organization to its competitive peak. Staying competitive is a product of continually developing innovative ideas, which is driven by an inspired creative team. Prioritizing creativity as a core value and ensuring that employees are working together to drive new ideas is key. This will only be achieved by fostering a positive team dynamic. – Benjamin NguyenSidebench

4. Keep Your Finger On The Pulse

Stay well-read using a variety of sources, such as publications, online newsletters, research organizations and analyst reports. Target your industry niche, but also research adjacent areas where you can spot new trends that may be applied to your space. Keep an eye on consumer sentiment and macrotrends to anticipate how your products and services may need to adapt to stay relevant. – Kerry BianchiVisto

5. Create A Customer-First Strategy

Focus on customer value. It is easy to get so sucked into the latest technology crazes, such as blockchain, machine learning, artificial intelligence and internet of things sensors, that you forget the essential focus for longevity: solving customer problems. Enabling ease of use, reliability and flexibility while solving a true customer need is what allows the business to stay competitive and thrive. – Danny AllanVeeam Software

6. Continuously Invest In Education

Remaining relevant with leading-edge solutions requires continuous investment in education. Combining a deep understanding of customer goals with a vision of the competitive landscape leads to innovative and creative thinking. Innovation often comes from executing on the gap between customer challenges and existing competitive solutions. Know your customers and know your competition. – Dan SonnebornAerie Consulting

7. Have A Futuristic Roadmap

Your mind has to live in the future to remain competitive. You can’t think now, because now is now over. Stay competitive by ensuring that you have a futuristic roadmap that is well thought out and relevant to what is seemingly the right path culturally, politically, technologically and in business. Don’t be afraid to take a few risks along the way — otherwise, you won’t know what could have been. – Richard Van StatenQuantam Solutions

8. Don’t Stop Being A User

Staying innovative in technology means being a fan of your space. Most innovations come when someone figures out a better approach to a problem that attracts users. Too often, the day-to-day operations of running the company built around that solution mean disconnecting from that inspirational fandom. Remain a user of the competitor’s product to make sure your approach is everything it could be. – Q ManningRocksauce Studios

9. Know Your Data

Leading technology companies succeed because they understand how to leverage the data that is collected. Today, more data is being generated than ever before, whether it’s on a website or in a mobile app, e-commerce store or customer services portal. To stay ahead of the competition, companies need to transform data into information, and information into intelligence. – Laurent SimoneauCoveo

10. Remain Relevant

To remain competitive is to remain relevant. Being able to solve important issues in your space allows for that. Uncover a problem in the industry and work through it strategically. Don’t jump into anything head first. Understand what steps need to be taken for success by defining the issue, focusing in on it and fixing it. Relevancy and competitiveness will follow. –Sujai HajelaMist

11Stay True To The Vision

We obsessively pursue a mission that is much bigger than ourselves, and one we won’t attain anytime soon. It forces us to tackle difficult challenges with innovative solutions that are in demand. For every project, we ask ourselves “will this contribute to a fix, or make our industry more broken?” This builds trust and keeps us relevant. – Evan FrancenFRSecure LLC

Forbes Technology Council is an invitation-only, organization comprised of elite CIOs, CTOs and technology executives.

The Evolution of Amazon as an Ad Platform

The evolution of Amazon has led to the company holding a unique position. It’s simultaneously one of the biggest advertisers, spending an estimated $3.4bn in the US last year, and one of the largest advertising platforms, expected to rake in $4bn this year. And while many in the industry already consider the company a welcome challenger to the digital-ad duopoly of Google and Facebook, just how big of a piece of the ad spend pie Amazon can take in the future may depend on its willingness to jump outside of the walled garden strategy.

To truly rival the dominance of Google and Facebook and reach its market potential, Amazon needs to gain the same type of power that it has on its marketplace and inventory, off its marketplace – in other words, on other inventory. With their moves to date, they are on the right path to leverage their biggest advantage – customer data – across the ecosystem.

Connectivity

Amazon has been fairly proactive when it comes to connecting to properties besides their own with one of its two main advertising offerings, Sponsored Products, which is effectively paid search. They’ve had an API for sellers for quite some time, and more recently they created an API that gives brands self-service, customizable access to platform inventory.

The company’s other ad service, the Amazon Ad Platform (AAP), is where the real opportunity lies. With AAP, Amazon offers advertisers the ability to buy ads on a host of other web and mobile publisher properties. Functioning like a demand-side platform (DSP), AAP enables advertisers to bid on open inventory outside Amazon using the same exchanges through which they usually transact. In the past few months alone, it has progressed very quickly and agencies and marketers are clamouring to get on board.

With a growing list of connections to third-party ad servers, research providers and attribution partners, AAP is gaining traction. If Amazon continues its plans to aggressively go after outside inventory sources for display and video, offer incentives like discounted tech fees, enable integrations and adopt APIs, they’ll be in an optimal position to be the on-ramp for spend and inventory everywhere. Also, I am hopeful that they will build out robust open API access to their advertising offerings. Given Amazon’s pedigree with APIs and microservices as seen on AWS, it is quite natural for them to do so.

Consumers

Amazon’s USP is data, but wouldn’t every platform say the same thing? Google and Facebook both certainly thrive as ad businesses thanks to their user data. But Amazon’s data set is different, and it’s that difference that gives them competitive advantage.

The data that Google and Facebook have still provides insight into users’ “inner lives,” with things like searches and peer group involvement informing the personal profiles that guide ad targeting. For example, based on the behavioral data, Honda can deliver ads to “soccer moms” with a fairly high degree of accuracy. What they can’t do, based on that data, is target by the anticipated purchase intent of those soccer moms. That’s where Amazon has a clear advantage.

Amazon, unlike Facebook and Google has actual records of what people really buy, and not just the things heir habits suggest they might buy. It’s a gold mine of information that no one else can offer. How they can build on this advantage to surpass the power of their rivals is by combining those powers with their own to form a new superpower, where search, social and shopping together provide insights into purchase journeys that can inform a brand’s whole strategy.

The potential is enormous. By charting a consumers’ data all the way from social behavior, through search intent and corroborated by real historical purchase data, platforms could build a value picture in to how audiences really behave. But this is where the connectivity conundrum resurfaces. Because joining together search, social and shopping data is going to require that all three ingredients be put in to the same pot.

The duopoly, as it has been until now, is hardly known for being open and forthcoming with their services. And recent moves in the ecosystem such as GDPR and the end of Facebook’s Partner Categories, through which advertisers could target ads using customer profiles bought from data brokers, suggest further tightening of the internet’s historic openness.

Amazon, with its full funnel access to what consumers are talking about, shopping for and purchasing, is sitting at the precipice of an opportunity to strengthen their offering while being a good guy in a market looking for another trusted partner. At the risk of sounding cliche by quoting Spiderman’s uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I just hope that, in this case, great power brings a revitalized sense of openness that will be necessary for the full possibilities of Amazon as good guy can be realized.

Jaisimha Muthegere, chief technology officer of Visto Hub

Greater Transparency Makes Demand-Side Platforms More Effective

Daryl McNutt, VP of Marketing at Visto discusses the ability to compare side-by-side demand-side platforms (DSPs), arguing the importance of this change from a larger industry perspective.

When analysing the profitability of an assortment of ad channels, there can be a lot of information presented without very much clarity. Some demand-side platforms simplify that data and present it in an easy-to-digest interface, yet those aren’t without their own challenges.

In many cases, advertisers and agencies compare reports manually to review execution platforms, an apples-to-oranges comparison that makes it difficult to assess a report, let alone act on its results. On top of that, there’s a distinct lack of transparency as to where your ad spend actually goes. A recent study by the Association of National Advertisers found that 42% of each programmatic dollar is spent on nonworking media.

Many of the costs aren’t disclosed, which makes it that much harder to know whether money is being spent on media or intermediary fees. Despite these challenges, a multiplatform strategy can be quite useful if you choose the right platform at the right time, but to do that, we need to understand and compare their offerings.

The battle for transparency

In today’s programmatic landscape, the link between transparency and revenue couldn’t be clearer. In the past, digital media buying operated among too many unknowns such as what brands buy; an ad’s cost, quality, and channel; and how an ad performs and is optimised. Side-by-side platform comparisons can facilitate that clarity, helping advertisers see where their ad spend goes and how to reallocate in order to optimise for ROI.

The potential of hidden costs introduces an inherent lack of transactional transparency into the programmatic ecosystem. In a report by the World Federation of Advertisers, it’s estimated that 60 cents of every programmatic dollar spent goes toward the “technology tax,” which encompasses supply-chain data and transaction fees. These hidden costs create concerns about nondisclosed buying agreements for programmatic media, which limits how closely advertisers can inspect, analyze, or audit a buy’s transactional details.

Then there’s the issue of ad viewability. Many execution platforms can track how long and how much of an ad appears in order to assess its profitability. The Media Rating Council requires 50% to appear for at least one second. Video is a bit different, with the council requiring half a video ad to be visible for at least two seconds to be considered viewable.

Marketers who choose not to invest in fraud-busting are taking a big chance. Ad impressions served to fraudulent sources or clicked by robots instead of humans are all wasted spend. The assumption is that the current marketplace contains significant amounts of falsified inventory, meaning that the integration of anti-fraud and data-disclosure initiatives into platforms can weed out fraudulent inventory and prioritise ads that are aboveboard.

A proliferation of ad-buying channels brings healthy supply-path choices and market competition. More difficult to discern, however, are the multilayered cost structures and trade-offs in performance among vendors. In 2017, Procter & Gamble chief brand and growth officer Marc Pritchard called out programmatic’s seedier ad tech vendors, specifically those that take sizable portions of customers’ media buys before publishers even receive it.

A properly calibrated multiplatform comparison can offer a transparent view into which channels provide the best ROI and the most direct path to an advertiser’s target audience.

Navigating the murky waters

To accurately compare ad channels, it’s first important to create an apples-to-apples situation that quantifies true trade-offs. To do so requires data from each platform to be centrally processed and defined. Once this happens, an ad’s inventory, quality, performance, and price can be used to make sophisticated decisions across platforms. The next challenge is then how to efficiently access each platform’s user interface to enact faster decision-making and execution.

Automation can help reduce repetitive tasks that deal with budget and performance across multiple partners. A centralised ad hub can help with reallocating spend, identifying discrepancies, and adjusting bids. This multiplatform approach maximises campaign performance and leverages every available opportunity, many of which would otherwise be lost. It optimises the return on each of your campaigns and keeps the experience consistent across all channels.

Again, it all boils down to transparency, which is a valuable trait for an effective campaign. Omnichannel comparisons hold platforms accountable for where every penny in the ad-buying process goes and what is bought. Once the entire supply chain is transparent, brands can finally receive the value they expect for their advertising spend. They shouldn’t have to settle for anything less.

Originally published 6/4/18 in PerformanceIN

4 Ways GDPR Compliance Could Impact You

As the European Union prepares to enact the General Data Protection Regulation, digital marketing’s core will start to look different.

In the wake of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony, Facebook is taking the overhaul seriously. The social platform is leading the charge by allowing users to review and update privacy settings to give everyone a say in how Facebook and its advertisers use data.

While high-profile companies can take those measures, smaller enterprises may struggle meeting GDPR’s technical challenges. Additionally, the new EU regulations could start a trend that allows governments worldwide to levy fines to businesses of all sizes for noncompliance.

U.S. companies that haven’t taken action should start soon. Just 21 percent of American businesses have GDPR contingency plans in place, meaning if you’re not already compliant, the law may soon affect you. Here’s how:

  1. Advertisers and Publishers Will Be Held Accountable

The GDPR may force companies to invest more resources toward compliance support like a data protection officer or integrate a consent management platform onto their websites. Notices and consents will increase across all platforms, and new tools will give users more control over the types of data that can be processed related to them.

This has spawned the creation of a host of related offerings. For example, Google’s CookieChoices now provides links to its EU consent policy, examples of consent notices, and consent tools that publishers can use on their own websites.

Data “individualization” is a key to more personalized advertising. From here, companies should analyze their EU data exposure to determine whether they’ll need to bring a DPO into the C-suite. As across-the-board compliance becomes mandatory, it’ll be even more difficult to operate without a department that specializes in advertising and privacy compliance.

  1. Customers Will Need to Stay in the Loop

In a 2017 survey, the tech company Gigya found that 68 percent of consumers distrust brands with their personal information. Even if a company is compliant, customers won’t trust it unless it conveys this information to customers, so be deliberate about how you communicate compliance initiatives.

Articulate how your organization processes and transfers personal data internally, including between partners and vendors. Every effective GDPR compliance plan begins with the data “discovery” process and data-flow mapping.

Overly broad communication may signal that your company doesn’t understand or care enough about how it handles personal data. Customers, clients, and EU regulators want granularity on these compliance topics, so go in-depth. Your business can’t afford to be perceived as failing to take its customers’ data security seriously.

  1. Third-Party Partners Will Be Key

Companies routinely collect data from third-party data providers, and they must get more selective. In the pre-GDPR world, the data management platform procurement process heavily weighed diversity, depth, and scale. The more data a provider had, the more sought-after it was in that bigger-is-better world.

In the post-GDPR world, large-scale data will carry increased financial, legal, and geopolitical risks. Facebook’s privacy scandal involved a third-party vendor in Cambridge Analytica, yet Facebook still ended up in the hot seat over how another company used its data.

Safe data has replaced big data, which means it’s good only if obtained with the proper consent. Properly vet your partners to ensure your company remains compliant and does not get invited to speak before Congress.

  1. Native Advertising Will Play a Bigger Role

With fewer data points to inform ads, native and contextual advertising are each on the rise. It’s a fallback for advertisers to rely on content and context relevance to serve consumers. Retargeting ads may decrease as consumers take back control over their data.

Many advertisers fear a regression to the days of blanketed ads, but that’s not necessarily the case. Well-run data and ad tech companies that are compliant could make huge gains on established competitors if those competitors are slow to adapt.

GDPR starts in Europe, but its impact is far-reaching. Companies operating in the U.S. that have European customers or end users need to ensure compliance to avoid fines. It’s only a matter of time before more regulators follow suit, so invest in compliance now to avoid headaches (or an invitation to Washington).

Ian Connett, Esq. is legal counsel for Visto, a programmatic advertising SaaS platform focused on bringing transparency, interoperability, and accountability to digital advertising.

Originally published 5/22/18 in Adotas

Winners And Losers In First-Price Auctions

Between ad fraud, brand safety and transparency, the digital advertising industry had a tough 2017. And now that the conversation about fixing these problems and cleaning up the supply chain has hit critical mass, 2018 is sure to bring new developments and approaches to delivering greater visibility into where ad spend is going and whether or not it’s working.

One of the big complaints about programmatic is that it’s difficult to understand the true value of an impression. Historically, exchanges have been based on second-price auctions, where the buyer often pays far less than what they were willing to pay. The publisher “loses” the difference between the high bid and amount paid.

In first-price auctions, on the other hand, the winning bid is the amount paid. The publisher seems to come out on top, and one could view the end cost as the true indicator of an impression’s worth. This added bit of visibility has led some to herald first-price as the route to transparency. It is not, however, a win-win game.

At the outset, publishers look like the winners of the first-price auction game. Over time, however, the forces of auction dynamics come into play. Bidders, who get little visibility into who sets the bid direction or is in control, may dramatically reduce their bids to test price elasticity, and the publisher ultimately loses.

And there’s another potential loser in the first-price model: the ad tech vendors in the middle of the transactions. Because the fees, often referred to as the “tech tax,” are disclosed, they can find themselves in a race-to-the-bottom price war in competition for agency and brand business. So they lose, and so too may the brands and agencies that rely on these vendors, since the lower markup for vendors may lead to corner cutting on quality and expertise, which could leave more exposure to ad fraud.

If matters weren’t complex enough, advertisers don’t always have enough visibility into the process to know for sure whether they’re bidding in a first- or second-price auction. As a result, they can’t properly develop a strategy that will optimize their media spend, and again, they lose.

Now, if everything were a first-price auction, there would be more transparency and a better likelihood of achieving that sweet spot of true value. But that brings up another issue: supply and demand.

If buyers feel like they’re being scammed, paying higher-than-necessary prices in the exchange, they may give up on programmatic and shift their spend to more “walled gardens,” but that is no guarantee of lower prices. Demand in the open market is then reduced, which then makes prices drop, and ultimately pushes publishers demand and prices lower.

Inside the walled gardens, there are some interesting developments, that may be a foundation for the next evolution of bidding. Facebook’s auction mechanism is an iteration of the second-price model that brings the consumer into the equation. An advertiser only wins the placement of an ad if it actually is the most relevant. With this model, the buyer knows the cost and what the ad is worth. Google, which had previously been using the generalized, second-price auction model, has followed suit. If the industry moves in this direction as a whole, it could ultimately be a win, win with an extra win for the consumer, who gets more relevant advertising.

The issues are deep and complex. But if we can make access to transparent, comparable analytics easier and enable buyers to act and react real time, it’s a step in the right direction. In the end, we need to give buyers the opportunity to adjust their strategies to allow for relevant ads to win while publishers get a fair price, based on their ability to meet the performance goals of the client, closing the gap between winners and losers once and for all.

Originally published in The Marketing Insider

AI’s Real Moment On The Advertising Stage Is Tomorrow

One of the hottest storylines in ad tech this year has been artificial intelligence (AI). Proffered as potential panacea for effectiveness, brand safety and transparency, AI has grown from niche discussion to industry obsession, a promised key to smarter digital ad targeting and trading. I’m sure you’ve seen the pronouncements: it can determine the bids most likely to succeed, it can use historical performance data to tailor campaigns and it can even swap out creative based on audience data in real-time.

There’s one issue: a lot of what’s being hyped isn’t actually AI. It’s just tools and technologies being marketed as AI in order to differentiate within a complex and competitive arena. With true AI, a machine imitates intelligent, and maybe even sentient, human behavior. And while much of what we see today looks like the computer is thinking for itself, it’s really just following very specific, pre-programmed paths using simple rule-based actions, and/or predictive analytics or machine learning. While all subsets of AI, even together they don’t add up to real AI. They’re more like “artificial AI.”

It may seem like semantics, but there are important differences. With predictive analytics, patterns in existing data are used to predict probable results and trends in the future, typically using statistical models and methods. Then, there’s machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence where machines learn and adapt through experience, without the need for predetermined rules and human intervention. With machine learning, models and techniques will change themselves over time as more classifiers enter the system and improve the description of the data to be learned. Examples of machine learning classifiers are K Means Clustering, Linear Regression, Logistic Regression and Decision Trees. These techniques are being used in technologies today for things like facial, voice, music and handwriting recognition.

While not using true AI, the market-available technologies for programmatic advertising that we have today are still sophisticated. They effectively use machine learning and data science-based systems to predict the likelihood of desirable outcomes. They’re certainly valuable for advertisers looking to optimize their media budgets. Further, the automation they allow creates huge efficiencies. They do not, however, fulfill the promise of a set-it-and-forget-it system that gets better or more accurate without any human intervention.

When real AI is finally applied to advertising, it will be transformational. It will intelligently enable desired outcomes to be produced by calling on not one, but a collection of interrelated sciences, techniques and data processing. One day, a truly intelligent AI-based advertising system will enable buyers to seamlessly construct their entire campaign, complete with optimized buys and evolving tactics, just by specifying their goal(s) and budget. Once the algorithms take over, the system will leverage historical data about similar campaigns to make predictions and changes on the fly.

This is all achievable. But supporting it requires highly complex systems to come together, and we still have a long way to go based on today’s fragmented, disconnected assortment of pseudo-systems that look fantastic in isolation, but, in aggregate, don’t add up to the holistic system that buyers need.

Eventually, AI will evolve to where it can improve programmatic media and create a better user experience. And we will eventually get to the point where technology can drive ad campaigns that, without human interaction, achieve campaign KPIs through a virtuous circle of measuring, analyzing and acting on campaign spend, allocation and outcome variables.

In the meantime, platform vendors intent on presenting today’s “artificial AI” will accomplish more by being open about the realistic expectations of their products and the fact that their capabilities are that of early-stage, partial expressions of AI. At the same time, we as an industry should raise our level of thinking and education, so we gain an accurate understanding of AI — not just what it is, but what it can do for us. It is with that knowledge that we can begin to see the true potential of real AI.

Originally in MediaPost – MarketingDaily.

The Case For Connectivity

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media. Today’s column is written by Ashley Herzog, vice president of product at Visto.

Like a good mass transit system, interconnectivity is the key differentiator for advertising technology these days. But for any brand embarking on a self-serve programmatic strategy – for many an agency, too – it’s not as straightforward as simply plugging services together. Challenges and delays remain in vetting potential programmatic partners, reviewing commercial terms and poring over contracts – time-consuming work that can all be for naught if the systems can’t be integrated.

One big hurdle: vendor vetting friction. Considering the current size of the Lumascape, just assessing hundreds of providers for initial fit could take an eternity. Seemingly every day a new partner enters the ad tech ecosystem, offering new or sometimes duplicative services to brands and agencies. The most persistent or notable often push their way to the front, whether or not their technology truly warrants the recognition.

What is more, marketers need sign-off from multiple people within their organization. A customer wants to assemble a group of diverse and complementary partners with experience and market equity, but putting together the puzzle can be like solving a Rubik’s cube.
Another challenge is the commercial negotiation. There is a steep adoption curve to embracing programmatic platforms’ business terms. Most will require a 12-month upfront contract with minimum spend guarantees, which have now risen to upward of 20%. Some providers require a strict and steep monthly minimum, which for a brand manager can add up to a lot of early pressure. In many cases it may take two to four months to ramp up a team to the kind of understanding or visibility to drive significant results.

Finally, there is the contract review. Legal due diligence is important – and time-consuming. I recently learned of one big publisher that took more than six months trying to get its legal team to review a programmatic ad tech contract. And I heard about one major brand that already had a data management platform and programmatic director in place, but just didn’t know where to start to build out its programmatic stack. Just getting one demand-side platform in place took it more than eight months.

These points of inertia are not just road bumps slowing down brands’ inevitable adoption of programmatic tools – they are actually suppressants discouraging many from jumping in at all. I have seen many advertisers and agencies, put off by these challenges and complexities, actually shy away from the prospect.

Programmatic buying is still a mystery to most marketers, according to the ANA, with only 23% claiming to understand how to effectively leverage programmatic strategies. This simply isn’t good enough – when brands are looking at investing millions of dollars in media spend, any mistakes are costly. It’s on the vendors to add in a layer of product onboarding and training to help alleviate this gap.

When I think about how my peers in engineering can smooth out the disconnection and inefficiencies between the core executional actions of advertising platforms from a technical standpoint, I enviously wish there were an equivalent magic wand we could wave over on the business side, to reduce the friction and uncertainty around vetting, negotiating and clearing supplier contracts.

That is why I think everyone in the industry needs to make a concerted effort to reduce the inertia and increase the simplicity with which customers can onboard themselves to a programmatic stack.

Too often, people leading brand marketing efforts are overwhelmed at the first step on the on-ramp. That can limit spending against tactics that may be extremely valuable to a brand, but are deemed too daunting to explore. So, vendors should take it upon themselves to make the best in programmatic solutions as accessible as possible.

Building the first programmatic stack is about contracts and fine print as much as it is about APIs and data. The industry needs to make these business matters as plug-and-play as the technology in the platforms it sells, reducing the time it takes to assess partners, negotiate terms and review contracts.

Follow Visto (@vistosays) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

Originally by AdExchanger

There’s More To Transparency Than Meets The Eye

Concerns over murky industry practices were simmering long before the ANA’s damning report on the lack of transparency across the advertising ecosystem, but it’s hard to overstate how much that bombshell mobilized the conversation when it was released last summer. This year, “transparency” is everywhere as an industry buzzword. Every company is implicated and, in an effort to jump on the transparency bandwagon, many will also tell you that they have a simple solution.

But simple, monolithic solutions are rarely the best ones, and the answer to opacity is not as simple as flicking the switch on a viewing ability vendor alone.

“Transparency” is not a singular checkbox to tick. To a savvy marketer, it consists of several layers of visibility and control, which necessitates adoption of a more diverse definition and approach. There are four areas all marketers should really be talking about when they think about “transparency:”

1. VIEWABILITY

Few would argue against the idea that, for an ad to be valuable, it first must have the opportunity to be seen. So “transparency” as a synonym for “visibility” often leads marketers here as their first stop.

As the Media Rating Council (MRC) and Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) have issued a definition for viewable inventory, there is at least a common metric for measurement. As such, this industry viewability metric has become an important starting point for any buyer’s transparency odyssey.  However, whether or not the metric is stringent enough, or able to be imposed consistently across different screens and formats, is a different story.

With many vendors’ measurements differing, therefore making it difficult to center on a single source of truth, “viewability” is but one piece of the transparency puzzle. The important thing is for buyers to not let this fact deter them from using any metric at all. Starting with industry viewability, at least, provides a baseline against which to measure.

2. FRAUD

The second piece of the transparency puzzle is ensuring that advertising both appears on legitimate sites and is engaged by an actual human. Imagine if, in the days of face-to-face ad buying, a rogue salesman could have impersonated a premium publisher by simply wearing a fake mustache. As far-fetched as that sounds, it’s exactly what’s happening in some corners of the internet today.

A central contributor to this is called domain spoofing, where falsified websites designed to look like top-tier publishers fool ad buyers into believing they are buying space on a legitimate site when they are in fact buying from a very different, dishonest imitator.  A close cousin also causing consternation for marketers are sites or articles created to lure in visitors with false headlines and content, further escalating concerns over placement quality and brand safety. Rounding out this nefarious fraud squad are designers of software meant to imitate actions of actual web browsers, simulating the viewing and clicking of ads, generating false “bot” — or non-human — traffic and clicks.

Fraud of this kind is very different from the viewability questions raised previously as technically one of these fraudulent ads could meet the industry standard of being viewable while still clearly not delivering a valuable ad interaction. What is clear is that much of this ad scourge can be eliminated by the vigilant shining of the bright lights of transparency and measurement onto performance which, when done at a granular level, provide the information and insights to help avoid these felonious players.

Development of white- and blacklists to target ad placements to known urls, and block those know to be illegitimate, is one commonly used tactic, as is close monitoring or alerts settings around unusually high traffic or clicks, which may signal false players. Additionally, buyers should consider adoption of fraud detection and prevention services, which focus solely on exposing fraudulent actors and can act as a marketer’s sentry in the field as well as demanding more granular level reporting and monitoring from their vendor partners to catch criminal actors in the act.

3. SPEND

Do you know how your money was spent last month? One of the major drivers behind transparency concerns is that marketers have precious little visibility as to how partners actually spend the dollars being handed to them.

Both managed service providers and tech platforms have questions to answer. By the time a publisher has put inventory into an exchange, that may be further aggregated into a supply-side platform (SSP) and then a demand-side platform (DSP), with each taking a share of their earnings.  It’s typical for up to 60% of actual media spend to get swallowed up by these intermediaries in what’s called a “tech tax.” Agencies and other service providers also have a variety of fees on top of that and, depending on how transparent those are, it can be difficult for a marketer to understand the true cost of the media bought on their behalf.

A further driving concern for advertisers regarding their vendor and agency fees is uncertainty around any potential conflict of interest around spend decisions which may be driven by discounts, rebates, internal fees and profits, or other incentives which may favor profitability versus performance.

To gain spending transparency from their partners, brands must demand visibility and performance, adopting contract terms that require ongoing reporting to ensure decision making meets the best interest of their business.

4. ACTIONS

Most of the available tools tend to focus on the “what” of transparency, but what about the “why”?

If an agency moved all your video spending from one vendor to another, you would want to know when that happened, as well as the reason why. Are decisions being taken in your best interest or for the agency, and what was the rationale? If you control your company’s marketing budget, you need to have knowledge and confidence around who is making these decisions and what’s driving them to do so.

That’s why marketers must seek out solutions or relations in which partners provide transparency to all campaign changes and actions, together with the motivation. That may be a data feed or software dashboard — but it could also mean writing better evidence into soft-copy reports or regular meetings.

This is not dissimilar from financial services, where fund managers are not allowed to invest large sums for clients on authority and blind trust; they must instead provide regular reporting on their investment activities, what comprises the fund and which ones are performing and which are not as evidence. Now, it’s time advertisers were able to expect the same from their ad partners.

Transparency is one of the key challenges facing the ad industry today. But it’s almost certainly not a single-point problem, and can’t be solved by a single silver bullet.

Taken together, this new lexicon for addressing the challenges of transparency offers marketers and practitioners across the ad tech supply chain a way to create confidence and visibility together to drive the best business decisions and best performance for a marketer’s ad spend.

Originally appeared in MarketingDIVE, August 8, 2017. The article can be found HERE.

Is Consolidation Building New Walled Gardens?

The vendor ecosystem for marketing and advertising has exploded into an overwhelming mess. Just look at the latest Marketing Technology LUMAscape. Can anyone make heads or tails of it? In addition to fragmentation, there’s the issue of big platforms and their “walled gardens.” Brand and agency stakeholders are concerned about their support for third-party verification, agitated about practices for data collection and frustrated by limited understanding of how measurement is done.

Our industry has two big problems. First, there’s the confusion of too many, then the problem of too few. When it comes to the former, most will agree that an eventual segment shake-out will take place and simplify things. With the latter, we can be sure that the battle to open up the likes of Facebook and Google will go on.

Problem solved, right? Not quite. Through all this industry upheaval and uproar, there’s another risk looming on the horizon: a wave of new walled gardens that are being erected right now and right under our noses.

Last year, there were 412 mergers and acquisitions in global ad- and mar-tech, according to advisory group Results International. Each deal reduces the overall size of the industry, meaning there are fewer vendors to choose from. As this trend continues, we risk ushering in a new era of lock-in. Already this year, we’ve seen several big acquisitions, such as the Singtel/Amobee acquisition of Turn, Salesforce of Krux and Oracle of viewability metrics provider Moat.

When Oracle closed the Moat deal this past April, the company issued a fairly typical holding statement, as acquiring giants often do to calm any anxieties of the acquiree’s existing customers. This one said, “Oracle and Moat are committed to keeping Moat an open measurement and analytics platform, with deep integrations and partnerships across the entire digital publisher and ad-tech landscape.” Despite assurances, history has shown that the inevitable drive for post-acquisition synergies requires change, reduction or deprecation of original offerings and services.

Case in point, LiveRail was once a supply-side platform with a rich array of publishers plugging in. When it was acquired by Facebook in 2014, it raised prices and set very strict rules about who it wanted as customers, such as minimum-spending requirements to stay aboard. Then just two years post-purchase, Facebook shut down the last vestiges of the LiveRail service, once so loved by customers like Hulu and A+E Networks.

Now we’re in the midst of another potentially industry-disrupting deal, that between Verizon and Yahoo. We have no idea what will shake out, especially since so many ad-tech acquisitions from Yahoo’s days past remain in integration limbo. Still, it’s our assumption that we’ll see a number of existing technologies and platforms dissolved as a result of consolidation.

No deal like this is intrinsically bad. But, in many situations, the post-acquisition reality can fall far short of what was originally promised whether that’s customer data used in unexpected ways, feature sets pulled out like the proverbial rug or options that were once selling points suddenly rendered invisible or locked down.

The industry’s consolidation situation might look very different if it were being driven by smaller entities teaming up. It’s a bit like the 1980s cult classic cartoon Voltron, with the little players joining forces to fight for the best interests of mankind. But instead, we’re witnessing the creation of the next generation of walled gardens.

We as an industry need to step up to ensure the ongoing survival of a diverse targeting and data ecosystem, one that allows ad buyers and publishers to connect and integrate far and wide while using their data in the ways that best service the consumer. Clients deserve a wide range of integrations, the strongest possible connective tissue and the ability to maintain access to the unique features and benefits of their selected partners with the transparency and control to move freely to whichever combination works best.

Walls aren’t inherently bad; they’re just better when they have doors and windows.

Originally published in MediaPost MarketingDaily, June 30, 2017