The new geography features auction-based ad exchanges and conglomerated companies with divisions that buy, sell and distribute ads: something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
The emergence of these new entities with intertwined relationships has the potential to streamline the media marketplace and drive costs down and return on investment up. Consolidation will likely enable the biggest players to increase their market share while also growing the demand for independent agencies and networks that operate outside of their reach.
Fast and Furious
To recap: In a shorter span than is required to complete the NHL playoffs, Google gobbled up DoubleClick, Yahoo lassoed RightMedia, Microsoft acquired aQuantive, WPP Group won 24/7 Real Media and AOL absorbed Ad:Tech AG.
LinkShare, a subsidiary of Internet services company Rakuten, purchased lead generation company Traffic Strategies in June. Rival Commission Junction is owned by potential acquisition target ValueClick, and Performics is a property of Google’s DoubleClick.
The acquisition frenzy has made tracking industry relationships as challenging as keeping up with the latest Hollywood romances and legal tangles. For the first time the largest media companies own ad networks and/or agencies, one of the largest agencies owns a network, plus countless smaller players also work on both the buy and sell side. (To untangle the web, see page 49 of the July/August 2007 issue.)
Consolidation, shakeout, maturation of the market: Whatever you want to call it, investment banker John Doyle of Peachtree Media Advisors says there are precedents in TV and print industries for large media companies doing a “land grab” to acquire related businesses. “It’s like getting a bigger bucket to stand under a waterfall,” he says. Advertisers are expected to greatly increase their online spend during the next few years, so it is not surprising that the top media companies attempt to expand their reach by buying companies offering related services, he says. Doyle expects the consolidation to continue as it adds value for buyers, and more midsize companies will likely want to increase their heft by scooping up smaller competitors. However, after the biggest deals are done, the largest players are unlikely to buy smaller shops, as it “won’t move the needle” in increasing their market share, according to Doyle.
Questions of Perception
The distinction between interactive/ creative agencies, advertising networks and media companies began to dissolve through smaller acquisitions during the past few years, but now the potential for conflicts of interest are as clear as they are abundant. That agencies, ad networks and publishers are owned by a single organization has many in the industry uncomfortable. “Most of the rules of online advertising are broken …” says Russ Mann, CEO of search marketing company SEMDirector.
By comparison, how would investors feel if one entity ran the stock market and owned an analyst firm and a brokerage? Not too comfortable, most agree. Not surprisingly, in May, the Federal Trade Commission began an antitrust investigation of Google’s purchase of DoubleClick to identify aspects of the deal that could limit competition.
Publishers might be reticent to partner with companies owned by a competitor, according to Dana Ghavami, CEO of CheckM8, which sells software to manage rich media campaigns. For example, ad networks could prioritize placement based on the needs of their corporate family of publishers. “My worry – if I am a media company such as Viacom or Fox [which have used DoubleClick’s ad network] – is who is looking after my interest?” says Ghavami.
Interactive agencies with ties to networks and media companies have the most at risk as they are likely to undergo the most scrutiny to remove any doubts that they are putting clients first. Trusting agencies to buy “in-house” is akin to “asking students to grade their own tests,” according to John Ardis, vice president of corporate strategy at ad network ValueClick.
Advertisers looking to optimize the return on investment from their media buys will want assurances that purchasing decisions aren’t compromised by a need to unload excess inventory from a sister company, CheckM8’s Ghavami says. That’s not a comfortable discussion for those sitting on either side of the table. These “umbrella” companies will have to institute internal safeguards to prevent the possibility or even the appearance that their actions are being influenced by other divisions of the company.
Advertisers may be unwilling to place their confidential and sacrosanct data about campaign performance in the hands of companies with divisions that are their direct competitors. For example, a liquor company might hesitate before signing on with a network that is part of the same company as an agency that represents a competing brand (see BT story on page 52 of the July/August 2007 issue).
Similarly, a media giant may not want its top advertisers’ performance data to be in the hands of a competing company. “Everyone has seen what Google is capable of when they have too much control – they start setting the rules,” says Ghavami. Giving the enemy the intelligence used to form your battle plan isn’t a strategy for success.
The Upside of Acquisitions
While organizations that span multiple aspects of advertising increase concerns about conflicts of interest, they should be able to increase efficiency and lower the cost of buying and selling. In theory, agencies would be able to buy from sister networks without the need for the sometimes lengthy approval process that slows insertion orders. Also, ad networks and their subsidiaries could combine campaign performance data with real-time analytics from their publisher properties with an ease and granularity not possible today.
“Microsoft [as one example] would be able to create bundled solutions that are more cost-effective and provide more value at the same price,” says Dema Zlotin, vice president of strategic services at SEMDirector. Advertisers would save time by working with one-stop shops and could better adjust campaigns by getting real-time site-by-site performance to complement their networkwide data.
Agencies, however, may have to rethink their fee structure if the purchase is made from elsewhere within the company. Charging a hefty commission when buying from its own network and properties won’t fly with some advertisers. Agencies that are part of other entities will have to work harder now to prove that their intellectual capital is worth paying the premium, according to ValueClick’s Ardis.
Greg Stuart, the former CEO of the Internet Advertising Bureau and co-author of the book, What Sticks, says online advertising was ripe for change. The buying and selling of interactive ads is costly and inefficient, according to Stuart, and consolidation and greater transparency will benefit advertisers. “Shame on the industry for letting it go for so long,” he says. “I am appalled at some of the things that go on,” says Stuart, stating that the failure rate (47 percent) of ad campaigns reflects poor performance by agencies.
While data sharing between organizations can simplify more “routine” buys, advertisers will continue to work with agencies for more complex purchases. The potential for conflict of interest could prove a boon to independent agencies. Some advertisers might be inclined to work with smaller but experienced shops whose allegiance can’t be questioned.
Though purchases through a single company might be more efficient, advertisers happy with an agency could go with networks from competitors, according to SEMDirector’s Mann. “Online is still best-of-breed world,” he says, adding that the various divisions of a one-stop shop might not be the best choice individually.
Rise of the Ad Exchanges
In this consolidated online environment, advertising exchanges that use auction bidding to sell ads and directly connect advertisers and publishers will see increased interest because of their transparency. Exchanges enable advertisers (either companies or networks working on their behalf) to bid for type of ad and the demographic that they would like to reach. Publishers set a minimum price for accepting the ads, and the exchange automatically matches buyer and seller.
Ad exchanges recently changing hands include Right Media, which was acquired by Yahoo, which previously owned 20 percent of the company, and an exchange being developed by DoubleClick that will become part of Google. Microsoft is said to be developing its own exchange, and independent exchanges include AdECN; Turn, Inc.; and ContextWeb.
Bill Urschel, the CEO of AdECN, says exchanges are differentiated from advertising networks because of the auction pricing, the transparency, and because the exchanges guarantee payment to the publishers. “[Exchanges] are taken from the stock exchange model,” says Urschel. AdECN’s exchange has signed up 28 ad networks since it launched in March of this year.
This transparency will attract publishers concerned about intertwined relationships since the services are (at least in theory) neutral to the source of the ad. While publishers and advertisers who compete with Google, Yahoo, etc., may not want to hire their agencies or networks, the exchanges can provide access to their sites.
Because of the negotiations involved in securing media buys, many large publishers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post often have 20 percent of their ad inventory unsold, according to CheckM8’s Ghavami. “Remnant inventory will be marketplace-driven,” he says.
Once they gain experience in using an exchange, some publishers and advertisers may bypass the ad networks and trade directly through the exchanges themselves. Ghavami estimates that 70 percent or more of major publishers’ inventories could be sold directly by exchanges. Ad exchanges will most directly compete with remnant networks such as Blue Lithium and Traffic Marketplace.
Exchanges may accelerate the shakeout of the weaker advertising networks, but they are unlikely to dominate the larger networks. Exchanges make sense for large publishers who have considerable unsold inventory, but publishers are likely to continue to get their highest CPMs through traditional sales channels.
Just as online stock trading didn’t cause brokerages to become extinct, the automated selling advertising is unlikely to replace networks. “There is a sliver of people who will be comfortable with the auction model, so auctions will have a place,” says ValueClick’s Ardis, whose company does not participate in an ad exchange, “but they won’t set the industry on its ear.”
The New Landscape
The current wave of industry consolidation will likely continue, enabling larger companies to become more powerful while at the same time providing opportunity for third-party auditing companies.
Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Time Warner and their affiliated companies will have their hands in each step of the marketing chain, enabling them to increase the revenue generated from each client. The potential promise for advertisers is that these companies will be able to better target customers and increase by matching demographic and target data with real-time campaign analytics.
“The move away from AdSense to networks that are better at interpreting content” and matching it with advertisers makes sense, according to author Stuart. Advertisers would have greater control in distributing content to their target audience, such as being able to launch a campaign that is instantly delivered to a specific demographic (e.g., males between 18 and 35).
Though many of the sizable agencies and networks have been swallowed, the consolidation will likely continue. Networks such as ValueClick and smaller competitors could also be acquired. But analytics firms such as Visual Sciences (formerly WebSideStory) and Omniture are likely to be at the top of the media moguls’ shopping lists because of the additional insight they provide in maximizing revenue, according to Stuart.
Media companies are also likely to continue acquiring search and mobile properties (such as the recent acquisitions of Third Screen Media by AOL and ScreenTonic by Microsoft) during this continued consolidation, according to AdECN’s Urschel.
Advertisers and publishers may pressure multiservice companies to allow third-party auditing and oversight to ensure that ad buying, selling and placement are all completed without prejudice. Independent auditing firms could verify transactions between related organizations, or advertisers could request that purchases be made from outside networks and publishers. Industry groups will likely establish voluntarily privacy rules or codes of conduct to limit potential conflicts.
Exactly how companies will adapt with new services and systems to increase the efficiency of online advertising is uncertain today. But we can be sure that now that the rules have been changed, there is no going back.
John Gartner is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift and is the Editor of Matter-mag.com.