Floors are not Fraud

Hi all.  I have been thinking about cracking my knuckles and getting back to the literary salt mine for a while now and I saw an article yesterday that just I couldn’t resist.

Right off the bat, the headline “Are Artificial Price Floors The Next Iteration Of Ad Fraud?” almost audibly screamed Betteridge’s Law. (OK, I had to Google the name, but I swear I remembered there was such a thing).  So, in honor of Mr. Betteridge and his predecessors, let me state clearly that with respect to this headline, “The answer is no.

I can certainly understand why the buy side might not like price floors, but a buyer calling floors fraud is like King George III calling George Washington a terrorist.

Would it be fraud if one bought for 25¢ CPM an impression that’s worth $25 CPM from an ROI perspective? That’s a much bigger disparity between “true” value and transacted price than the example in the AdExchanger byline. Yet this sort of transaction happens all the time because, leveraging technologies like re-targeting, a buyer often knows much more about user value in the context of a particular campaign than a seller does. If they were being candid, many (if not most) buyers would tell you this is kind of the point of sophisticated, RTB-based buying strategies.

So, then, Is Precise, Data-Driven Targeting The Next (Next) Iteration Of Ad Fraud? Of course not.

What would a “true” or “real” floor price for an impression even be, as opposed to the “false” or “artificial” floor to which the author objects? Would it be the small fraction of a cent that it costs the seller to serve the impression? Would it be the seller’s operating expenses divided by its impression volume? Maybe add some margin? What’s a fair margin? Would it be opportunity cost, which the author implies would be his choice? (Second price approximates opportunity cost if one makes some reasonable assumptions.) Something else?

It’s not like I have written a book on this stuff or anything, but I have to tell you that I don’t see any reason why one of these options is more “fair” or “true” than the others. On the contrary, I see all kinds of reasons why all of them are less fair than the outcome of a voluntary transaction between two independent and accountable market participants.

To be clear, the seller has an obligation not to misrepresent what she is selling; misrepresenting what one is selling is bad (just ask Volkswagen). But where else in commerce do we even expect, much less require, a seller to disclose their reservation price transparently?

Do we get mad at the person who sold us our house because they didn’t tell us their brokers’ open was poorly attended and they really need to move immediately? Do we get mad at the car salesman who bargains harder because we forgot to take off our nice watch? Do we get mad at the movie theater because there were empty seats and so their opportunity cost on our ticket was $0? For that matter, do we even get mad at the movie theater for the $10 bag of stale popcorn? No. We expect that behavior and we do our best to counter it, but at the end of the day we decide whether the price offered is worth it to us in context and we buy or don’t buy.

The bottom line is that sellers should be free to use any and all (legal) tools available to them to manage their businesses in any way they think will meet their business objectives. Buyers are free to change bidding strategy, negotiate special terms or look elsewhere if economics on a transaction don’t work for them. Reasonable people could debate whether or not price floors are good for the efficiency of the market overall, but thankfully nobody is setting policy for the market overall – this isn’t 1950s Stalingrad.

Floors, “artificial” or otherwise, are a valuable and perfectly legitimate yield management tool for sellers.

A “future” cure for online ad pricing volatility

A very interesting post on AdExchanger today covering the first installment in what DataXu expects to be a monthly series of reports on market trends.

DataXu disclosed historical volatility of prices across the landscape of biddable online ad inventory they saw through their DSP platform – billions of impressions across multiple exchanges – between 4/10/10 and 5/10/10.  The figure?   102%.  That’s huge pricing volatility on an absolute basis and (as they point out) much higher volatility than we see in Goldman Sachs share prices, oil prices and even presidential approval ratings.

Broadening the aperture doesn’t change the picture.  For example, 102% is much higher volatility than we typically see in historical data for a wide variety of exchange-traded commodities – themselves a notoriously volatile asset class.  I think the way DataXu has calculated volatility for online ads may even understate the difference.  From the notes on the source post here, it looks like DataXu is calculating this 102% number by measuring the variance of average daily prices within that month period.  Volatility in financial markets is usually expressed in annualized figures (like this).  I’m not sure exactly where DataXu got the other figures they list, but since annualization is very common for these types of figures I wouldn’t be surprised if those are annual figures.  If I am right, then the apples:apples annualized figure for online ads would likely be much higher.

Either way, there’s simply no question that the spot market for online ads is tremendously volatile.

So it has always struck me as odd that the same large manufacturing companies that have active, sophisticated, futures-based hedging programs for raw materials like oats and soybean oil with 30-40% annual price volatility would tolerate volatility many times higher in purchases of online media – an increasingly critical raw material input.  As I have written previously in a pair of articles in Ad Age and Ad Exchanger, I think this will change and indeed must change for online media to become a greater share of overall media spend for key categories like CPG.

But in order for that to happen, we need to give them better tools.  We need a Futures market.

Misconceptions about Yield Management and Channel Conflict

Another interesting article from Forbes.com’s Jim Spanfeller yesterday.  I wholeheartedly agree his point about the online ad industry focusing too much on demand fulfillment and too little on demand creation, as evidenced by my previous posts here and here.  That’s exactly why we built Brand.net from the ground up — to help advertisers with demand creation.  I also agree with his point about ad networks that offer some types of user-based targeting  representing a potential “data drain” and a legitimate privacy concern for publishers.  This is an important issue and just coming to the fore for the publishing community overall.

That said, I disagree with two major points Jim makes in this article.

First, he seems to be perpetuating industry confusion on the definition of “remnant”.  In the context of online ad inventory, “remnant” is commonly considered to be the opposite of “premium”, which is often used interchangeably with “high-quality”.  Thus if “premium” = “high-quality”, then “remnant” = “low-quality”.  Unfortunately this is often untrue.  When used correctly, “remnant” actually means “available to the spot market after forward commitments have been fulfilled”.   So the opposite of “remnant” is not “premium”.  The opposite of “remnant” is “reserved in advance”.  There are really two distinct axes at work here:  one describes quality of the inventory, while the other essentially describes the terms or process under which the inventory was purchased.  There is some correlation between the two axes, which I believe is at the heart of the persistent confusion; it’s a fact that remnant inventory is often of lower average quality than inventory that is reserved in advance.  However, due to traffic volatility, forecast errors, suboptimal pricing, supply/demand imbalances, etc., there is often significant volume of high-quality or “premium” inventory available in the “remnant” market. The airline standby example he cites is actually a good illustration of the correct definition of remnant, not (as I think he suggests) the incorrect one that has done so much mischief.  The standby seat has exactly the same physical characteristics (“quality”) as the seat sold in advance, but the difference in timing and deal structure results in a difference in value to both the airline and the passenger, which manifests in a difference in price.

This brings me to my second point: Jim’s position in this article on airline yield management practices shows some pretty fundamental misunderstandings.  Airlines’ lack of profitability has a lot more to do with unions, over-capacity and sub-optimal product offerings than it does customers risking their vacation plans or business objectives to save money on a last-minute ticket.  So I would echo Jason Kelly’s well-informed comments on the thread and add that to suggest yield management practices are somehow to blame for the poor financial performance of airlines is like suggesting that ERP systems and supply chain optimization practices are responsible for the poor financial performance of the American auto industry.  It’s simply not true.

The bottom line is that ad networks and publishers can work together for mutual benefit over the long haul, but to do so requires careful management of channel conflict, an issue we take very seriously.  This discussion is a valuable and important one, but I think we need to be more careful and rigorous in our thinking – the more so, the better off we’ll be as an industry.

Branding needs the web…and the web needs branding

Solid article on ClickZ last week with some insightful commentary from Nielsen Online CEO John Burbank.  Mr. Burbank correctly identifies lack of brand dollars online as the source of current downward pressure on rates and publisher revenue.  He’s 100% right that without these dollars following audiences online, the online publishing ecosystem will degrade and that users will not like the results.  This second theme was echoed by Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai, in another insightful piece for AdAge.  So without a robust online ad market online, online publishing will suffer.  And if that ad market doesn’t include the large brands that funded quality content in other media, online content quality will degrade to the detriment of users, advertisers and publishers alike.  A tragedy of the commons of sorts.

Mr. Burbank went on to make the important point if publishers want to attract brand spend, they need to help brand advertisers measure results using metrics that are appropriate to the objectives of brand campaigns.  He suggests that rather than focusing on clicks, brands should be focused on “whether their ads reach the desired targets, change the way consumers think about their brands, or help sell products.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  This is something we discuss with our clients every day.  We actually partner with Nielsen to help our clients in CPG measure the extent to which their online campaigns sell product offline.  The results speak for themselves.  Online advertising works.

I do disagree with Mr. Burbank on one important point, however.   He seems to suggest that ad networks are responsible for the current challenges online publishers face.  It’s true that ad networks can put downward pressure on CPMs for a publisher, but that is primarily driven not by the fact that a network is doing the selling, but that the vast majority of networks sell almost exclusively to DR buyers.  Those buyers are extremely price sensitive and thus the downward pressure.  If there was a healthy level of demand by brand advertisers for online content, this downward pressure would be balanced and the online publishing ecosystem would be much more stable.  Unfortunately, online branding today remains too inefficient for brand dollars to follow audiences online easily and balance this equation.  So an ad network focused on branding, such as Brand.net, actually helps matters, increasing efficiency for brand buyers to help move budgets from other media, while not undermining the economics of the premium publishing model.  This is another topic near and dear to my heart, which I addressed at some length in an iMedia post earlier this year.

Interesting MediaPost Blog – “Team Publishing: Stop Whining”

Many interesting points raised in this recent MediaPost Blog.  Certainly an interesting take on one of the reasons for the current predominance of DR over Branding in online advertising and I agree wholeheartedly that online display ads are a far better branding medium than it’s currently fashionable to believe.  (I found myself thinking, “AMEN!” as I read that paragraph.  Well put.)

I also agree that the more compelling the creative opportunities for brand marketers the better, as long as a standard approach can be developed.  I’m not sure that the tethered ad approach that’s recommended is the right solution, but that doesn’t detract from the argument against clutter.  A publisher choosing to go to with 100% tethered ads would likely execute that choice operationally the same way they would execute any other new ad unit, so the real question is, “What’s the most effective ad unit for brand marketers?”.  Certainly a worthwhile question.  Would also point out that networks as whole wouldn’t necessarily lose in the scenario outlined.  Many certainly would if the new unit was less effective (lower ROI) for DR campaigns, but Brand marketers and Branding-focused ad networks would welcome any new standard unit that improved results for online branding.

A Brief Analysis of the Ad Supply/Demand Imbalance

It’s true that there’s an imbalance between supply and demand, which is putting downward pressure on rates as highlighted in this morning’s WSJ article “Future Shock for Internet Ads?”.  However, I think there are some important details missing that would add richness and perspective to this article and other similar ones.

First off, the writer cites PubMatic data at the beginning of the article. I have every confidence that the PubMatic data is accurate for what it is, but articles quoting the data rarely mention that it reflects a very specific sub-segment of the overall online ad market. That is direct response campaigns running on primarily small publishers with poor average content quality (with many exceptions I am sure) and weak/non-existent direct sales channels (likely not many exceptions here). This market sub-segment is the most volatile and most sensitive to changing market conditions so in that sense the trend numbers (48% Y/Y decline in Q4) really represent a “worst case”. The absolute numbers ($0.26 average CPM in Q4) are similarly non-representative; the significant majority of money that was spent in the display market during Q4 was spent at CPMs an order of magnitude higher than that. PubMatic actually makes some attempt to clarify in the text of the report itself, but in general these numbers are too often represented to be a broad barometer of display advertising, which they simply are not.

Two other important points: In general much of the online ad supply that’s being created is not being created in areas that advertisers have figured out how to use yet. Social networking sites and long tail content sites are good examples. The consumer applications are evolving so rapidly that effective ad models are lagging behind, so spend stays concentrated in areas that advertisers understand better.

Finally, in any analysis of supply/demand balance and particularly when CPMs are involved, it’s important to note that there are two distinct high-level market segments in online ads – Direct response and Brand. Across all measured media, Brand spend is 2x DR spend but this dynamic is very different online. Nearly 30% of DR spend is now online, but only 5% of Brand spend is. This imbalance is a big reason why the overall supply/demand balance is out of whack. The author mentions this at the end of the WSJ article I reference above but I think these more specific details help clarify why this is happening.

The Importance of Brand Advertising

This week Randall Rothenberg, the President of the IAB, released a self-proclaimed “manifesto” which picks up many relevant themes to our work at Brand.net.

It’s quite long, but the first 3 sections and the last 2 echo conversations we have with partners (advertisers, agencies and publishers) literally on a daily basis.  As I said in my comment to Randall’s article, there’s more confusion than information in too much of the ongoing debate about CPMs, formats/standards and the role of networks.   Everyone – advertisers, agencies, publishers and networks – would be better served if we could collectively take a step back from today’s disproportionate focus on DR and think more broadly about what it takes to make the Internet work for the full funnel.  In doing so we will find long-term, sustainable solutions to many of today’s challenges.