The Good and the Bad of Ad Network Proliferation
If Jack Myers' predictions, shared by Wenda Harris Millard during her keynote at the IAB annual meeting in late February, are true, then we are staring at a major industry contraction. It may not appear clearly yet, but from across the room, it is close. For months, the best and brightest in interactive have said the economic downturn will not affect interactive the way it has other marketing sectors, because what we do is accountable and measurable. But one theme of Millard's speech was that math, science and our industry's accountability mantra is self-defeating. Why sacrifice creativity, the big idea and the sexy campaign for a bunch of really cool spreadsheet data?
As Millard suggested, we can do both. It seems that if we are looking at the worst advertising contraction in generations, we as an industry need to start hitting on all cylinders: metrics, productivity and great ideas. This means getting smarter about mobile and social media, but it also means we need to reexamine our networks.
Advertising networks provide simplicity and enable reach. That's great. But go to any interactive advertising event and you will see networks everywhere - literally hundreds of them. And with every event, new networks seem to emerge. While the proliferation of choice is great because it gives advertisers and media buyers plenty of flexibility and access to low-cost options, the proliferation of networks may actually be part of the problem.
For example, say a media buyer is given the directive to find multiple premium inventory publishers for a given brand campaign and then bargains every publisher down until the media buyer gets his ideal price. Regardless of how he gets there, it is very likely that the singular focus on price will undermine the media plan that supports the creative. If publishers only focus on yield, and not on optimization or whether the campaign is actually successful, is there really a point to the campaign? Or is it, as Millard would say, a "pork belly"? I would argue that results like those detailed in last year's "Natural Born Clickers" report are directly related to the push to increase inventory and fill inventory on any and every site, as well as the ever-growing number of ad networks that enable a system driven by quantity and not quality.
Not all networks are created equal. The best ad network partner will be just as dedicated to getting your brand campaign right as it will to achieving the metrics. Your ad network should work together with your campaign - it should be on stage as a singer in harmony with the beat of the entire campaign, not as the stage manager. Your ad network should be honest with you; sometimes less is more, meaning frequency capping is a great idea (and don't let any network tell you otherwise). In fact, Natural Born Clickers showed last year that when digital campaigns have a branding objective, optimizing for high click rates does not necessarily improve campaign performance.
Likewise, behavioral and geotargeting are not nice-to-have options for branded interactive campaigns - they are imperatives. Consumers respond to context and relevance. The first job of your ad network is to target your ideal market segment, not sell you on impressions. It does not matter how many people see your campaign if none of them connect with it. When ad networks pinpoint your brand audience, your creative shines and reaches its intended audience - and is more likely to attain your conversion goals, too.
Maybe not every network that popped up in the last two years will survive the next three. And maybe that is a good thing. Generally, I'm not much of a Pollyanna. But in this case, the news about the economy may not all be bad if we, as an industry, start valuing quality over quantity.