Sales Focus: Rep Firms Rule the Digital Roost

For best results in the Internet's "mid-tail," rep firms beat ad servers

Intensified demand for premium inventory on major portals and prime online destinations has caused CPMs to escalate. As a result, brand marketers are increasingly looking across the "mid-tail" of the Internet's long tail, where high quality sites can be more cost-effective and provide better contextual relevancy for creative integration. But the mid-tail represents an especially formidable expanse of the digital jungle.

Dealing directly with mid-size Webmasters with little to no media experience can try anyone's patience, so marketers usually place ads through an ad network or a rep firm. Ad networks generally represent thousands of Web sites and have little to no relationship to a publisher or control over inventory. Rep firms represent hundreds of sites and are an outsourced extension of a site's sales efforts. Given rep firms' strength in managing mid-tail inventory, ad networks have begun rebranding themselves as quasi-rep firms.

Here are seven criteria that can be used to identify the true rep firm from an ad network.

>Site Representation. Ad networks aggregate fragmented online audiences by assembling as many sites as possible to create a channel, and there's considerable overlap. A rep firm's focus is on the exclusive representation of a set of quality sites that comprise a desired vertical market or audience segment.

>Decision-Maker Relationships. Ad network salespeople rarely have personal contact with individual Web publishers, so media planning and buying is purely formulaic. Rep firms invest in face-to-face contact with decision-makers on both sides of the fence, since matching creative execution with medium is paramount.

>Marketing Message. Ad networks generally lump sites into broad channels and have little knowledge of each site's content and whether it is relevant to, or even safe for, a particular brand. A rep firm identifies sites that are a contextual fit for the brand and avoids those that are not.

>Ad Placements. Ad networks usually rely on fully automated programs to place and rotate standardized ads through remnant publisher inventory. Working more intimately with fewer sites, a rep firm has knowledge and control over publisher inventory to guarantee certain ad placements, thereby providing total transparency of all ad placements.

>Creative Integration. Automated ad networks are generally limited to the standard set of IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) units. A rep firm delivers these plus rich media and customized and out-of-the box placements. These can include re-skinnings, co-branded navigation bars, custom video games, sponsorships, and advertorial support.

>Ad Serving. Publishers use ad networks to fill unsold inventory, and, since they generally "daisy-chain" multiple ad networks together, no network knows exactly what inventory a publisher will default through to it. A rep firm obtains priority access to key site positions through primary inventory deals, allowing it to guarantee placements and frequency.

>Customer Service. Born out of an arbitrage/performance model, ad networks have not developed the personnel or skills to work one-on-one with top brand marketers to execute site-specific media buys. Rep firms' account executives, planners, and buyers understand the inherent issues in obtaining key placements across multiple Web sites.

Your decision depends on the nature of the brand, marketing objectives, and creative strategies. But if you need a guide as you move into the mid-tail, rep firms are the better choice.

Brian Fitzgerald is cofounder and president of Gorilla Nation Media, LLC, an online ad sales representation company. (

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