Category Archives: game theory

Fear & Loathing in the Ad Technology Stack

Spring is upon us and many of us are coming from and going to conferences this week. With so many interesting events to chose from it is exciting to see all the innovations and industry continuing to grow; analyst Jack Myers put digital advertising at $47.6 Billion last year (8% share of total marketing spend). This is no doubt evidenced by the plethora of technology companies captured in Terrence Kawaja’s ubiquitous Display Advertising Landscape diagram. Yet, the colorful framework belies the complex and fierce co-evolution that is happening behind-the-scenes of the so-called Ad Technology Stack.

Focused on hitting their milestones and/or quotas, investor-fueled and publicly-traded ventures alike will be putting on the hard-sell this trade show season. Panel and exhibit hall attendees certainly know the drill. Prospects will be dazzled, plans hatched and hopes dashed with the latest BSO (bright shiny object) hanging in the balance. On tap across booth chit-chat, panel pontification, martinis and outdoor activities will be information (not to mention outright disinformation). Perpetual conversion machines are the latest rage!

After years of consolidation and financial speed bumps the current industry, while seeing more revenue has definitely shrunk in terms of choices. It should not be a surprise that many battle-scarred survivors have benefitted from this and effective technology lock-in strategies. The result for some technology buyers has been worse service levels and slowed innovation. Nonetheless, gaps in the incumbent’s vision or their inability to consistently innovate have spawned mini-me’s up and down the stack; some trying to create their own lock-in. Unfortunately, all this has all been accepted as a cost of doing business.

To buyers of stack technologies: caveat emptor.

We Know What You’re Up To

Once the technology deal is done – it is going to be too late. Control immediately begins to shift from the technology buyer to the seller. Why does leverage shift? In economic terms, the buyer may have just unwittingly entered into a deal with a micro-monopolist. While this could be arguably true for many industries, for stack buyers this has more severe consequences. The kind that are often obfuscated yet pervasive and only become fully understood in time. It goes way beyond simple buyer’s remorse.

Ad Technology Stack business models that rely on technology lock-in do so because their investors and management have found that such switching inflexibility works for them. One need only look around to find many mainfestations across the stack, mainly in two areas:

  1. Performance analytics – ownership, access and control of reporting data
  2. Behavioral data – for both advertisers and publishers

Due to information asyncronicity, technology buyers often don’t realize fast enough that they are really signing up to purchase a series of products and services -all when they are at the greatest informational disadvantage. As a result, stack buyers can easily become captives of their own making. A little diligence and research upfront can mitigate the common self-inflicted damage caused by lock-in.

Switching Cost and Lock-in

In game theory, a product or service has a switching cost when the buyer purchases it over multiple periods of time and experiences time, cash or opportunity costs to switch from one seller to another. Switching costs can also occur when a buyer purchases additional complementary products or services making substitutes relatively more expensive; increased complexity is positively correlated with higher switching costs.

Altogether this effectively shifts the supply curve and creates the “lock-in” effect thus raising costs for the buyer. Clearly, switching items in the stack can have unintended negative consequences. More specifically, when a businesses contracts with a stack company there are usually multiple economic components to what is effectively the total cost of ownership (TCO):

  • Implementation
    • Cash
    • Resource time
  • Learning Curve:
    • Application usage
    • Report data warehousing
  • Framework
    • Contractual
    • Network considerations
    • Opportunity

All of the above combine to create an effective transaction or cost of switching. Although implementation is an obvious one-time cost (sometimes the largest component), other costs are more subtle and may actually increase over time. Practical scenarios might include:

  • changing the ad server or site analytics technology
  • managing research or targeting page tags (and data sharing)

Staying Balanced in the Melee

While the lock-in strategy has worked well for technology sellers in the past, many Ad Technology Stack ventures are about to get their legs kicked from under them. Enter tag (data) management companies like BrightTag, Tagman, Ensighten and Tealium.These companies are exclusively, if not mostly focused on managing proliferating page tags which are a major culprit behind stack lock-in. Having one technology locked-in that you’ve planned for is probably better than fifteen that just happened over time.

In addition to to making the business of digital marketing actually manageable from a logistical tag and data-sharing standpoint, the larger possibilities are tantalizing for stack buyers wrestling with IT/development queues. Simply put, tag management changes the balance of leverage away from the sellers towards their customers. Analytics expert, Eric Peterson called this out  in a recent white paper saying:

“…as implementations become more involved and sophisticated the businesses willingness to switch vendors declines, even in situations where the relationship has been badly damaged by miss-set expectations, miscommunication, or outright lies”

Fear and Loathing

Yes, positive change is in the air for the industry. Widespread use of tag management systems make this an inevitability. However, reactions span the contninuum:

  1. Guarantee us business and we’ll integrate
  2. These companies are risky start-ups
  3. We have developed our own solution
  4. Interesting, but never heard of it
  5. No problem, we can work with anyone
  6. Great idea, we want to get to market first

No wonder that the reactions from the ad technology stack about universal tag management have been mixed – these tag management companies are upsetting the status quo and threatening lock-in!

Laggards are doing what they do: delaying and holding out. They are not happy about this. Some are attempting to make tying deals to lock-in even more. For this desperate and unimaginative bunch, it will be a slow and steady burn as the balance of power swings back; some may even get crushed. Others will respond by acquiring companies or being acquired. Still others will hit the wall or just become irrelevant.

More proactive technology sellers see this as an opportunity for competitive advantage and customer relationship-building. This breed of stack company is already knows how to adapt to the new reality of constantly being tested. They are fast failers and built to optimize, now using the opportunity to proactively to gain compeititve advantage.

Moving Forward

Technology stack buyers must balance the fear of being left-behind with a more reasoned approach. Sellers must be able to provide value today without depending on technology lock-in to be successful in the long-term; management discipline and technology agility are essential.

On the upside, one promising trend is that for the first time since the implosion of the Web 1.0 industry, business development (not strategic sales execs) executives are popping up across Ad Technology Stack start-ups. Having the organizational competency to vet and manage strategic alliances is a step in the right direction. Kudos.

Interoperability matters. Compatibility across the stack is a must-have and stack players that didn’t learn the lessson of Betamax (in hopes of another iPod) may be deluding themsleves. Such a fast-buck approach has the technology seller helping themselves at their customers long-term expense…almost becoming parastic. Investors and entrepreneurs take note: the new stack won’t tolerate old stack micro-monopolies: plan on more Schumpeterian creative destruction.

In the end, it is all about risk-sharing: stack buyers that don’t perform adequate diligence, risk being marginalized by lock-in. At the same time, stack sellers that cannot constantly adapt to the marketplace will become riskier bets.

Just make sure you’re not stuck with them.

[UPDATE: AdExchanger had an intro which didn’t quite capture the point. Whether you buy a la carte or bundled technologies doesn’t matter. What matters is how those technologies integrate (or don’t) with each other and how easily you can test them. Tag management/data sharing technologies (especially pure-plays) can mitigate the inflexibility of tag based lock-in.]

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Groupon vs. Advertising? Response to Bernhard

Of course, I disagree with Eric Bernhard’s simplistic view of advertising posted on TechCunch.

It echoes the obsession with media decisions that are simply easier to measure (vis-a-vis conversion rates) alluded to in my prior post about defining viewthrough. Rule #1 of analytics: Just because it is easy to measure doesn’t mean you should – although there are some cynical arguments about job security.

Effective advertising is dangerous as Jeff Molander put it, but potentially very powerful – it always has been as it continues to evolve. Unfortunately, executing and measuring advertising is *much* more complex than pushing a button and signing up for a Groupon promotion: there are media choices to plan and buy as well as serious creative and messaging decisions.

Compare that to Groupon’s appeal: “No one makes it happen faster”,”savvy young audience”,etc…

 
Sales pitch aside, Eric is onto something deeper in his primal mistrust of brand advertising. The perception that a Groupon is inherently less risky than advertising alternatives is actually a clever meme that is apparently being well-tapped by Groupon’s sales force and marketing. 
That a business can actually tangibly see people (customers as they are buying) coming in the door (profitable transactions or not) is new, powerful and real. Less easy to measure is the long-term impact of this Pavlovian bell. Naturally, business owners assume some will be sticky to make up for the price-sensitive deal shoppers. Basic accounting should clue the business owner in as to the actual cost of the promotion.
Meanwhile, it is just not that easy to measure the impact of branding on an ephemeral mass of people that didn’t come in – to the point about conversion rates. 
What is going on here? Game Theory proves over and over again that most people are VERY risk-averse. Ultimately, if we reframed the opportunity instead by offering each of the $20K advertising deals for FREE to business owners – what do you think their response would be? 
Many will prefer take the certainty of free advertising over a specific and likely loss.

Newspapers…Tragedy, Irony and Reinvention Opportunity

A follow-up to the previous post, Sam Zell Pops Bubbles, The Deal’s Chris Nolter pens “Black and White and Red All Over“, an overview of the tragedy in which the newspaper business finds itself in these days.

Nolter offers a high-level look at the financial problems and opportunities facing the newspaper industry today. A couple of interesting themes emerge in the article that beg for a closer look, namely the FCC’s curious 180-degree turnaround and the concept of ephemeral media brands as valuable assets; there are even a few pithy quotes from the venerable Dave Morgan of RealMedia and Tacoda.

FCC’s Change of Heart?
Nolter raises the very interesting notion that the previous FCC policy to regulate local media is becoming passe.

“…the government might be more willing to consider deals that would consolidate media ownership but preserve jobs. “Given the economic climate today some of the nostrums and antitrust views voiced as recently as six to 12 months ago may have to be tweaked, in order to focus on job preservation in the short term rather than some larger antitrust theories,” he says.”

Recall the days when media company consolidation was running rampant and unchecked. Conveniently oblivious to the online media tsunami and under the nobler-than-thou auspices of “diversity of ownership” (think subprime mortgage crisis) interventionists-of-convenience red-flagged the motivations of big media only looking to get bigger. They successfully got legislators and federal bureaucrats in a tizzy enabling bizarre local ownership regulations that forced newspapers, radio and television stations within a market to stay artificially separate. The FCC cracked down and was encouraged to scrutinize and block all suspect Mergers & Acquisitions…especially those creating any potential local monopolies on…get this: news information. Yes, the government was going to protect us from suspect news.

Like all government rules, this did have the perverse and predictably unintended effect of encouraging media companies to attempt to game the system. Tactics include fattening-up DC lobbyists to get exceptions, incurring vast legal charges to file paperwork and argue the point, issuing feel good press releases and exorbitant investment banking fees to load-up on new debt (this cost management time as well as money) – all the while thinking they had a sunny new media future. Meanwhile, the then nascent global online marketplace for advertisers and audiences grew fast and fairly lean (thanks to an overreaching Sarbanes-Oxley growth capital has been slim). Not surprisingly and at the same time, the legacy newspaper business model has shriveled up with the sacred cash cow that is classified taking the biggest disintermediation hit. Fast forward to today.

“Hearst Corp. put the Seattle Post-Intelligencer up for sale Jan. 9, and said if it did not find a buyer within 60 days it would consider going digital only or halting publication. The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News now only deliver papers on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, though it will still sell papers on newsstands seven days a week. “

The cost of doing business is the same if not higher for newspapers (labor + newsprint) yet the revenues are long gone. Saddled with debt from propping up their businesses, they are now dropping like flies and clearly getting very desperate. Many newspaper companies will be forced to offer online-only products, limited print runs and some may shut down altogether.

Ironically, these same high-minded voices that prompted the FCC’s inane rules to begin with are now actually suggesting that local TV/radio stations buy the newspapers to keep them in business! Apparently, it is now OK to consolidate operations within a local market because of journalism’s higher-purpose not to mention saving jobs. Considering the political bent of the soon-to-be-unemployed highly-unionized newspaper manufacturing workers and journalists, one can guess what the the new do-gooder administration will do next. Prepare for the sappy journalism paeans and the FCC’s rules to lighten up, if not more creative government-bailout schemes for the well-connected.

Trusted Brands

The other really interesting aspect brought up by Nolter is the actual value of newspaper’s brands.

“Journalists hate the word, but newspapers have great brand…It’s not fake. It’s not a lie. Newspapers have an incredible relationship and substantial amount of trust with readers.”

Specifically, it’s the credibility and trust borrowed from their traditional offline business. All those years of news reporting did have an impact – inuring or accruing to the the newspaper’s brand equity. From a financial analysis standpoint, such branding is often associated with that balance sheet intangible – goodwill. While it is true that technically, goodwill is just the difference between book value and market value these media brands haven’t disappeared either nor has their connection to their locales either. It is true that their prospects have both worsened and capital has become scarcer at the same time. Clearly, not a good place to be.
However, there is an arbitrage upside. Many have already gone negative in terms of goodwill, yet this has made them into financial targets. In the online media business, a newspaper’s brand name is probably their biggest asset and very bankable to both advertising agencies, local marketers and local audiences. Yet, to tap that online brand equity without being dragged down by an business model – the old management culture, legacy infrastructure needs to go…fast. The sclerotic thinking and corporate culture’s that allowed such obsolescence to exist are going to feel it. Expect more unusual bedfellows in creative destruction type deals, like Sam Zell and Tribune as well as Carlos Slim’s debt/warrant financing of The New York Times.

Final Thoughts

With newspaper jobs and all the associated votes now at stake, the diversity of media ownership pabulum is going to go out the door. It seems that minimal FCC regulation 10-15 years ago would have allowed the consumer and the marketplace to sort out this mess – not Congress, the FCC and ultimately the taxpayer.

All told, this situation brings to mind the classic Ted Levit business school case-study, Marketing Myopia. Levit’s article on the railroad industry of the 50s was spot-on; it spawned the thought-provoking question for managers and owners – what business are they really in? For railroads, it wasn’t the physical trains or railroads. Instead, it was providing transportation for their industrial customers. That was the problem that the railroad companies solved for their customers and therefore the “solution” they essentially sold.

Turns out for newspapers, their business is really the news and not the paper part.

Reinvention is better than extinction – just ask NPR & PBS’s sponsorship sales team!