How adtech gets its groove back in 5 easy (ok – maybe not so easy) steps

Judy Shapiro

Judy Shapiro

Editor-in-Chief at The Trust Web Times
Judy Shapiro

Judy Shapiro

Editor-in-Chief at The Trust Web Times

Ask anyone involved in any aspect of marketing and you are likely to hear a tale of doubt, depression and discouragement.

Agencies are down trodden as they struggle to create a new type of business model once adtech knocked them off their strategic and creative perch they thought was unassailable.  They got blindsided by clients’ embrace of adtech’s promise to reduce the unpredictability of the highly unpredictable strategic and creative work agencies got paid to do.

Publishers struggle to maintain margins, caught in the vice between Facebook and Google. Adding to their business woes are ad networks that compress CPM prices so they can arbitrage prices at the direct expense of publishers.  It’s heart aching to read the many painful Reddit posts by publishers trying to run the gauntlet in this complex and often unwinnable game. These posts reveal the depth of their quiet, desperate struggle to navigate the ever-changing techno-traps laid by the largest players over whom they have little meaningful leverage.   

Advertisers are in state of turmoil. They know technology can do amazing things but they lack the confidence in themselves or, frankly, their agencies to execute. They are under constant pressure to ensure every dollar delivers to the organization but increasingly, they are finding the very technologies that promised to make their marketing machine more efficient and easier, end of up making their lives harder with a TCO (Total Cost Ownership) far higher than expected. They now realize it takes an army of consultants and technologists to make adtech work, wreaking havoc on their ROI dreams.  

Adtech firms, from ad networks to data purveyors, are in state of perpetual stress knowing that any number of potential black swan events can disrupt their business models tomorrow. Between growing advocacy around privacy, transparency and accountability, they realize they may dodge a bullet here or there but the long-term financial viability is in grave peril despite appearance of “nothing to see here” attitude.

It is hard to stand back and see all the distress across every aspect of marketing given my decades long tenure in the business dating back to when analog marketing dominated without Google, Facebook, targeting data or cookies until today, when digital dominates marketing. It is with this wide angle lens, I can recall the days when people in marketing truly thrived. I can also recall these were the days when agencies were invested in client outcomes and publishers created content based on topics they believed drew audiences – not just clicks. Clients understood how the business of marketing worked and they could create plans that made sense.  The shift to digital threw all those principles up in the air, favoring AI, SaaS platforms and scale. It certainly offered real advantages but came at a high price that is only now fully understood.

My rarified wide lens also allows me to cherry pick the best of analog marketing from 30 years ago with today’s advances in digital marketing to help everyone get their groove back. Black boxes can be banished, replaced by a different, hybrid model that everyone can embrace.

Here’s how.

1) Think back to the future.

Marketing is a people powered industry, a symbiotic relationship between the people who create advertising and people who consume it. This delicate but powerful relationship was disrupted when adtech became the overpowering intruder in this dance.

Yet, the dance between creator and consumer of marketing messages has not really changed. What needs to change is how adtech participates. This is where marketers need to think differently about how they select adtech partners by deemphasizing the tech itself and elevating the quaint albeit real, human-powered requirement of excellent customer service.

It may sound odd to elevate customer service to this lofty level but let’s remind ourselves that customer service became an anachronistic idea at the insistence of VCs who only saw customer service as a costly and not easily scaled feature. Financially, VCs may have been right but VCs also didn’t see the big picture.

They didn’t realize that even the best adtech platforms require human activation to extract the full value of the technology. Left on their own, advertisers (and their agencies) had to figure it out with often less than stellar results. Far worse, because advertisers were under-supported, they created disjointed, Frankenstein-like marketing tech stacks that defied good oversight or deployment. The long-term damage meant that clients were quick to churn from one platform to another. Bad for adtech (and their investors) and bad for advertisers.

Going forward, advertisers’ selection criteria should put “cool tech” in its subservient place (who can really “vet” one platform’s AI deployment from another anyway) in favor of selecting firms who offer superior customer support.

It may sound counter intuitive, but this admittedly analog feature actually provides adtech with sustainable and profitable market advantage. We see proof of this in the highly competitive DSPs world where the firms that are thriving, The Trade Desk and StackAdapt for example, are renown for the superior customer care capabilities. The road to profitability for adtech may turn out to be a feature that is decades old but could become the most important feature of all.

2) Privacy is a human thing.

Google’s stay of the cookie execution is a mere pause in the larger battle to balance tech needs with human needs. We should stop thinking about privacy as primarily a tech conversation with the undertone being; “how do we track people within the technical construct of privacy.” It should start by having marketers really commit to embracing the idea that privacy is a human right – not a tech gymnastic exercise.

Once a company truly makes the commitment to do the right thing on a human level, the technology can be found to actualize that intention.

If a company feels that they may lose business if they don’t track people somehow, they can be reassured by knowing that in analog days, marketing worked very well sans any “people” tracking capabilities at all.

3) Data

We have to admit amongst ourselves that advertising data is a dirty business. Maybe vendors harvested data without users’ permission. Or maybe vendors bought data from other vendors who acquired the data using nefarious techniques. Sometimes the data may be legit but utterly out dated so as to be useless or maybe it was harvested from third parties in questionable ways.

No matter the data’s provenance, the mechanisms a firm used to build its data stores are quite likely tainted – no matter the promises made to the contrary.

The tough love answer is to create your own data of your customers and those who wants to engage with you. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not an easy evolution. It is, however, the only sustainable approach to creating a marketing engine that is honorable and productive. More than that, the sooner you start, the sooner you will have an asset that can deliver for years to come.  

4) Keep it real.

There have been studies to suggest that in the business of buying programmatic media, the buys that bid 1 penny per CPM were as effective as those that used data to refine the addressable universe. The studies suggest that at 1¢ a CPM the net pulls in so much, through sheer tonnage, viable prospects are reached as well.

This approach is extreme to be sure but makes the point about the CPM conundrum.

Every marketer can attest to the fact that it is hard to really know what you are buying even if you apply a thick layer of demo/ affinity/ interest targeting.

This issue has been a problem for years and won’t get better any time soon partly because of tech complexity and partly because the black box of programmatic platforms are deliberately designed to obscure their arbitrage and tech tax surcharges.  

So what’s a marketer to do? Go back to basics by buying direct from publishers but with a tech twist.  Use platforms like BriefBid to send out direct RFPs to publishers at scale. This is a perfect example of how blending analog in the form of direct media buying and digital is achieved.

5) Authentic marketing is content marketing.

When advertisers over-rotate on relying targeting data or adtech they realize sooner or later, it lacks the ability to engage real audiences and convert customers.

This is the unique role of content marketing as it imbues marketing with an authenticity that results in trusted communications.

The problem though becomes how to create this level of trusted marketing at scale. Again, adtech platforms rushed in to fill the void but look closely and you realize it is fool’s gold – shiny on the outside but hiding the low value of the rock beneath the glitter.  Marketers may think automated content writing platforms are a shortcut to getting great content done at scale but it just doesn’t work out that way. Content marketing is the art of authentic marketing writing and no platform, to date, can replace the human heart in writing content that connects with real people. The appropriate place for tech in this function is the application of topic intelligence data to narrow down exactly what a Brand should write about based on conversion data. Content marketing with the right application of adtech data can transcends its tactical limits and achieve the rarified type of marketing that opens people hearts, minds and ultimately pocketbooks.

Marketers may mourn the loss of the inspiration and creativity that has marked marketing for decades but that is not the end of the story. If we refamiliarize ourselves with the advantages of analog marketing and couple it with adtech’s ability to deliver precision, we create a new hybrid model is the surest path for marketers to get their groove back. This hybrid allows marketers to really “be there” for their customers/ prospects. Isn’t  that what marketing was always about anyway?

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