London, 1995. My first foray into digital. A time when we used to harvest email addresses using bots, sending them out to trawl bulletin boards and early websites, scanning content for contextual relevance to what we wanted to promote.
Back then it was oil & gas conferences. It was not always successful; the number of olive oil dealers we wrongly targeted was pretty monstrous. There was no rule book for anything digital; no privacy principles, no GDPR and the IAB was but a twinkle in somebody’s eye. We made it up as we went along.
I rode the dotcom wave to Asia and in 1999 joined China.com’s franchise of 24/7 Media to build Asia’s first Email Service Provider (ESP). Email quickly became known as the Killer App, even as the bubble started to inflate.
Then Search hit the scene, and sometime after, mobile, apps and social respectively, each predicting the death of the former as a marketing channel.
24 years have gone by in a flash, and all these channels are still very much part of a marketer’s tool kit, even though many brands and agencies are still chasing the next big shiny thing.
So what can we look forward to in 2020? In my humble opinion and experience, it will be more of the same.
Today’s backdrop has been a work in progress over the past four to five years. It’s a pastiche of the following:
Crucially, there is one other thing that is hardly ever mentioned publicly. It is the immense pressure on the industry to continually deliver solutions that keep up with ever-evolving habits of consumers and the adoption of emerging communication and media technologies.
Mix this with marketers’ endless search for that silver bullet that will solve their marketing woes (and help the CMO keep their job for more than 18 months). What do you get? A pressure cooker of hope that has yet to serve up anything that will actually satiate a markets’ appetite.
Against this backdrop, the number one priority for media agencies, large or small, network or independent, is to get the basics right. Building a solid foundation of people, process and technology is neither controversial nor sexy. But it’s the difference between being at the mercy of foreseeable industry upheavals and being powerfully equipped to profit from each new development and change that comes our way.
Allow me to explain.
2019 is a pivotal year for CtrlShift. We transformed our business by divesting our managed services arm to become a full-fledged, pure tech vendor. Our technology is enterprise programmatic software. It helps brands and media agencies de-risk and scale up efficiently with maximum flexibility. Being a pure tech player allowed us to get under the hoods of agencies and in-house media teams, previously closed off because of our former “managed services provider” status. This was seen as a competitive issue – despite the fact that it was actually servicing the needs of many of the regions agency trading desks.
And what we uncovered has solidified our hypothesis. The inefficiencies, challenges and murkiness of programmatic that we lived through as a first mover in Asia’s programmatic scene are as relevant today as they were in 2009.
Many agency networks tout a universal “platform” of some sort that connects normally silo-ed pipes across all components of the ad tech supply chain. The truth is that every one of them has some partially complete version of this. But no one, to the best of our knowledge, has built bona fide technical connections across the entire supply chain. Instead, what you will likely find are adequate manual or semi-automated stop-gap solutions managed by intelligent, hardworking talent while ‘global’ continues to work on developing a true unified platform.
Needless to say, as our own survey from earlier this year corroborated, reporting is mostly still a nightmare. The vast majority of traders struggle to provide reports to clients in under seven days, having to pull information from multiple platforms, normalise data and labels in Excel, and turn it into static weekly powerpoints. Getting the much-needed cross-channel analytics in real time remains a distant dream for most. So despite media dollars being spent in real-time, very little can be done to manage any form of cross-channel or cross platform optimisation in the same manner.
The average trading team’s day-to-day is riddled with menial tasks and technical frustrations. Programmatic traders are the industry’s most qualified knowledge workers today as they are so close to the platforms, the data, and a client’s desired outcomes. But they are rarely being called on to step up and be a part of the strategic conversation with clients. The sad fact of the matter is that they simply do not have the time. Instead, they’re cobbling together Excel workarounds to bridge the gaps they encounter while juggling four to eight different buying platforms, and regularly getting sucked into interminable billing reconciliation exercises.
The cumulative result is that agency trading teams are effectively operating on the edge of a precipice which could cleave away at a moment’s notice – think a further tightening of privacy and data laws, sudden consolidation in the ad tech industry or the materialisation of the ever-present threat of industry regulation. All these divert the focus of the most technical strategists and knowledge workers from alternative business avenues or new solutions to a black hole of day to day inefficiencies.
I don’t need to spell out how this leaves even the best agencies vulnerable in times of monumental pressure and change. But imagine the alternative: a team working off a solid technical foundation, with flexibility built in, architected for quick customisations and new integrations and, crucially, sitting at the enterprise level – connecting outwards to data management platforms, billing systems and all of the other pieces required for a smooth operation.
This would free us from the mundanities of management to be able to face incoming industry challenges with well-developed strategies, and the nimbleness to block and tackle day to day issues as speed bumps rather than mountains, and evolve to ensure clients remain happy.
Getting the basics right will, of course, require hard work and significant investment; the largest of which is an investment in time, a commodity that is a luxury we all dream of. But if, as an industry, we don’t break the vicious cycle and continue operating as we have done for the better part of a decade, we risk being sidelined, be it by regulators, brands or consumers themselves as they become tired of waiting for the industry to evolve.
Wouldn’t you rather crack on and get the basics right NOW and be the shapers of our own futures? We have and will be doing so for the foreseeable future. And 2020 looks like it’s going to be a great year already.
Merry Christmas, and a Happy & Healthy New Year.
Dominic Powers is the Chief Executive Officer of CtrlShift.
Liked what you just read? Schedule a demo to find out more about The Hub, CtrlShift’s enterprise programmatic advertising software for unified media planning, activation and insights. It aggregates platforms (social, search, programmatic and more) so that brands and agencies can advertise anywhere and achieve more.