The Things That Should Happen In Ad Tech In 2014... But Probably Won't

The title of this post is clearly a cop out, as it is intended to hedge my chances of complete and abject failure come the retrospective at the end of 2014. But I feel the predictions for this year have been so insipid and boring (programmatic to keep growing, FBX is important to e-commerce, etc, etc) that a piece outlining some possible pivots, strategies and M&A action was necessary to add some colour to the drab, self-interested Linkedin fodder content that seems to be dominating this year's big predictions.

It's probably best to add the requisite disclaimer here before starting: at no time should anyone base any financial or investment decisions on the following as they remain highly speculative (although at the same time ridiculously informed) opinions.

Agencies Shouldn't Buy Tech Or Agencies - They Need To Buy Ad Networks

The question for agencies now is why build tech when the infrastructure already exists? Whether it's Google, AppNexus, MediaMath or IPONWEB, the pipes have been laid. And do they need to buy another agency that really adds little differentiation.

What the agencies need now is the execution layer. As the trading desks increase their control of budget, they are going to need the know-how and staff to deliver performance for advertisers. While the agencies say they now have those competencies, the reality is that networks (or ITDs) still manage to outperform the agency trading desks on the majority of plans. The best traders in the world are still at the ad network level - and most of them are in Europe.

Last year saw a lot of consolidation in the French market around the middle execution layer. This year the M&A departments will be taking a serious look at the next generation ad networks. Infectious, MediaIQ and BannerConnect must be serious candidates for acquisitions for the holding groups - and if not, then expect agencies like Mediacom and Mindshare (who are rumoured to be building out their own trading propositions) look to beef up their operations with a strategic buy.

Why European ad networks? Most are not VC-backed, all are profitable, and in comparison with the fairly heavyset and inflexible US solutions the European traders are relatively cheap. If the agencies pass these specialists up, don't be surprised to see some "progressive" brands (there are a few) to buy this expertise in.

The Rise Of The Super Yield Optimiser, And The Pivot To The Sell Side

A few weeks ago we spoke of the consolidation of spend at the agency level that would ultimately put commercial pressure on third party buyers. While agency trading desks look to increase their share of the media budget, these specialists will find it increasingly difficult to access spend. If doors are being closed on the buy side, there seems to be growing opportunity on the publisher side.

Publishers are drowning in programmatic at the minute. Outgunned on tech, data and trading nous, publishers are seeing little upside in the "programmatic" channel. In 2014 you will see more trading independents make the switch as they look to help big premium publishers realise the value of RTB. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as many SSPs still manage this process for publishers.

But already we have seen offerings like PubSquared and Yield Coalition pop up that take this insider knowledge to publishers. It might also shift the focus away from managed service for the sell-side tech as publishers look for more transparency. There is massive opportunity for buy-side specialists to make the switch but they are likely to spin out new entities to avoid any perceived conflict of interest.

Twitter Buys A Bidder, Bundles Twitter Data For Network Buy

While the MoPub acquisition was interesting in terms of how Twitter might accelerate revenue growth, it still will be a slow process. What Twitter need is a buy-side strategy. Forget about promoted tweets. It needs to leverage that real time data across the web. For that reason you will see Twitter buy or build a bidder to access agency spend. Twitter has a big agency sales force - and as programmatic spend explodes Twitter could be well positioned to grab its share if it can offer a buying solution pre-loaded with real-time Twitter data.

Expect Twitter to buy a mid-sized bidder. My guess is that both MediaMath and Turn have priced themselves out of range. Instead Twitter might opt to buy DataXu or The Trade Desk between the 200 and 400 million mark. Failing that Adam Bain & co will turn to Boris and the Russians to build a differentiated bidder.

Facebook Realises It Can't Do Ad Tech - Buys AppNexus To Join The Dots

The hype around FBX in the trade press was beyond insane in 2013. Despite the noise, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg revealed FBX only represented a small portion of revenue for Facebook. It's clearly not the home run that mobile was for Facebook. It's hard to figure out what Facebook is doing. Its acquisition of Atlas, a widely panned piece of tech, has been sitting idle since the acquisition. The ambition to offer a solution that can compete with Google's buy-side ad server has been sidelined. What FB will do with it is still a complete and utter mystery.

As programmatic grows Atlas looks like being a $100 million wasted on an expensive dumb pipe. Like Twitter, Facebook needs a bidder - or more importantly an infrastructure play that will allow it to realise this buy-side ambitions as well as launch that long overdue long tail ad network. The strategy is simple: use that large agency sales force to sell bidder loaded with social segments to agencies and client direct - and only offer access to FBX through its bidder, ending access to third party bidders. This will attract big spending retargeters and ecommerce buyers. The only company that could help Facebook achieve this is AppNexus.

But whether Zuck is prepared to fork out several billion for an ad tech company instead of chasing a "sexting" tool like Snapchat with a $4 billion dollar cheque is one for the "high stool" philosophers. But at the minute Facebook is not an ad tech company, but if it is to grow - as per the expectations of the market - it needs to become one fast.

Yahoo And The Chinese Windfall

Now the question also needs to be asked in the context of AppNexus and other ad tech players (namely Tubemogul, MediaMath, Turn and Rubicon) is what will Yahoo do with its mutli-billion dollar windfall after the Alibaba IPO later this year. Marissa Mayer desperately needs to acquire some ad tech to make Yahoo a viable proposition in the programmatic space. Would she buy AppNexus? Big risk given the history between O'Kelley and Yahoo. But then there other options that could be looked at. This imminent Chinese cash should make ad tech M&A a little frothier next year.

The Rise Of The Data-Powered Bidder

2014 will be the year when the data-powered bidder eats a big share of the programmatic market. Agencies will start looking beyond the traditional "DSP" players to offerings like Twitter, Facebook, the MediaMath-powered Rakuten and of course the shopping intender laden solution from everyone's favourite sleeping giant of ad tech, Amazon. Much of it will be self-serve and some of it managed. The plans will be littered with data-rich media companies helping agencies deliver the best performance for clients. As the managed service of this new solution provider grows, don't be surprised to see some acquire the trading specialists. Again Europeans offer excellent value.

European Premium Publishers Disrupt Search, White Label Yandex And Launch Country-Focused Premium Content Search Engines

This is the long shot prediction for 2014 - in other words it has no chance of being realised. The buy-in for something like this would require an absolute monumental effort. But still we are talking about a multi-billion euro bonanza of revenue. The tensions between Google and premium publishers/sales house continues to grow. And as display CPM prices continue to plummet this will only intensify the debate about Google's search business - the greatest digital advertising model of all time.

Premium publishers grumble about how Google collates and organises their content on its search engine - mostly to the benefit of its insanely profitable Adwords business. Google rightly points out it sends traffic to these publishers. And it shouldn't be punished by punitive or misguided Government legislation. No disagreement there. This is a free market. So here's a proposal to give Google proper competition in the European search market.

Let's say in 2014 the top 20 German Sales Houses entered into an agreement with Yandex to only offer their results on a new premium content search engine. Search listings for their content would only be available through this new German-focused search engine. The new arrangement would be a JV, and all search revenue would be split among the participating companies.

Deals will be struck with mobile providers and content sites to make sure their search offering was prominent. Extensive marketing campaign will run promoting it. Remember Sales Houses are well diversified media business (TV, Radio, Magazines, Press and digital) so the cost can be kept down. By doing this German Sales Houses would open a whole new - and growing - revenue stream.

Yandex would also get access to one of Europe's biggest search markets. This could also apply to markets like the Nordics and France where co-operation between publishers is more common. Even talk of a strategy like this would surely make for some interesting discussions with Google. The likelihood of this happening remains slim though.

US Companies Spend Some Of That Foreign Cash Pile On European M&A

There is a reason most tech companies set up in Dublin. Certainly, not the world class weather. Or the avalanche of engineering talent. No, it's simply the best place in the world to funnel corporate earnings without paying eye-watering amounts of tax. For that reason alone, most US companies based there have insane amount of foreign cash sitting on their balance sheets.

Many balked at the eight billion dollar price tag that Microsoft recently paid for Skype. But there was clear strategy here. As well as picking up some excellent VOIP tech, Microsoft avoided many times the price paid for Skype in corporation tax if it had repatriated its foreign cash back to the US. For that reason we might see a mini burst of ad tech M&A activity in Europe in 2014. And the prime candidate for an ad tech acquisition in Europe is Adform.

Both Salesforce and Adobe (each with considerable piles of foreign cash) are going to have to acquire a robust ad server to crack the agency market. It's all well and good talking about enterprise marketing tech but the reality is that (for the time being anyway) the agencies are the gate keepers to marketing and media spend. Adform has one of the best ad servers on the market (with point solutions included) as well as functioning bidder. There are a few other candidates in the mix as well, notably Switch Concepts, Videoplaza, Powerlinks as well as a number of French, German and Eastern European operations. But we'll let the M&A guys join the dots here.

Let's return to these predictions at the end of 2014 for a retrospective. At best maybe one or two might have come to pass. It will certainly be an interesting year regardless, with all the expected IPOs and end of lock-up periods for some of the new public ad networks. The quarterly earning calls in the second and third quarters will also dictate how upcoming IPOs will be priced by the market. 2014 is likely be the watershed year for ad tech in terms of IPOs, M&A activity and shifting business models. We are looking forward to the mad ride.

Those "Should Happen... But Won't" 2014 Predictions In Full And Chances Of Them Happening:

- Agencies/Brands Buy Ad Networks... Likelihood of occurrence: >65%
- The Rise Of The Super Yield Optimiser, Buy-Side Moves To Sell-Side... Likelihood of occurrence: >90%
- Twitter Buys/Builds A Bidder, Bundles Twitter Data For Network Buy... Likelihood of occurrence: >70%
- Facebook Buys AppNexus, Launches Social Graph Bidder And Makes FBX Only Accesible Through FB Bidder... Likelihood of occurrence: <50%
- The Emergence Of The Data-Powered Bidder As Buying Point For Agencies And Client Direct... Likelihood of occurrence: >80%
- Yahoo Buys Someone In Ad Tech (List of possible suitors: Tubemogul, MediaMath, Turn, Rubicon or AppNexus)... Likelihood of occurrence: >80%
- European Premium Publishers Whitelabel Yandex To Set Up Premium Content Search Engine... Likelihood of occurrence: <10%
- US Companies Splurge Foreign Cash Pile On European Ad Tech... Likelihood of occurrence: <30%