Opinion Leaders Please Step Forward?

Chris Bourke, Qriously, commercial director, EMEA, asks if ‘opinion leaders’ responsible for positively spreading information about programmatic advertising have delivered on their self-appointed brief.

Everett Rogers famously argues that diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated over time among the participants in a social system. He stressed the  importance of opinion leaders – those high in socio-economic status and cosmopolitan nature – as critical in spreading information about an innovation.

So let’s take a look at what impact their actions have had, and ask where they taking us next?

Getting into Shape
Andrew Eifler from AppNexus recently argued that media agencies haven’t yet been able to create value from their “heft” but they are certainly trying with their agency trading desks.

These divisions – backed by the buying power of their global holding groups parents – were created for a number of strategic reasons but one of the most important was to repatriate some of the handsome profit made by ad-networks in the first decade of the millennium.

These new data-driven departments launched as independent profit and loss centres and gave their leaders the opportunity to incubate the programmatic experiment with small test-budgets.

As budgets grew however, conflict with agency operating companies (OpCos) developed, and in response, some of the the technical platforms nurtured by trading desks began a process of integration with their sister OpCos.

Should holding group CEOs have seen this coming? Perhaps if they had installed programmatic ambassadors in OpCo’s sooner – to bridge the inevitable cultural gulf – and clarified the trading desks’ roles as a nursery for new advertising technology, then the transition may have been smoother.

The vast majority of the venture capital, private equity and organically funded independent platforms have been vociferous with regard to programmatic’s benefits.

Many are on a journey to a trade exit, and naturally only want to point the industry in the right direction, but there is a balance to be struck between taking from the ecosystem and giving back.

Once momentum gathers and cash flow is strong, the opportunity arises to work alongside trade bodies to shape the ecosystem.  I’d argue that it’s an independent’s entrepreneurial duty to do so as part of the tacit contract between ambitious pioneers, and the ecosystem that buoys their visions.

Let’s move our attention to what Danny Hopwood from Vivaki recently called the ‘mega stacks’ – an apt moniker for the giants of the ecosystem such as Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Their brand & consumer facing nature gives them scale advantages that business-to-business startups can only dream of they were slow to react to the rise of programmatic; FBX and the Twitter/Mopub deal appeared relatively late on the real-time advertising scene for example.

They can now however generate the massive data sets that allow transformational trends to be uncovered but – as Mr Hopwood argued eloquently in his post – their monopoly position can either be used or abused.

I hope it’s the former and if so then the insights yet to be generated will be truly momentous, not just for the advertising industry but for society at large.

Confused Customer

Brand marketers response to these signals have been mixed, but this is to be expected as they navigate the complexities of the buy-side along with concerns of fraud and transparency.

ISBA, the trade body for brand owners, says that 42% of its members are “in the dark” with respect to what programmatic means for their brands. This represent a failure of our collective leadership to clarify programmatic’s benefits to brand marketers.

Trade bodies are playing catch up however; in 2014 many simultaneously rushed out a number of statements, best practice documents and survey results. While they should be commended on their efforts, let’s not forget that programmatic really began to transform the media buying industry when Yahoo bought the Right Media Exchange in 2007, so it’s fair to observe that most strategic assistance published by trade organisations was generally after-the-fact.  

Best practice guides need to devote far more attention to the business of, ‘How are we going to piece together the options?’  rather than the state of the market.

The Truth will Out
We finally turn our attention to the media owners. During the ad network era, it was traditionally difficult to speak in terms of leadership without a tongue placed firmly in cheek.

However, the advent of programmatic auctions and transparent reporting demanded that integrity be placed at the heart of a media owners’ set of values.

Ad tech media owners have the opportunity to repair much of the damage done to inventory vendor image; I think this task is consistent with the character of many of the leaders in the new ad-tech ecosystem –  they believe that the truth can be found in the data and if a story is required to sell then the truth hasn’t been found yet.

When Vint Cerf, the inventor of the internet, realised that his technology could benefit the world, and not just the military for which it was invented, he fought his government superiors hard to give him permission to open it up to the public. Had he not had the foresight to make this decision you wouldn’t be reading this on your laptop or smartphone now.

The ‘opinion leaders’ that Everett identified have similar responsibilities for laying the programmatic foundations that will have intergenerational business impact – beyond advertising.  I hope they realise this and approach the challenge with as much passion as Mr Cerf.