Butler/Till's Scott Ensign on Harnessing Curation for Quality-Driven Advertising

As Curation continues to make waves in ad tech, ExchangeWire caught up Butler/Till's chief strategy officer, Scott Ensign, who examines Curation's ability to marry programmatic efficiency with quality assurance. Scott highlights how the decline of third-party cookies is reshaping data strategies, particularly in industries like pharmaceuticals and finance, and discusses emerging trends that are set to redefine the future of advertising.

How can curation prove to be an effective tool in ensuring ads sit near quality content?

Quality has long been a significant concern in the industry for various reasons. Concerns include brand safety, ad fraud, and brand suitability, among others. These issues become particularly challenging in contexts like programmatic advertising on the open web. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) publications highlight concerns regarding the types of content that advertisements appear alongside, particularly on advertising sites. This is where curation becomes a valuable tool. It provides the advantages of programmatic advertising, such as automation and audience targeting, while ensuring a high degree of confidence that the ads will appear alongside content of superior quality.

How has the role of curation and identity evolved in advertising over the years? What are the most significant changes that you've seen?

The issues of curation and identity have become more important, of course, with signal loss from the third-party cookie in particular. That's something that has received a lot of attention very recently, especially concerning the looming deadline for the deprecation of third-party cookies in Google Chrome. It’s something that we've been dealing with for a number of years - I believe it was 2017 when Firefox and Safari announced that they were deprecating third-party cookies, so, this is nothing new for us. When you think about things like identity and curation, those are great ways to replace some of the signal loss that we're seeing from traditional third-party cookie tracking. Identity allows us to use that first-party data to match up and get some of the same kinds of behavioral and other signals that we would have. And curation is a good way to combine that and really use contextual advertising in a much smarter and scaled way, which is something that's important for a lot of the of the categories that we work in with our clients.

What are some common questions from your clients regarding data usage, efficacy and performance of ads? What are some of the key considerations there?

The categories that we work in tend to be pretty sensitive, in terms of data. We work with a lot of pharma, financial services, insurance, banking, and alcohol companies, so our clients have some particular concerns about the way data is being used and tend to be a little bit more conservative in their approach to use of data in the first place, which is one of the things that makes curation such a valuable proposition for the work that we do. So, we've been doing high-quality contextual for a long time. 

In the context of pharmaceutical advertising, for example, targeting based on behaviors indicating a specific health condition is not feasible. Our clients are unwilling to utilise certain types of data in these scenarios. Therefore, we have been exploring alternative strategies even before the significant reduction in data availability due to the decline of third-party cookies. Regarding the key considerations for ad performance, we are witnessing a shift away from traditional vanity metrics such as reach, TRPs, and CPMs. This transition has been a notable change for us, especially in the past few years.

What does the role of data and analytics play in the curation process for advertising? How can advertisers leverage data-driven insights to enhance their curation strategies?

That goes back to what I was just saying about much more sophisticated measurement models. Our Marketing Science group is trying to get at not just what our cost per click was, or our CPM, but really trying to understand incremental business impact for our clients. Because we have those frameworks in place, and we’ve done a lot of really premium, high-quality, contextual advertising, we have a lot of historical data that shows how certain segments of properties have performed. We’ve been able to feed that back into our curation process and into our private marketplaces.

This is relevant to a lot of the work that we've done with Audigent for example, We’ve been able to feed historical performance data, which is really rich data on large clients and how they have performed for a long period of time, and feed that back into a smart marketplace that's based on specific conditions that we try to reach on behalf of our clients. This approach has enabled us to combine premium, high-quality, contextual inventory with rich performance data, effectively offering the best of both worlds. What we particularly appreciate about curation is that it provides all the advantages of programmatic advertising: precise targeting, automated buying, and levels of efficiency typically unattainable with direct buys. It takes out a lot of the risk that you can run into with programmatic advertising, especially if you're doing things that are much more focused on open exchange. Working with great partners like Audigent allows us to bring the best of both of those worlds together.

Are there any emerging trends or technologies that you believe will have a significant impact on the agency landscape?

There are quite a few trends that I believe will continue to gain traction. A big part of my role as chief strategy officer is trend spotting, and in fact, we're just about to release our trends report for 2024. Everyone is, of course, talking about generative AI - I think that's going to continue to be important for the industry to think about what I just previously mentioned in terms of analytics and creating feedback loops for more sophisticated models of measurement and feeding that back into something like a curation strategy. Automation is also a key factor in this context, achieved through more sophisticated methods such as data modeling, predictive modeling, and forecasting.

I think that one of the other big trends that we're seeing is that consumer’s attitudes towards advertising and marketing have been changing very rapidly. We’re seeing this with the movement away from something like linear television, for example, especially with the younger age cohorts and generations - we expect that trend to continue. People like to watch TV on streaming services versus in a cable environment. I think the big driving force here is feeling in  control - consumers want to have optionality, they want to be able to curate their own ad experience, which I think dovetails nicely with what we're doing in terms of curation. 

I also believe that significant innovations are imminent in the paid media sector. To align with this trend, it's essential to move beyond traditional constraints and outdated advertising models, such as disruptive ad breaks. Consumers now expect to have greater control and clarity in the advertising they encounter, including consent-based frameworks. This shift towards a more engaging and respectful approach to advertising makes me optimistic about the future of this space. Brands will have opportunities to not just advertise to audiences, but to forge deeper, more meaningful connections with them. This aligns well with the concept of curation, where we meticulously select inventory, audiences, and shape the experience of how these elements interact. 

The future of marketing, as I see it, will involve fewer but more impactful advertising impressions. These will likely be more costly, but their effectiveness and relevance will be significantly higher. This approach will enable us to engage with audiences in a more personal manner, rather than treating them merely as numbers. This trend, I believe, will profoundly influence the marketing landscape for all of us.