Centro bets on automated direct

The deal-driven alternative to programmatic


Most Canadian marketers haven’t heard the name Centro. They’ve spent most of the last 12 years under the radar, both here and in the U.S. But in that time they’ve built up a network of 15,000 local and national publishers, and say they are well on their way to making $300 million in revenue this year.

One reason the Chicago company has stayed out of the limelight is that it has circumnavigated programmatic buying technology. Until it bought Toronto-based demand-side platform SiteScout last fall, Centro did little programmatic trading, and didn’t have its own platform. So where is that $300 million coming from?

CEO and founder Shawn Riegsecker says it’s coming from “automated guaranteed direct.” Not to be confused with programmatic direct, automated guaranteed direct involves the same up-front bulk media buys that marketers are used to in television and “tradigital,” with RFPs and IOs and set rates – just without all the spreadsheets and phone calls.

“The software vision I had was of a platform that leads them through the [direct media buying] process, that automates contracts and insertion orders,” Riegsecker explains. “You press a button and it reconciles contracts and revisions.”

Rather than attempting to overhaul the way media is bought, Centro’s goal is to use automation to smooth out friction in the traditional process of deal negotiation and delivery. Using the company’s technology, buyers can automatically send requests to publishers, draw up contracts, collect and integrate data from their ad server, and reconcile billing at the end of the month.

As media deals grow larger and more global in scope, some agencies have had a hard time keeping up. Cross-market media deals are bureaucratic and labour-intensive, making it difficult for multinational brands to establish the global media presence they’re looking for. Programmatic is one solution, but many premium brands and agencies aren’t yet comfortable with it, given its complexity and uncertainty and the risk of being exploited by bad actors.

A better solution, in Centro’s view, is to make manual media deals more efficient, so agencies don’t have to expend such vast resources just to maintain them. By automating many of the low-skill tasks involved in negotiation and execution, Centro hopes to help agencies focus their resources on building bigger and better campaigns for their clients.

It’s not exactly a novel idea, but it’s one that few tech companies have focused on. Reigsecker estimates that despite the headway Centro has made, more than 80% of digital media deals are still conducted manually, using Excel spreadsheets and emails – at significant expense to agencies and their clients. Asked to name a direct competitor focusing on automated guaranteed direct he comes up with just one, New York-based Mediaocean.

That may change in the near future. AppNexus, one of programmatic’s emerging kingpins, began experimenting with automated direct sales last year. Meanwhile, big enterprise tech companies like Adobe and Oracle are also eyeing the space.

Automated direct as a service

To stay ahead, Centro’s getting ready to take the next step. In the coming months it plans to release a standalone software-as-a-service solution for media planning and buying, Centro Media Manager. CMM will give buyers all the tools they need to plan and execute digital campaigns, across both automated guaranteed direct, programmatic direct and RTB channels.

A big feature will be CMM’s data intelligence, which aggregates and analyzes audience data from advertisers, third parties and campaigns to help optimize media spend, much the same way a data management platform works in programmatic. With CMM, Centro hopes to give buyers the tools to effectively decide how they want to allocate their spend for a campaign, see real-time performance reports and make changes mid-flight.

CMM can even be used to ship insertion orders between agencies. Media agencies typically order programmatic buys from their agency trading desk using an IO system similar to the one they use with publishers. Despite the high-tech automation promised from tech desks like Xaxis, Accuen and Cadreon, many of them are still receiving faxed or emailed orders from their sister agencies. Riegsecker says some of the big holdcos are already using Centro solutions to coordinate media buying internally.

The new platform is a response to the same client demand for consolidated, all-in-one technology solutions that drove AOL to launch its One integrated platform earlier this year.

“Not only is the direct side of the business unscalable, but ad tech is pretty unscalable,” says Riegsecker. “If you talk to agencies, they will say, ‘I have way too many platforms. I need consolidation.’ Whoever can bring it all together will have the advantage.”

With the launch, marketers can expect to hear a lot more noise from Centro in the coming months, both in the U.S. and Canada. After Chicago and New York, Toronto is Centro’s third-largest office, due to the SiteScout acquisition. Riegsecker says the company plans to ramp up marketing efforts and establish a notable presence in the Canadian market.

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