Corby dedicates 50% of digital spend to programmatic

Booze brands make a big shift online with new media and platform partners

Corby Spirit and Wine is undergoing a major shakeup to its media strategy. Not only does it have a new media agency, it’s re-allocating the entirety of the media budgets for key brands such as Absolut and Polar Ice online, and a year from now it plans to buy 50% of its online media through programmatic.

The changes have been led by director of digital marketing and strategy Andrew Lionis, who was hired in September 2014 with a mandate to cut any gravy he could find from its digital marketing budget.

Lionis, formerly Sobey’s digital marketing manager, told Marketing that he and his team have been looking to programmatic as a means to ensure that Corby’s media dollars go further and work more efficiently. To that end, they came up with a plan to shift 50% of Corby’s digital budget to programmatic to see how much further it could go. They’ve since hit the 39% mark, and are on track to reach their goal by the end of Corby’s next fiscal year in June 2016.

He also initiated the RFP to select Media Experts as Corby’s new media agency of record, and negotiated a partnership with TubeMogul, one of a handful of programmatic platforms that focus on branding campaigns via online video.

He’s spent the last eight months working with the two companies to put together an innovative partnership that gives Corby direct oversight of its programmatic campaigns while continuing to draw on cross-channel planning and strategic expertise within its agency.

Canada as test market

“Canada is going to be the first market in the Pernod Ricard network [from which Corby licenses several big-name brands] globally to have a deal with a [demand-side platform] company. And that deal is going to be the basis for, hopefully, what we will see become a global deal,” Lionis said. Since Corby started negotiations with TubeMogul in November, Pernod Ricard has made plans to expand the partnership to Brazil, the U.K. and France, he added.

One of the big moves Corby has made in the past year is to shift the full marketing budgets of several top brands, including Absolut vodka and Jameson’s whiskey, to digital. The two Pernod-owned brands no longer run TV ads in the Canadian market, but have devoted their media dollars to online video and display.

Lionis said online makes the most sense for Absolut and Jameson’s because it means Corby can more effectively leverage global creative. The Canadian brand team isn’t going to redevelop creative for Jameson’s when the Irish home-team is creating spots with Kevin Spacey, he said, so it makes a lot more sense to devote those dollars to media.

“Working with the brand managers locally, at the market level, we can get our dollars to work a lot harder, dollar-to-dollar, when we start thinking about programmatic video,” he said.

Programmatic allows them to leverage the data they collect via BlueKai to target only consumers that are of legal drinking age and are likely to have an affinity for the brand, either because they fit the demographic profile or they’ve already shown interest by visiting the brand’s website. Through programmatic direct integrations with trusted publisher partners — which have become increasingly popular in Canada — they can get to that level of granular targeting on top Canadian sites like and Sportsnet.

News of the deal comes just as TubeMogul is rolling out a new display advertising product, which lets clients like Corby deliver a sequence of ads to the same consumer across video and display channels. “It allows us to tell a story, especially with TubeMogul having display,” Lionis said. “If I set a threshold of five or six impressions on display, I’m building that awareness. Then all of a sudden, boom, the consumer sees the video through programmatic. We’ve told the story, they’re aware: now they see the video, and they’re ready to engage.”

Though Corby’s has moved some of its Canadian brands, like Polar Ice, fully into digital, Lionis said there are not yet any plans to cut TV advertising for its flagship liquor brand, J. P. Wiser’s. Corby will continue to work with local agencies on the creative for its Canadian brands.

An Unusual Deal

It’s unusual for an advertiser like Corby to sign a direct contract with an ad tech vendor like TubeMogul, since vendor selection is typically done by a brand’s media agency, often on a campaign-by-campaign basis. But with the growing demand among marketers for transparency and hands-on control of digital media — especially in programmatic where the supply chain can be confusing and murky — building a relationship with a trustworthy tech vendor has become more of a priority for brands.

Some major brands have tried to resolve the transparency problem by building their own in-house trading desks, but finding the experts to staff such operations has proven difficult and expensive, given the severe talent shortage faced by the industry. A compromise has begun to emerge, where the brand chooses and licenses the vendor, but has their media agency operate it on their behalf. This “hybrid” or “private trading desk” model gives the brand complete access to all levels of campaign reporting, and control of what happens with data collected from campaigns, without the heavy investment of trying to in-source programmatic execution.

That’s the nature of the partnership Corby has struck with Media Experts and TubeMogul. Lionis said the in-house-versus-agency question was the subject of a long debate at Corby, but the company’s leadership ultimately decided to sign a contract with TubeMogul and have Media Experts plan and execute campaigns. Media Experts drafts media plans and conducts the actual buying on TubeMogul, but Corby’s brand managers have direct access to the platform, so they can check on how campaigns are doing and where their dollars end up.

“Media Experts manages all our planning, and really it’s omnichannel,” Lionis said. “We’re still doing billboards, we’re still doing traditional. So really for us, it was, let’s empower Media Experts. They’re the subject matter experts when it comes to our entire digital and traditional communication plan. But let’s make sure we can find efficiencies, let’s make sure we have a direct deal with the tech company.”

He said it wasn’t a matter of not trusting Corby’s media partners, but of building in transparency from the get-go so questions about access to reporting and pricing breakdowns would never arise. “We know dollar for dollar our costs, we know how hard those dollars are going to work, at any point we can go in and see the performance. It really keeps everyone accountable at the end of the day.”

TubeMogul has been one of a handful of vendors pushing for the new hybrid model, by reaching out to brand marketers directly. Last summer, it signed one of the first and most well-publicized hybrid deals with Mondelez. Mondelez’s media agency, Starcom MediaVest, put together a team to plan and execute campaigns on the platform, but the terms of the deal ensured Mondelez had ownership of any data collected by the platform, and administrator-level access to performance reports and cost analysis.

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