Bell Media finally charts a path in ad tech

New sales leadership looking at whether and how to implement programmatic

If digital publishers are having a ball with ad tech, then Bell Media has been Canada’s staunchest wallflower. But with new leadership at the helm of its ad sales, Bell’s looking to finally get into the swing of things, and it could happen very quickly.

The transition is already well underway, according to Stuart Garvie, recently appointed president of sales, though it’s not yet clear what exactly Bell’s future in ad tech will look like. In April, Mary Anne Turcke took over as Bell Media’s new president, and shortly thereafter Garvie — former GroupM Canada chief commercial officer — was hired to take on her vacant position. Less than three months into the job, Garvie announced a new partnership with ad analytics platform Moat to provide viewability measurement to its clients, the first sign of a big shift in its tech strategy.

In an interview with Marketing, Garvie said that Bell is considering a range of technology solutions and partnerships that could improve advertisers’ targeting and measurement capabilities across its inventory. “We’re working very hard to get ourselves into that space,” he said.

For years, Bell has declined to make display or video ad space on sites like CTV and TSN available through programmatic channels, and has resisted letting third-party ad tech companies drop tags on its site despite the clamoring of media buyers to use those technologies to run highly targeted campaigns they can closely measure and optimize.

While competitors like Rogers and Shaw began selling off remnant inventory programmatically as far back as 2012, Bell played it safe, concerned that auctioning unsold impressions could drag down the value of its inventory, and put it at risk of poor quality ads running on its sites.

But the ad tech landscape of today isn’t the same as it was in 2012, and it’s become clear that in one form or another, automated ad buying is here to stay. Garvie said that Bell Media is carefully considering what exactly that means for its sales strategy, and plans to announce several key moves in the coming months.

While the problems with open exchange RTB haven’t gone away, programmatic now includes a variety of channels, not all of which involve free-for-all auctions. One avenue that’s attractive to Bell, Garvie said, is a real-time private marketplace. There’s been a huge amount of demand from Canadian advertisers for access to premium inventory through private marketplaces, which combine the real-time data targeting of programmatic with the reliable quality of conventional, relationship-based direct sales. CBC, Rogers and TC Media are among the Canadian publishers that have launched internal private marketplaces.

“We are developing and we will be offering private marketplaces in the relatively short term,” Garvie said, adding that Bell will likely be making more specific announcements this fall. “We will be entering into private marketplace agreements with various partners. How it’s going to look right now, we’re going through that process, but it won’t take very long.”

The biggest consideration for Bell is how to enable advertisers to buy selections of its inventory based on the data they’ve collected from relationships with customers, as well as from previous ad campaigns and third-party data sources. For Canada’s brand advertisers, audience targeting has become the primary selling point of ad tech.

Garvie said that facilitating a “bring-your-own data” environment is something Bell wants to achieve, though it still plans to be somewhat conservative about which platforms and ad tags can be used on its sites. “Right now, we’re developing our whole data side, because we’ve been very protective of our inventory,” he said. “Do we open up as much as other people? Probably not.”

But even as Bell’s stance on programmatic softens, it remains acutely aware of threats lurking in the digital supply chain. If anything, programmatic ad fraud has gotten worse, and Bell has felt the impact.

One common tactic fraudsters selling ads through Canadian exchanges use is passing off fraudulent impressions as premium ads from a hot online property, or “spoofing”.

Garvie said that’s been a big problem for Bell, and there are now efforts in place to scout out spoofing and other kinds of fraud on the open exchanges where Bell still doesn’t sell any inventory. The company’s also carefully screening any potential ad tech partners, to make sure they haven’t been turning a blind eye to fraud.

“We need to move forward, and we’re developing our proposition in that area, but with our eyes wide open,” Garvie said. “[We’re] making sure that we’re policing everything that goes on, to make sure that our customers and advertisers are getting what they want from our advertising, which is a real person, a viewable ad, and an effective advertising message around great content.”

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Harry Crane

It’s about time Bell Media, such a laggard in this regard. And for the record, there’s far more than just remnant inventory available in the programmatic space these days.

Wednesday, August 26 @ 3:54 pm |

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