Big insights from IAB programmatic conference

There are more ways than ever to buy programmatic – without turning to the Wild West of open exchanges

With more than 500 attendees filling the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Tuesday, this year’s IAB X-Series: Programmatic conference was the biggest to date – and likely the biggest Canadian programmatic conference yet.

Marketers, agencies and tech vendors flew in from all over the country for a day packed with strategy and info sessions, networking, and junk food. (eyeReturn’s froyo sundae stand deserves a shoutout.)

The crowded theatre for CEO Toby Gabriner‘s keynote was a palpable sign that programmatic in Canada is hitting the big-time. More technology companies are taking the stage, and more agencies and marketers are paying attention.

Here’s a couple of big takeaways from the conference.

Programmatic is opaque to CMOs

Exchange Lab chairman Chris Dobson, an industry veteran who’s run ad sales for the BBC and Microsoft, gave a stirring talk about how technology companies need to rethink their value propositions to their clients. CMOs – the women and men holding the purse-strings – don’t know a DSP from an SSP, and they don’t care, he said. What they want to know is how your business gives them better bang for smaller buck. If they don’t see how programmatic can do that, they are happy to stick to media channels they know are effective, like TV.

Dobson took aim at agencies and agency trading desks, claiming they haven’t been open with clients about how they buy media. He said some of the CMOs he spoke to aren’t aware they’re in programmatic, because their agencies have committed them to it without their knowledge.

At the same time, clients feel frustrated that agencies are continuing to silo their services, and feel they’re obstructing change. They’ve grown suspicious of conflicts of interest, stemming from publisher-agency deals. They’re ready to walk out the door, Dobson said – not to find another agency, but to take their media buying straight to a tech vendor, or just do it themselves.

No, really: Programmatic isn’t just RTB

There are more ways than ever to buy programmatic, and lot of them don’t mean turning to the Wild West of the open exchanges. Microsoft director of programmatic advertising Esco Strong described two distinct buying methods that bring programmatic targeting into the direct relationships that advertisers and publishers are used to. On one hand there’s what he calls “programmatic guaranteed,” where a buyer plugs a buying platform directly into a publisher’s inventory, and gets a first look at all the impressions that go up for sale. Unlike a standard digital bulk buy, they only pay for impressions that meet a set of agreed-upon audience criteria. Those that don’t are passed down the chain to buyers on networks and exchanges.

Then there’s what Strong called “RTB direct” – programmatic auctions that have been modified to include only a handful of approved buyers, or only a single buyer, who have negotiated with the seller ahead of time. In an afternoon presentation, SiteScout co-founder Matt Sauls gave an in-depth explanation of how this kind of buying works. Rather than having the buyer plug into the publisher directly, which can be technically difficult and cumbersome, RTB direct buying happens on the same exchanges that typical RTB trading does; but select buyers have a special key, called a Deal ID, which lets them into a private backroom where closed auctions happen. In some cases, a buyer can negotiate exclusive access to an auction – meaning they get the same kind of first-look, negotiated-price access that guaranteed buyers do.

Sauls said most exchanges still have to build the proper interface for buyers to access Deal ID-based auctions, but that a lot of industry experts expect it to be a big deal when it’s ready.

CPAX 2.0 is on the way

The day ended with a panel of top ad sales executives for Rogers, Shaw and CBC – the three founding publishers behind the Canadian Premium Audience Exchange (CPAX) – who announced that CPAX would be shutting down and restructuring its technology and business model.

“Think of it as a reset,” said Andrew Casale, vice-president strategy for Casale Media, who also sat on the panel. Although it is expected Casale Media will be a major technology partner for the new exchange, the company has not confirmed its involvement.

CBC director of digital sales Rebecca Shropshire spoke plainly about how CPAX’s “set it and forget it” philosophy didn’t pan out. “What we’re finding is it still requires a sales call,” she said. “It still requires that relationship-building with the agency trade desk or the client directly, to show them how to best leverage and purchase our inventory.”

Going forward, CPAX will have more active leadership and a dedicated sales team, the executives said.

They also discussed buyers’ concerns about fraudulent and non-viewable ads, and hinted at issues with the quality of the ads that landed on CPAX publishers’ sites.

“We’re a young industry still, and we’ve been finding our legs in the programmatic space,” said Shropshire. “But I think it’s time we mature a little bit. I think at large we need to think about cleaning up the neighbourhood so there’s a better place for our kids to play.”

Check out next Tuesday’s AD-Vantage newsletter for more about the conference and interviews with some of the speakers.

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