Self-serve vs. Managed: Should a tech partner run your campaign?

As brands and agencies demand more transparency of their tech partners and look to cut costs, the software-as-a-service model is starting to make a lot of sense

Video advertising platform SourceKnowledge is ready to give up some control. As of this fall, its clients will be able to use the company’s technology on a self-serve basis – meaning they’ll get to press the big green button on their video buys, instead of paying SourceKnowledge traders to do it for them.

Like many technology providers, SourceKnowledge offers what’s called “managed” or “full-service” programmatic buying. It has an internal team that operates its video-buying technology on behalf of clients. Since the technology is complex and its controls aren’t exactly user-friendly, it makes more sense to have trained experts at the helm.

Now, however, SourceKnowledge is designing a user interface that will let clients – either agencies or brands themselves – bring in their own people to take direct control.

“What we’re trying to do is build as simple an interface as possible,” says chief technology officer Stuart MacDougall. “Anywhere ranging from a brand directly, to an agency, right down to a trading desk can come in and take advantage of the proprietary bidder we’ve built.”

The decision to offer self-service trading is one that a lot of ad tech companies have made in the past year. As brands and agencies demand more transparency of their technology partners and look to cut costs in digital media, the software-as-a-service model is starting to make a lot of sense. It gives the buyer the most control over how ad dollars are being spent – and since the provider doesn’t have to hire its own team, it can charge the client much less.

Steer the ship yourself…

MacDougall says that for SourceKnowledge, the choice is largely economic. At this stage of the industry’s evolution, demand-side platforms can’t use reach as a differentiator, since everyone can access most of the same inventory. What leads clients to choose one platform over another is the efficiencies they can provide in the buying process. “When people come in they can buy [the inventory] that they’re getting from everybody else, but with our optimized bidder they’re hopefully getting it cheaper than everybody else,” he says.

For brands looking for cost savings, self-service is a natural choice. And for brands looking to have a more direct relationship with their technology providers – or taking the big leap to in-house digital media buying – self-service is about as hands-on as you can get.

Take Brightroll, a digital video platform (and SourceKnowledge competitor) that offers both full-service, self-service, and a halfway hybrid. Brightroll senior vice-president, marketing operations, Dan Mosher says that the full-service offering lets clients take advantage of the company’s in-house programmatic experts — but on the other hand, “you’re not really in control of your own destiny.” He says that full-service clients have less access to insights about the campaign, and a slower response time when they want to make changes.

Self-service clients, on the other hand, can use the Brightroll console to set up their own campaigns, layer in third-party data, control which sites and mobile apps they’re buying, and course-correct once the campaign is running. “The client has full visibility into every decision that is made, because they’re making the decisions,” he says.

Brightroll has made a big push towards the software-as-a-service model. Mosher says that close to half of the company’s clients are using self-service, and it aspires to have around 75% on that model. To that end, Brightroll has developed a 90-day training program to get agency and brand clients up-to-speed on using the self-service platform.

From Brightroll’s perspective, the SaaS model makes the most business sense, because software can scale better than people can. The company wants to bring in as many clients as it can to build up its revenue base. On a full-service model, that would mean hiring more account managers. But with self-service, the platform can handle more customers without any additional strain.

The company’s made a bet that self-service is the best model for the long-term viability of ad tech, and so far, it’s paying off.

…or trust the navigator

Other companies in the buyer services sector aren’t so enthusiastic about self-service. Toronto-based EyeReturn, like most advertising technology providers, offers both managed and self-service – but VP of client services Ian Hewetson says self-service doesn’t always make sense.

“If you’re willing to traffic nothing but standard ads in a known environment where you’re not going to run into too many technical challenges… then self-serve could definitely be something for you,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, the industry is changing on an almost daily basis, and “standard” is a moving target. “Even the most standard of situations can turn into a situation that requires some pretty serious experience and expertise.”

Hewetson says that, contrary to Brightroll’s perspective, managed service can have a quicker response time when changes need to be made. By having direct access to the technology, eyeReturn’s team can implement anything from quick fixes to cross-campaign customization. They can smooth over the discrepancies between different layers of the buying process, like buying, delivering creative and reporting. Their experts can also see problems before they arise, helping to prevent problems that would otherwise require course-correction.

Although brand clients are looking at self-service as a way to save on media buying, Hewetson says those savings can be offset by the costs of hiring an in-house team to run the platform. “The overhead is considerable,” he says. “You’re going to be looking an entire department that you need to create.”

Working together

Naturally, some companies have sought a middle road. “There’s a misconception in the marketplace that it’s an either-or. The reality is it’s a bit of both,” says Mark McKee, senior vice-president of global marketing and strategy at Videology.

Videology invests in customizing client relationships, offering some services managed and others self-service. For example, some clients will ask to be in control of choosing which publishers and channels they buy from, but leave the nuts and bolts of creative management and ad delivery to Videology.

“It comes down to what do you need, and what do you have already?” McKee says. “Do you have a team that is going to go in there and manage the 200 campaigns that you have? You don’t yet? Okay, then let’s think about how we transition to that self-service model.”

He says finding the optimal balance of outsourced and in-house media buying largely depends on who the advertiser is and what their objectives are. Clients should think less about whether they want self-service or managed, and instead focus on what your ultimate goals are.

Videology does see clients migrating towards the self-service end of the spectrum, as brands and agencies become more aware of programmatic buying and the technology and strategy involved. McKee says that today, compared to several years ago, clients have a much better idea of what their objectives are and when they want to get there. One brand might say they want to be 100% self-service by 2016, while another might aim for specific services managed and some self-serve by the end of the year.

He says it’s important for brands and boutique agencies to take the time to test the waters and figure out what works for them. “If you try to do the wrong thing, the level of service is a moot point,” he says. “Don’t worry about the service level yet. Tell people where you want to go, and your ultimate vision, and where you are today – and then from there, you can figure out the right model.”

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