The Buy/Sell Distinction in Ad Operations

By Andrew Frank | November 21, 2009 | 3 Comments

Blogging is sometimes a great way to get interesting dialogs going, and yesterday’s post, Will Microsoft Exit the Ad Server Business?, drew a notable response from Harrison Magun, Director, Advertiser Tools and Technologies Specialist Sales at Microsoft. Harrison takes me to task for failing to make a crucial distinction between ad servers for publishers and ad servers for advertisers. In his words:

Publisher Ad Serving and Advertiser Ad Serving are different products.

Harrison then goes on to say that advertiser ad serving is core to Microsoft’s advertising platform, and points to the Atlas Technology Partner Alliance, a factor that was also communicated to me by others at Microsoft. (He doesn’t comment on the publisher side.)

While it’s undeniably true that these are different products, they share core functionality in common, and, perhaps more important, have both been historically marketed side-by-side under the same umbrella brands (Atlas and DART) for some time. In the blog medium one is often challenged to compress things to the point where certain distinctions are omitted, but perhaps in this case the distinction is important, because it’s plausible that Microsoft could exit the publisher (or “sell-“) side of the server business, yet still reinforce its commitment to the buy-side.

While such a strategy would not completely eliminate conflicts (advertisers and agencies still need assurances that their tools will give them neutral access to all available sources of inventory), the conflicts are less prominent than on the sell side where many online publishers consider MSN a direct competitor.

Moreover, as Harrison also points out, Microsoft has invested in “engagement mapping,” a strategy to shift the attribution of conversions from the “last click” (which is usually from a search results page) to ad exposures within a certain time period (more often display ads). This is widely seen as an attempt to reclaim some of the credit that Google, as the dominant player in search, has by convention been awarded by advertisers and move it into the display channel where Microsoft has more to gain. This strategy does require Microsoft to keep its hand in buy-side tools.

Microsoft also has a strong record of working with agencies on tools, where there is arguably more upside than on the publishing side. For example, Microsoft has worked extensively with Mediabrands, Interpublic’s media agency holding company, on what they’ve dubbed “the first holistic advertising platform, the Media Operations Management System (M.O.M.S)” (announced here). So, while Google/DoubleClick appears to currently have a wider lead on the buy-side than the sell-side, it’s very possible that Microsoft could continue to press on this front even if they reconsider their sell-side positioning.

So, mea culpa for omitting this distinction in my post. However, an even more critical distinction that I believe is too frequently glossed-over by the marketers of these products is the distinction between an ad server and an ad network. I’ve heard analyst claims that this distinction is fading, that the ad server will eventually be replaced by the network. This is a dangerous idea. Both publishers and agencies will continue to need tools which allow them to book and manage their own directly negotiated transactions without intermediaries and with a minimum of pricing friction. And both sides are increasingly recognizing that when tools are bundled with inventory from the same vendor, their position is weakened.

3 Comments
  1. 21 November 2009 at 9:45 pm
    harrison magun says:

    Your (Andrew’s) response to my blog post (Must Wash Hands Before Serving Ads on http://www.digitalCMO.com) shows balance, consideration, and keen interest in mapping the future of ad-serving (adveritser and publisher side) in a digital world that has changed markedly in the past few years. Thanks Andrew for listening to and understanding the key distinctions and bringing to light relevant questions and topics.

    My post was mostly in reaction to the implied conclusion “MS must be getting out of adserving because of what we see on the publisher side.” So thanks for clearing that up. And for the record, Atlas ad

    Once you cleared that up, the more important (I think) questions you raise come to light: how should advertisers consider the “objectivity” of ad serving (both advertiser and publisher) when those functions are owned by publishers (in the industry’s case, MSFT and Google. (We know that smaller players will not have the investment or scale to compete long term.) )

    As the MSFT guy, I feel pretty good about MS’s track record of and current execution around building efficiency tools to enable professionals to do better work, to get promoted, to drive their biz. A bunch of MS Enterprise products speak to that. But rather than wax on that topic, I’d love to hear from digital marketers/agencies themselves on their experiences, their fears, their expectations of both MS and Google in the advertiser-side ad serving space. I’ll invite folks on my http://www.digitalCMO.com, and perhaps invite them on yours – to chime in.

    harrison
    http://www.digitalCMO.com

  2. 23 November 2009 at 10:10 am
    Andrew Frank says:

    Harrison,

    Thanks for responding to my post…and folks are certainly encouraged to chime on this important topic.

    In a rare case of spontaneous balanced point-counterpoint contributions, I also received a comment from Amit Rahav, VP, Marketing at Eyeblaster, articulating the “neutrality first” viewpoint (complete with a highly engaging video): http://blogs.gartner.com/andrew_frank/2009/11/19/will-microsoft-exit-the-ad-server-business/#comments

    Another distinction I think needs attention is the difference between the needs of smaller (a.k.a. “long tail”) advertisers and major (a.k.a. “agency”) media buyers. Clearly the same product can’t effectively address both.

    I believe it’s the large buyers who will be the major contributors to the next wave of growth in online display, and they are more likely to demand clear evidence of independence and transparency in their buying tools.

  3. 23 November 2009 at 10:48 am
    Leo Scullin says:

    Andrew et al

    Our company, ASOC8, provides independent and transparent ad impression delivery information to advertisers and their agency and media partners. You are correct in stating that large media buyers will increasingly need a service and tool set such as ours to validate delivery across all digital platforms. Also, large buyers with agency demand platforms must seek out independent verification of delivery if they wish to compel clients to pay for these premium services.

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