Year in Preview: Programmatic alliances splinter

The bad news for programmatic alliances: 2016 was not a good year as nascent efforts in the U.K. failed, for the most part, to make a dent. The worse news: 2017 shapes up to be even grimmer as marketers look for full transparency on every part of their digital ad buys and publishers turn to header bidding to alleviate their programmatic revenue woes.

Buying programmatic ads blindly, albeit within a premium publisher brands marketplace, simply isn’t top of the priority list for buyers.

In 2015, the picture looked markedly different. Pangaea — the name of the Guardian-led alliance that has CNN International, the Financial Times, and Reuters as members — created a real stir in the market at launch. Pangaea offered a way to scale programmatic campaigns across the combined global audiences of its members, without the worry of appearing on fraudulent sites, or anywhere of suspect quality. It was also proof of publishers’ commitment to prioritizing collaboration over competitive advantage in the face of a real threat from Google and Facebook.

Likewise, another alliance initiated by the Association of Online Publishers had similar ambitions, though focused on domestic audiences, and modeled on France’s so-far-successful publisher programmatic marketplace model: La Place. (However, rumors are now circulating that the French alliance may be starting to fracture as mobile and native gain prominence — neither is an area of focus for the ad tech vendor it initially selected.)

Only by banding together could publishers hope to come anywhere near the scale Google and Facebook can offer marketers. And against the backdrop of a digital ad industry fraught with fraud and viewability issues, the concept behind the alliances was sound. Yet alliances have failed to gain real traction. And with so much change occurring in the digital media industry, it’s unlikely they ever will.

Much of that is due to the fact that anything that’s committee-led is fiendishly slow to progress, and in a market as fast moving as digital media, that’s an added complication nobody can afford. But agencies also want control over the buying process — they want self-service, rather than the managed service the likes of Pangaea provide.

One industry insider described Pangaea’s financial set-up as a “a black hole of decision by committee and vendor RFIs, revolving personnel and changing perspectives.”

And media agencies want to target audiences with even more pinpoint precision than in years past. Case in point: Group M has now created a unit (called mPlatform) designed to pull in data to create customer IDs that can give its clients a more in-depth and, more important, unified view of their habits across devices than the cookie ever could. The only other players that can offer the same customer IDs at that kind of scale are Apple, Google and Facebook.

This is what clients are really after, and agencies are driving it. “Even though we know the publishers involved, we could only buy blind inventory [on Pangaea,] and it is hard to buy blind in today’s atmosphere of ad quality and fraud. We need to see where our ads appearing,” says Marco Bertozzi, chief revenue officer of Publicis Media’s Performics.

With others, programmatic alliances just haven’t brought anything to the table which ad buyers needed. Tim Pearce, head of digital investment at Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi, says, “The long and short of it is, we can replicate exactly what Pangaea has done, internally. We have the technology. But we don’t because we don’t see the value in it.”

Testing new ways to collaborate is something that should be encouraged, and there are even new alliance models afoot for 2017, but not every market is well suited to them. France, Germany, the U.K. and U.S. all have their different quirks. A prime reason La Place did so well in France is because it was the sole route for advertisers to buy programmatically with the member publishers. In the U.K., publishers weren’t willing to halt their own individual efforts to sell programmatically, which can’t have helped. And for now, header bidding, mobile and native are all more pressing problems for publishers. In a way, the market has already ruthlessly moved on.

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