As a young scholar I was fascinated with the ancient Greek concept of a pantomath – a person who knows all available knowledge in a civilisation at a given time. Though pantomaths might not have existed even in the ancient times, I occasionally reflect on whether they exist in specific fields. In the digital advertising space, I can conclude that it is impossible for one person to know everything.
After all, the complexity of the industry now is staggering. Today we see more channels and formats than we even dreamed possible just a few short years ago. Smartphones, tablets, connected TVs, mobile apps, outdoor and in-game ads – the number of ways to reach and engage consumers keeps growing.
This rapid growth – along with the programmatic transformation in the digital advertising ecosystem – has, in my opinion, stalled the convergence towards a few big players and platforms dominating the industry. New point solutions and technologies still frequently emerge, both adding to and addressing head-on this complexity we all struggle with. And with company valuation in the industry being relatively high, we have yet to see substantial consolidation through M&As. Though single-platform consolidation is on the horizon, I believe we will first see a consolidation divided by performance and branding, and less in channels or single tech proposition as we see today.
Why do I say this? The exquisite complexity makes agencies more relevant than ever; contrary to many predictions we have heard. The truth is advertisers need advisors to help them navigate these complexities, and focus on the right technologies and solutions. In this respect, agencies are still the gatekeepers to the platforms their clients use, and in an attempt to stay relevant, are open to point solutions that can provide an edge. They also have the required volume to justify the investments in the time needed to try new solutions. Since agencies are generally divided into performance and branding, I see a platform consolidation shaping around these two disciplines. Future performance platforms are already taking shape with a high focus on data, algorithms, targeting features and substantial volume. The emerging branding platforms have more emphasis on creativity, multi-channels, streamlining workflows and premium volume.
At the same time, I see a trend of large advertisers opting to bring control over their advertising platform in-house and that does not really follow this classic division in performance and branding. The trend is fully understandable, it reminds me of early Internet days when companies progressed from relying on a web agency to build and host their websites, to bringing these functions in-house to ensure business continuity, cost control, and the ability to change agency.
Most of the large advertiser RFPs that pass my eyes have a long list of desired features and services, of which only half are available in individual platforms today. Large advertisers are interested in consolidated platforms, preferably without divisions between branding and performance capabilities, and merges with their other high priority marketing initiatives (email campaigns, site recommendations, analytics or CRM) with their display and trading platforms. Surely this will be a long-term driver towards consolidated platforms and serve as an entrance into the ad-tech space for the big enterprise players such as Adobe, Oracle, IBM, and Salesforce.com, all of which have considerable expertise in 1:1 marketing – the Holy Grail of advertising. That said; it is likely to take several years given the pace they move at and the current distance.
Agencies have traditionally been the driver behind the expansion of the digital advertising platforms and given the fast evolution, complexity and shortage of digital marketing talents, this is likely to continue for several years. It will be thrilling to watch the platforms evolve, and to see the innovative use cases they spark. We still have quite a way to go, as I believe marketers need more simplicity than what the current platforms offer. The solutions they rely on today require them to stitch together numerous platforms and point solutions – an endeavour that is costly, time-consuming, error-prone, and limits the desired levels of data and privacy protection. As a result, the industry is still far from unlocking the full potential of digital advertising space for both advertisers and publishers.
On the personal level, as a co-founder of one of the full-stack platforms combining ad serving, data management, programmatic buying, and rich media, I should probably welcome a period where the competitive focus is on platform consolidation. But as a technologist who is passionate about developing cutting-edge features, I would actually rather extend the last years of amazing technological evolution for a few more. After all, very few are fortunate enough to be at the centre point of such a period of innovation, which is kind of the moon-landing era of our industry. So I say, let consolidation wait a bit longer while we innovate and reach new frontiers.