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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

What building a digital media agency has taught us about navigating programmatic

September 17, 2018 | By Adam Cahill, CEO & Founder – Anagram@AnagramLLC

For the first time, spending on digital advertising is greater than television. To experienced advertising professionals, the news didn’t come as a surprise. But its impact is significant for myriad reasons: in 2017, While industry watchers saw this coming for years, it still signifies a monumental shift in the ad business. And all of the players in the ecosystem – brands, agencies and ad tech companies – are scrambling to evolve to accommodate new requirements.

It was with these challenges in mind, and recognizing that digital advertising is now more than 20 years old – IAB/PWC tracks spending to 1996 – that my agency, Anagram, launched in 2015. Our guiding principles from day one have been to focus strictly on programmatic buying. We balance both creative and data inputs in our approach, and embrace transparency. We define requirements based on a campaign’s goals; select the best channels / exchanges / systems for the job; and then execute / monitor / optimize the media buys.

The most significant differences between programmatic and traditional media buying are the reliance on systems and software, amount of performance data available, and an advertiser’s ability to make adjustments on-the-fly (i.e., “mid-flight”). While these options present advertisers with varied new opportunities for performance improvement, they also increase their potential risk exposure by way of wayward spending, fraud, and visibility.

In addition to our guiding principles, we have defined three complementary axioms that continue to govern our company’s direction and behaviors, which we hope will help others better navigate programmatic.

1. ‘Digital-First’ Is No Longer Optional

Based strictly on costs, implementation speed, and flexibility, a ‘digital-first’ approach is a no-brainer. When comparing TV, print and radio options to digital in each of these areas, digital comes out on top.

But that’s only part of the story. A genuine ‘digital-first’ strategic mindset requires significant cultural and business process implications as well. As corporate brands have worked furiously to embrace this approach, the legacy advertising agency business model has lagged to adjust.

What’s worked for us is that we’ve taken the valuable components of the old ad agency structure – talent and creative chops – and fuse them with new agency requirements (technology, data management, speed-to-market) to establish a stronger foundation. This includes a new way to manage staffing, methodology, and partnerships.

2. ‘Integrated Marketing’ is Easy to Say and Difficult to Realize

Big data, for all of its benefits, has also introduced a litany of challenges into the marketer’s day-to-day activities. While the media landscape has fragmented exponentially over the past decade, it has also created an overflow of data (which has resulted in introducing terms like ‘data lakes’ into the marketer’s lexicon) that requires management and analysis. Additionally, the “big three” issues that have been front-and-center in the digital ad business for several years now – viewability, fraud, and transparency – are now on the radars of non-marketing executives. So, marketers must be prepared to involve CEOs and even CEOs in big data discussions.

One way to tackle these “omni-channel” (another popular buzzword) challenges is through integrated analytics dashboards. But these require the incorporation of data from “walled gardens” like Facebook, Amazon, and Google. While difficult to acquire and organize, once wrangled, provide a vital component to solutions that help create an orderly view of the world, and simplify analysis and marketing mix allocations.

3. If You’re Not Confused, You’re Not Paying Attention

While market consolidation in the marketing technology is inevitable – according to one estimate there are more than 5,000 companies in the category – it’s not going to happen in a meaningful way for several years, or perhaps even a decade. For every mammoth, deep-pocketed concern like Adobe, Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, SAP, there are hundreds of pesky (and often well-funded) startups flooding the market. It is critical not only to rely on a trusted suite of proven technologies to deliver client solutions, but also to constantly evaluate new market entrants, because this market moves fast.

Long-Term Keys to Success: Focus & Adaptability

I’m proud of the progress that Anagram has made in the few short years since our inception. But I know there’s still a lot of work to be done. Staying committed to the core plan, while at the same time being flexible to accommodate evolving marketing conditions, will be an ongoing challenge. But we believe this is how all agencies will need to operate in order to thrive in the new marketing environment. Buckle up!

About the author

Adam Cahill is the President of Digilant US and CEO of Anagram, a Boston-based programmatic agency. A 20-year veteran of the digital industry, he went all­in on programmatic in 2009, launching one of the first agency trading desks. Before joining Digilant, Adam founded Anagram, a digital media consultancy built for the modern marketing era. Previously, he served as Chief Digital Officer at Hill Holliday and SVP/General Manager of Carat in Boston. Adam has been named a Media All-Star by Adweek, a Media Maven by the Ad Club, and has led teams that have twice been named Media Agency of the Year.

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