Survivor: Ad Network Island

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cheat_small.jpgADOTAS EXCLUSIVE — Ad networks are once again center of attention in some circles, this time with company implosions, employee layoffs, and unconsummated acquisitions. As on a certain reality TV show, alliances are being tested and the race for the ultimate prize (exit/IPO) has gotten much tighter. But what’s becoming even clearer is the opportunity available to those ad networks that can effectively navigate the turmoil of these times.

Just as healthy online ad economies hide weaknesses in the network ranks, the downturn will reward networks that stand up to scrutiny. Numbering into the 300s – even more, by some estimates – ad networks vie for a piece of a shrinking piece.

If you’re a media buyer how do you shore up your buy? With buys needing more justification and accountability than ever, what are the bellwethers for a healthy ad network for my needs? Author and consultant Robert Moskowitz recently provided a variety of tips on selecting the right ad network for your campaign.

As an ad network though, you need to take stock in what you ultimately control: your ad network. That may sound pedestrian but tough times should drive you to focus on a few core rules. Does your network add something truly unique to the equation? And what are you doing to ensure you are standing when the dust settles?

When it comes to key initiatives within the ad network industry, there are three key legs of the proverbial stool that will make or break your ad network in these uncertain times:

Proprietary Technology
What is your special Intellectual Property sauce? Ad networks that simply rely on brute force, media arbitrage, and outsourced manual optimization are on a road to nowhere.

A network’s role as value-added intermediary begs demonstration of said value by 1) creating relevant efficiencies, 2) providing something an advertiser wasn’t getting previously and 3) developing ways to get things done at less cost – and unless networks leverage unique technology solutions to these challenges, they’re undifferentiated and their success has an expiration date.

Scale and Unique Reach
With so many types of networks – behavioral, geographic, vertical, and so on – HOW we reach an audience is just as important as WHO we reach. While enormous scale is still a selling point for some ad networks, it is quickly becoming less of a differentiator. Instead, unique reach to specific verticals and target markets is becoming increasingly attractive to advertisers. Ad networks that are able to target specific valuable audiences, in a transparent way, clearly set themselves apart from the masses.

Sales Team
I’m just going to say it right now: Sales people (often) suck. Network reps are notorious for their lack of experience and penchant for being ill-prepared and unable to succinctly describe the exact value they bring to the table (See Points 1 & 2). Maybe a few bad apples have spoiled the bunch, but network sales folks and their leadership have scorched a large swath of online ad dollars via agencies and brands, and those buyers are still feeling the burn.

How do you avoid this? Start slow and low (CPM), communicate proactively, prove the value and over-deliver on the proposition. Build spend and relationships over time. You’ll be doing us all a favor.

This is a time to return to the basics. Sanjaya Patel of Google (ex-DoubleClick executive) mirrored my assessment during a recent OMMA Global panel. Patel added that while most ad nets are making money now and will continue to do so in the short term, long-term viability is still in question.

Make no mistake, there will be significant consolidation, shakeout and movement in this industry over the coming months. In the meantime, as a media buyer, know what to look for, and as an ad network, know what you look like. In either case, this will serve you well as the industry as a whole finds its feet.

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