The P&G Mandates

P&G is powerful and competitive through a few levers: marketing, supply chain, distribution, and innovation. Over the past few years, it embarked on a massive overhaul of its supply chain to move quicker, improve transparency in its operations, and integrate more deeply with suppliers where possible. It should come as no surprise then, that a company that spends over $8B / year on advertising would take the same approach to its marketing spend. 

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Amazon's Header Bidding

Amazon recently announced a server-to-server header bidding solution. For an overview on header bidding generally, see the previous Lift Letter on the same subject: Header Bidding. This has the potential to be very important in the development of ad tech, so it's worth discussing in more detail.


First, what makes Amazon's solution the most interesting is that it's server-side and transparent. Most header bidding wrappers have client-side javascript code that issues a number of nearly-parallel requests to the endpoints of each header partner. All partners must respond within a timeout, the winning bid is sent to DFP and - assuming no line item in DFP beats it - that ad serves. The challenge is that if you have 8 header partners and 5 ad placements, your browser needs to make potentially 40 header calls before rendering the ads (they can be chunked, so it might not be necessary to do 40). While one request isn't an issue, 40 is. This can materially impact the user experience. But, of course, header bidding democratizes access to the ad server and publishers make a lot more money this way. Several companies have also taken a reluctant position about integrating into other company's headers - Amazon in particular - because of fears about their bids and userdata being stolen by other parties.

Google's preferential treatment of AdX - and the revshare that comes with it - is most at risk with header bidding's proliferation (one could also question the long-term strategic value of DFP if header bidding really catches on, but that's a whole other can of worms). As a result, Google created an exchange bidding program. This is server-to-server protocol where companies like TripleLift would theoretically bid into AdX/DFP. In this implementation, there is no client-side code - just an ad call by the browser. Much like a normal ad exchange, Google would then issue ad requests, but include header partners as well. This means that there are far fewer ad calls on the browser and a much better user experience. But Google takes a revshare here - and currently doesn't disclose the revshare - and thus will likely disadvantage partners against its own demand, and otherwise take a cut. From the perspective of a publisher, it's a better user experience, but Google is keeping much of the upside of header bidding, as opposed to the publisher for client-side opportunities. Google also may keep partners' bidding data. Payment also would need to go through Google, meaning partners wouldn't be able to have direct relationships with publishers. Finally, in its current implementation, Google doesn't support PMP deals through other partners.

Amazon's solution - to some degree - is the best of both worlds. First, it's a server-to-server implementation. This means there is a single request per ad call (it's actually one more ad call per ad slot than Google, but much better). It also means that a publisher could have many more partners without directly impacting their user experience, because the partner requests are made on the server side. Amazon charges the publisher a CPM fee for using its service, as opposed to a revenue share (1 cent CPM) and it allows the partner to maintain a direct relationship with the publisher - meaning there is real transparency on fees.

There are concerns about whether Amazon will actually run honest auctions, or instead prioritize its own bids when it chooses to. This may not be audit-able by the publisher. Further, Amazon may be collecting everyone's bid data, allowing it to be the least it can and potentially undermine overall publisher monetization. Finally, it's unclear that they will support PMPs and the like. 
Google's exchange bidding program is certainly interesting - it opens access to publisher inventory that was otherwise not accessible. That said, it is a markedly worse outcome for us than either client- or server-side wrappers that allow price transparency and direct publisher relationships. It will be interesting to see where this takes the publisher ecosystem, but it definitely increases the value of things like formats, where we can make a unique name for ourselves and truly differentiate. Of course, publisher-direct is always the best - and that's where we always look to be. But technologies like these go a long way to improve our ability to have business relationships with publishers.

McDonalds and Agency Fee Transparency

McDonalds recently shifted its agency to Omnicom - specifically, DDB (only creative was up for grabs here, the media buying wasn't being reviewed). After working with Publicis' Leo Burnett for the past 35 years, and after growing to roughly $1B in annual media spend, this is important for both Omnicom and Publicis in the obvious ways. The transaction was also important for the agency industry as a whole and may (or may not) serve as a model for future deals.

McDonalds would be a large, tier 1 customer for any agency. It has the heft and cachet to push the bounds on the nature of the terms it uses in agency relationships. But McDonalds also conducted its agency review not long after the ANA released its transparency report. So when it came time to look for an agency, McDonalds wanted to make sure the agency's primary interests were increasing McDonald's sales. McDonalds required that the winning agency handle its business "at cost" - meaning (generally) make no profit whatsoever on the fees charged. All profit would be tied to an explicit incentive structure based on performance.


Agencies do not operate like this. As discussed in previous lift letter (The ANA Report on Media Transparency), media agencies make money directly and indirectly based on the media. Just like any professional service organization, a creative agency would expect to add its profit margin to the fees charged. One wouldn't expect a law firm to work at cost with outcomes tied to business success. McDonalds, however, is at an interesting point in its history. Nutritional and cultural trends may be working against it, and it may be struggling to rebrand in line with current market forces. Further, unlike a law firm - whose primary interests are protecting against downside risk - ad agencies can be much more closely aligned to overall business success.

The major questions here are whether an incentive structure like this catches on and whether it makes sense. It's to-be-determined if this structure works long term, but the operative questions are whether McDonalds and DDB can sufficiently align on the nature of the incentive structure, and whether the agency doing a good job can, alone, be dispositive of McDonalds - and thus the agency - attaining the performance tiers.

One could imagine that if a company paid their marketing department bonuses based solely on company revenue, that department's questions would be 1) whether the company has a sufficient investment in marketing programs that they will be able to meaningfully impact overall performance, 2) whether the targets for the team are reasonable and whether their good work could be undone by other departments' bad work, 3) what the company's overall plans are, and 4) what prevailing market conditions look like. McDonalds and DDB are making a meaningful investment that they can align on these answers. If not, this may have the opposite impact - DDB could be demotivated by unreasonable or otherwise unattainable performance targets such that they wouldn't do great work. If they are aligned, this could be incredibly powerful. The thresholds, however, are both very difficult and very important.

The question of whether this catches on could extend beyond creative and into media buying. In a world of rebates and undisclosed margins as discussed in the ANA report, advertisers might be forgiven for growing wary of a complex media world. Instead, a system that simply says "do what you want with my media dollars, but your profits have to come only from overall performance" could create incredible or terrible performance. Ultimately, whether other brands have the stomachs to try to resolve the alignment questions, and the hearts to better align their agencies with their outcomes may determine the compensation system over the years to come. This, in turn, may have dramatic effects on the media ecosystem as a whole.

The ANA Report on Media Transparency

The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) recently released its report “An Independent Study of Media Transparency in the U.S. Advertising Industry.” I've attached the report itself if you're interested. As many pundits and insiders had predicted, it revealed widespread rebates and other non-transparent practices that may or may not be in the best interests of the advertisers themselves.


The report described a number of tactics that it found misaligned with the ANA's principles. A simple example is a media agency buying media in bulk at a discount and selling it to its customer at market price - without necessarily disclosing the cost for which the media was originally purchased - and keeping the difference. Other examples include partnerships with media companies for rebates (or "service agreements" with no services provided) based on amount spent, without necessarily disclosing the rebates to the advertiser; buying through affiliated intermediaries and allowing the intermediary to markup the media; and dual rate card negotiations - where a holding company negotiates a lower rate for an ATD and a higher rate for the agency, and then purchases through the ATD can be marked up for an internal margin whereas those that bypass that ATD have worse rates (and lower margins for the holding company).

The ANA report describes these practices in a rather unsavory light. Indeed, it's not hard to find unethical interpretations for much of this behavior. That said, it's worth considering what's going on at a deeper level. The majority of the employees at ad agencies are doing actual, productive work in the greater interest of their advertiser customers. And they tend to have a particularly large number of employees doing a significant amount of manual work. With every account review, advertisers push for the agency to take lower margins. This means one of two things - either worse service or the margins come down. No one wants to offer worse service (and they'll lose the business if they do), and the agencies are generally public companies that have to deliver certain margins to their investors. So things happen and eventually you get an ANA report on transparency in the media industry.

This is actually a very complex principal-agent problem. If an agency is paid as a percent of media spend and it could achieve the same results with half the media spend, the incentives aren't aligned. If an agency were completely transparent about its fees in this case, it would choose to buy the same media at the highest price it could to net the greatest fees. If the fees were completely opaque, it might negotiate a discount and pass along some - but not all - of the savings to its customer. One could argue that it would obligated to get the best discount for its client and pass on all the savings to its customer, but this isn't exactly a realistic portrayal of human nature in the aggregate, nor of publicly traded companies. Similarly, an agency trade desk might design algorithms to drive conversions at a lower price. The more effective the algorithm, the less money the agency would make. Finally, it's really quite hard to tell how effective an agency actually is. Did it buy the "right" media? Did it get the "best" prices? An advertiser has basically no way of knowing.

So it's an interesting question: if the ANA report results in advertisers demanding full transparency, what will happen to the agency world? Will the agencies refuse? The report details at least some agencies refusing, with justifications including the fact that the ATDs have costs that are spread among all the clients, so you can't allocate costs or transparency to a particular client. But beyond that, if there were transparency - would that simply mean decreased margins or lower service levels? Is that actually what the advertisers want? It's very possible (and ironic!) that, by demanding and obtaining a lower and transparent margin from the agencies, advertisers might actually be hurting their overall media performance.