Publisher Forum La Jolla: Let’s Liveblog

What Happened at Publisher Forum on Monday

Looks like the AdMonsters editorial team chose just the right moment to get out of cloudy, autumnal New York City, and the right destination. La Jolla, CA is about as sunny and warm as any travel agent would want us to believe. These are prime conditions for AdMonsters Publisher Forum 37, for sure…

I mean that in more ways than one. Last night at the Forum’s opening reception, it was striking how far publishers have come just since the last Pub Forum in Charleston, SC, in August. There’s a real urgency to get to the bottom of issues around HTML5, viewability and ad blocking, the major themes in Charleston. In August, we didn’t have a dedicated header bidding session, but by the second day that topic was trending hard in the hallways. Now more or less everyone is doing header bidding — or at least that’s how it seems — and as AdMonsters Publisher Rob Beeler pointed out, we don’t really hear from pubs that they’re doing header bidding and it’s not working for them. We’re going to be looking at this topic more closely this week, and we’re confident that with all the topics we covered last time, publishers will have a slightly different approach and fresh insights this time. (This is Monday’s liveblog. You can jump ahead to Tuesday’s here, or just follow the link at the bottom of this post.)

9:07 a.m.: Rob has begun his introduction to the main room. In Charleston, one of our themes was “the Death of Flash.” And this time, Rob says, we can be pretty sure the theme won’t be a Hollywood-style sequel where Flash returns. Ad blocking is likely to be the recurring theme. “We’ll call it The Wall,” says Rob.

9:08: “The complexity of the marketplace is our main competitor,” says Rob.

Our first keynote speaker is JT Batson, now partner at the newly-minted Luma Capital Partners (just launched this past Thursday), formerly of Rubicon, Donovan Systems/MediaOcean and Greylock Partners.

9:24: JT has taken the stage. AdMonsters has come a long way, he says, noting how much nicer this facilty is than the first AdMonsters conference he attended. The people in this room are going to be “media leaders of the future.” His topic is “Power Back to the Publishers.”

9:26: “The historical media companies were mini-monopolies,” JT says. Newspapers ruled their own geographical niches. But the web has changed that. It’s led legacy (that is, historically print) media companies to cut budgets, which led to opportunities in digital to pick up the slack in covering those veritcals legacy pubs were cutting.

9:30: In media, one side (the legacy pubs) is trying to hold onto the cash, and the other side is chasing after it. That changes pretty much every aspect of either organization.

9:31: The idea of “all the news that’s fit to print” is over, JT says.

9:34: In the transition to digital, “everyone became really good at their silo” at the expense of a more holistic model. Digital media becomes “a game of posts,” around volume of content.

9:37: TV is stll the most lucrative screen, JT says. Vice, which he classifies as a “digitally native company,” is launching a cable network. Vice, he says, is a great example of the concept of a franchise brand. When we have a company with a monetization problem, he explains, often they start thinking they have a sales problem — then it starts to look like a sales and marketing problem, then it finally looks like a product problem.

9:39: Creating a great brand starts with a compelling value proposition, a reason people come to your site every day. Pubs can get lost in the weeds, to the point where “there isn’t a lot of thought into, ‘Why do people have to buy us?'” ESPN is the best example of this, launching products to “make you care about things you thought you’d never care about.” JT recalls how CBS paid ESPN for a Stanford game that ESPN itself had turned into a big deal.

9:41: Well-branded franchises are not susceptible to problems related to platform and programmatic.

9:42: “Niche doesn’t mean ‘small,'” JT says. And the New York Times could really benefit from digital, he says.

9:44: Digital means a lot of hats for publishers. Distribution and content are part of the same equation.

9:45: Programmatic becomes the standard this year. JT calls this “astounding” when we consider the way programmatic has evolved in the last six or seven years. However, programmatic might be pressuring CPM prices. He saw this at MediaOcean, and he predicts media platforms will be taking “a fraction of what they’re taking today,” maybe not immediately, but in two or three years.

9:47: “The programmatic waterfall doesn’t work,” he says, and header bidding is “a hack. Let’s call it what it is. You have a hegemonic ad server that has very little interest in investing in technology.” Google’s made more money “during this talk” with AdSense than it has in 10 years with DoubleClick.

9:48: “Everyone says publishers are the new agencies, and this is nothing new.” Historically a new development has always meant custom productions that the seller has to take on, he says. But “once something has been standardized, it can move down the assembly line.”

9:52: We’re opening up the floor for questions. Rob is curious about JT’s view on header bidding as a “hack,” because, as he says, no one’s saying they’re doing header bidding and it’s not working. “I mean, Rubicon was a hack,” JT says. “It was a hack on a fragmented ecosystem. Most new things are hacks. That’s how you get going.”

9:55: What makes sense to do in-house are things related to, for example, first-party data, JT says, but he doesn’t recommend taking too many task in-house.

10:00: Rob points to this statistic he’s seen: When an advertiser spends a dollar, the buyer gets 40 cents. So what do you do with the chunk that disappears in between? “As long as the market is growing rapidly, there are opportunites for people to jump in the middle and grab stuff,” JT says. But when the market is stagnant, you start to have problems.

10:08: Think about all the cable TV channels that “used to be rerun channels,” JT says, that are now producing a ton of original content. That original content gives them leverage with Comcast and other service providers when they negotiate their contracts. “All that content being produced is produced under a legacy business model. When that cracks, that’s what you all get to figure out.”

10:10: “This industry is rife with short-term opportunities that have long-term costs,” JT says. “You want to be careful not to become over-reliant” on solutions that “come back to bite you.”


10:25: Onto Tremor Video’s sponsor session. The topic is “Harnessing the Power of Private Marketplaces.” Tremor’s Laura Buchman is talking with Hayley Cameron of Australian broadcaster Special Broadcasting Service and Chris Pirrone of USA Today Sports. Chris just shared a bit of a case study about his company’s investment in video and how the programmatic marketplace plays into it. “Premium sales is up and down” over the calendar year, he says. “I had content providers providing video and I didn’t have preroll to fill it.” They turned to programmatic, and that ended up funding the content development business at his company. It’s steadier than sponsorship/premium sales models, he says, because there isn’t always a massive event driving sponsorships. Now, he says, he can send production teams to sporting events all over the U.S. “I know I can make money off my investment in it” through the programmatic space, he says.


1:15 p.m.: Our outdoor lunch got a little bit drizzled out, so we’re back inside early. Rob is building up to his State of Ad Ops talk. He’s asking the room a few questions: Is complexity outpacing CPMs? We’re seeing higher CPMs, but there’s so much added complexity across devices and platforms. (Big show of hands here — maybe half the room.)

1:25: Rob is announcing five points addressing the state of ad ops today. We’re going to see, by shows of hands, how the ops in the room feel about them. “Complexity is outpacing CPMs” was the first. Second: “Change is changing.” Rob has said before about the permanent state of ad ops, “Everything is status quo; everything is changing.” But now, he says, it seems like things are changing differently than they had before. (I’m not the best at judging percentages this way, but whether it was 25% or 35% of the room who raised their hands to agree, it was fewer hands than for the complexity/CPMs sentiment.)

Third point: “Header bidding will change programmatic.” Ben Barokas had told Rob in an earlier conversation that ad ops didn’t know what they were getting into, that it would introduce latency and inefficiently and extra work. So “change” could feasibly mean any number of things. (About the same number of people raised their hands to agree with this sentiment as did the second sentiment.)

Fourth point: “Ad blocking is a good thing.” If the percentages of ad block adaptation among users change, pubs will have to change the way they do business. The people have voted they don’t like ads. (A smaller percentage raised their hands here.)

Fifth point: “The sky is falling for ad tech.” There’s too much to deal with, too much complexity, too many pixels and tags. (Only a few hands. Most people disagreed strongly about this point, after a show of hands about which of these statements you most disagree.)

One attendee says the change now is coming from the audience, where previously pubs drove the changes.

“It used to be, ‘We need more revenue,'” says Rob. “‘Oh, I have an idea, let’s add another ad unit!’ Now it’s like, ‘We need more revenue. Well, let’s take away an ad unit!'”


3:35: We’re back from breakout sessions and a networking break. Now AdMonsters’ Digital Media Leadership Awards are introducing themselves: Jana Massey of, Ben Barokas of Sourcepoint and Zack Rogers of CBS Interactive. Those are their current roles, of course. All three have been influencing the path of digital media since the days when CD-ROMs were a thing.

3:39: Rob reminds us Ben’s former company, AdMeld, kickstarted the programmatic space and sold to Google for $400 million. “I’ll trade you 20 years for $400 million,” Zack joked, in response to Ben’s comment that he hasn’t been in the biz as long as the other two.

3:41: Rob wants to know what all three have told to people whose careers they’ve helped launch. Zack says he looks for people to hire who are passionate about problem-solving. “We have a year-to-year firefight and you’re playing air traffic control,” he says. “It’s so complex these days you need kind of a groupthink.” Aspiration is important in a new hire, he says, but good training must be the next step. “That makes those people the kind of people who can solve problems on their own.”

3:45: Ben says you need to create a company culture where people are able to solve problems. He points out community is important and trust is important. “That trust doesn’t come from a conference call once a week,” he says. He adds that at a conference like this, he’s often the last person at the bar at the end of the night. “That’s why you’re getting the award,” Rob joked. “Liver of the Year,” Ben says.

3:49: Jana says it’s important to look for detail-oriented people and then help them to grow by paying attention to what they’re interested in specializing in.

3:50: “Is complexity changing the way you manage?” Rob asks. Like, looking at millennials’ culture and maybe embracing, say, slack. Is that okay? Ben jumps in that he was on AOL Instant Messenger back in the day, if you want to talk about whether slack is okay.

3:52: “The tools are great, but there are still missing pieces you need to glue together with sharp people,” Zack says. Yield optimization is one part of the stack, but you need to look at the whole revenue portfolio. He says they’re looking for data-minded people who are interested in making the business more money.

3:55: Zack says his company needs a people who are “subject media experts who need to be in code” on one side, and “hardcore business analysis. Fundamentally they are different people. Chances are each of us came from one half of that and grew into the other half.”

3:57: Rob says he’s hearing a lot of gloom (ad blocking, etc.) and a lot of optimism. People don’t think the sky is falling. Ben, he says, is taking a bet with Sourcepoint, and he puts the question to Ben first. “In Germany, the sky has fallen,” Ben points out. (Ad blocking in Germany has penetrated 40% of users.) When users adapt, that thing they adapt to is in their lives forever. Technology can get ahead of monetization, and to stay in the game we need transparency about the value prop between publishers and users. That could mean ad preferences, preferences about the way their data is collected, subscription options or more.

4:01: Even if you have a relationship with dedicated users because of your quality content, there are still other reasons the user might go elsewhere.

4:02: Jana says native is worth exploring. A paid model wouldn’t work for a lifestyle publication like, for example. The experience has to be right for the publication.

4:04: “Content and product needs to work very fluidly with monetization,” says Zack.” In spite of historical church and state separation, these sides need to come together in some way. One way this happens is by encouraging engagement and keeping the user on the page. “It’s a necessity. There’s no option.”

4:06: Rob asked Jana about site design, the kind of ad experience the publisher can deliver to the user. Jana says that for, viewability kicked off the topic of site design. “Ad ops has a stronger stakeholder than ever before,” she says, and now they’re being consulted by people at a higher level. 

4:09: Rob has asked what the biggest challenge would be in 2016. Zack says the buy-side leverage has been the biggest thing lately, the buy side’s ability to buy what they want when they want it. Rob adds that during Ad Week, advertisers were saying, “You realize viewability is just the next step, right? It’s not the endgame. We want to know who these people are.”

4:12: “We have to ask the users what they want and we have to have the advertisers pay for what the users want,” Ben says.

4:14: “Ops is oxygen,” says Zack. He encourages people in this room to take their knowledge and make their organizations know they have it, because they’re in an empowered strategic potition and able to empower their orgs in term. “Focus on solving problems like you’re the CEO. Think of how ops is everywhere.”


The Publisher Forum liveblog continues with a post detailing Tuesday’s keynotes and full sessions, after this link.