Secret Society Debates the Future of Television Advertising

Secret Society Debates Advanced TV

Programmatic TV is taking longer than we thought,” says Mitch Oscar as he gestures toward a cartoon featuring a group of confused cavemen, a favorite theme of his and probably an apt analogy for most advertising professionals.

The jam-packed boardroom in Turner’s offices at the Time Warner building shares a chuckle – these are all “members” of the “Secret Society,” an occasional gathering of TV and digital advertising specialists organized by Oscar, TV veteran of more than 40 years and thought leader in the linear programmatic space. 

The biggest secret about the society is that it’s not really secret at all, hence the room chock full of representatives from agencies, vendors and broadcasters. It’s far from the witching hour (a lunch spread full of quite good sandwiches and wraps was looted at 12:30 pm sharp) and the attendees are not cloaked in dark robes (there are a surprising amount of suits as well as the “ad tech” uniform of jeans, shirtsleeves and a blazer).

You could argue the subject matter of the meetings – advanced TV buying and selling – is extremely mysterious, and confounds even the greatest of linear and digital wizards. They’re trying to unlock the secrets of programmatic TV – how it can work efficiently, at scale, and also leave all the players involved in the transaction happy.

Oscar’s next slide features two cavemen struggling with a fire and boasts the caption, “Balancing advertiser demand for transparency versus the suppliers desire for concealment.” This one garners all-out laughter because it nails a central paradox within linear programmatic.

Especially when dealing with MVPD, advertisers can buy audiences (e.g., Nielsen demos) on linear television programmatically, but they have little control over when and in what context their creative appears. Middle of the night during an age-old “King of Queens”? Possibly, but you hit your target audience, which was the goal… Right? 

Does it sound a bit like blind cookie-targeting in an RTB environment to you veteran digital folks? For years, the digital space seemed to believe context took a very way-back backseat to audience. If advertisers could cherry pick their customers or consumers with high intent, who cared where their ads appeared? 

Well, certainly not on porn, or a pirating site – oh yes, I’m going to need some of that brand safety. And what’s up with these bots and impressions that are never viewed? Well, maybe context does matter a bit – let’s launch private exchanges with publishers we can trust.

Linear is a very different beast, but some situations may strike digital professionals as hauntingly familiar. Basically, the MPVDs are selling “remnant” or unsold inventory through programmatic channels, and they’re not big on transparency because while the audiences are choice, the surrounding programming and time of day may be lackluster. CBS is going to have sold most of the slots for a fresh episode of “Big Bang Theory,” but here’s a helluva deal on your target audience during an afternoon repeat. The premium inventory goes direct.

However, advertisers are liking this whole real-time buying and leveraging first-party data thing. Well, programmatic TV isn’t real-time either, though content on over-the-top and other on-demand sources is quickly becoming enabled. But that supply, just like linear, is limited.

A long debate about “frequency” in the linear programmatic environment breaks out: Oscar shares an anecdote about a buy where he was promised an “average frequency” of 14 in hitting target households. But when he broke down the reporting, that 14 was an average of number of times targets were hit – not 14 per each household targeted. Some households peaked in the 30s while others were only reached a few times.

Because of the limited supply, it seems frequency capping isn’t really available at scale – it’s hard to provide unless working with small budgets, a few attendees lament. Certainly the same can be said for private exchanges in digital video, but the “average frequency” quoted above is about as targeted as a direct buy.

Still, “Data science has transformed TV,” argues Viacom EVP of Data Strategy Bryson Gordon. Offering a presentation on the “Currency of Fandom,” he suggests TV buyers and sellers are moving from historical analysis to predictive modeling thanks to better data (e.g., attitudinal, interest) and data hygiene. 

He says we need to shift our focus in audience segmenting to deconstruction – breaking down your audiences into high-value, like-minded sub-communities – and cultivation – getting them to realize they are a community (or a fan base). To show Viacom’s success in these fields, he mentions that increasingly after consultative meetings, clients are willing to guarantee against custom-created segments.

Hulu Head of Advanced TV Doug Fleming shares graphs showing that viewing on TV screens accounts for 70% of consumption, and that figure is rising. Desktop Internet is quickly being left behind. Hulu announced its grand entrance into the programmatic ball at its 2015 upfront, but it’s been tough to incorporate because the company uses a pod model, and programmatic pod insertion hasn’t proved viable yet. In addition, while any SSP can do desktop, OTT and mobile – the growing areas for Hulu viewership – are much more difficult and require specialized providers. Also, the reporting for OTT remains quite limited.

In regards to programmatic, another presenter comments, “We’re focusing on how to hit the target, but we’re not sure about what to do when we get there.” He goes on to suggest that he can get advertisers the audiences they want, but how does he actually know what they want? He echoes the consultative role of the broadcaster/publisher when it comes determining target audiences and suggests broadcasters are increasingly meeting with advertisers sans media agencies.

There does seem to be some puzzlement around the room about what exactly a media agency’s role is these days. The broadcasters are certainly making the case that they can guide advertisers to their prized targets and that one-to-one marketing is a reality – a trend that’s been gathering chatter around the whole advertising community of late. But where does that leave third-party measurement companies like Nielsen and comScore? Won’t advertisers need to verify they hit their audiences or can the supply side be trusted at its word?

Alas, the conversation goes (well) over the allotted time. Conversations continue on as we disperse from the conference room – not quickly enough to the chagrin of an irritated office manager. Passed the elevators and out into Columbus Circle, we part ways until Oscar summons us once again using the Secret Society’s time-honored communication channel: mass email.