Playing offense and defense with AdTech

With Super Bowl 50 looming, I found myself talking with Antti Pasila, Chief Commercial Officer and co-founder of Kiosked, about the Budweiser frogs.

“The Super Bowl is kind of the Oscars for ad creative guys,” he said. Characters like Bud, Weis and Er–who have been around since 1995–“touch customers on an emotional level.” TV spots for the Super Bowl used to be once and done affairs, more or less, but the ad concepts now have a longer life. Pasila told me he’s already getting emails from friends who have previewed the Heinz commercials for the upcoming game. After the whistle, Super Bowl ads will have an extended life, not least on mobile devices, in terms of views and shares.

All this means, of course, is that the significance of creative input is not being degraded by ad tech and the programmatic environment. It just needs a different kind of strategy.

Kiosked, which was founded in Finland in 2010, and remains headquartered in Helsinki, grew from the insight that, although online marketing budgets were growing, performance of online ads was plummeting. “It was such a huge business,” said Pasila, “hundreds of billions of dollars every year. We started looking for a simple solution to stop performance dropping.”

Pasila and his co-founders uncovered problems with the sheer quantity of ads, with their quality and relevance, and with their placement. Placement had become so mechanical that viewers had developed banner blindness. Kiosked’s answer, Pasila told me, was to “create a new standard: contextual relevance and native placement inside content.” This would mean, he said, “fewer ads, but more money for publishers.”

Pasila distinguishes between traditional native advertising, which involves sponsored content with some relevance to a brand or product, and native placement. The former strategy runs into a problematic and costly bottleneck when it comes to creative. With native placement, technology can look at a website and its layout, and understand how consumers consume that particular URL (for example, scrolling habits). These insights determine optimal ad placement within the content which catches viewers’ eyes.

The appeal of this strategy, of course, is that it optimizing ad placement for website layout and viewer behavior can be automated. “It has given us immense scales,’ said Pasila, “three to five billion ad impressions per month.” And that with a staff of only 90 people in Kiosked’s global offices.

It was always the co-founders’ intention that the platform should be 100 percent programmatic. The technology creates Kiosked’s own ad inventory, which it sells in the marketplace as a saleside platform. The speed and volume of programmatic signals, Pasila said, a new role for creative. “Computers can optimize ads better than any person. Creative people are now focused on giving the best framework.” People set the aims–whether it be optimization to maximize click-throughs or basket size–and computers do the heavy lifting. “They can create A/B tests with hundreds of different calls to action,” he said.

What’s more, brands are responding to the long-term potential of programmatic and related creative input by bringing the relevant skills inhouse. Recent research by Kiosked suggests that brands are looking to draw agency talent in these fields inhouse. This is especially true of big advertisers and brands, and Pasila sees it as a repeat of the SEM story, which started as an agency skill but proved important enough to be adopted by brands themselves.

Programmatic is not all about customer acquisition, though. Fittingly, this weekend, we should acknowledge the increasing numbers of brands which are using ad tech to play defense. Specific businesses go unnamed, but mobile gaming and streaming services are two spaces where brands greedily bid for ad inventory, not necessarily to attract new consumers, but to protect their own placements against competitors. “We can see the rivalries,” said Pasila, “where one brand wants to block another one.”

That doesn’t just happen around the Super Bowl, although that’s certainly one event where brands move to buy up remnant inventory. Does defense win championships? That’s a debate we won’t settle here. But whether the Broncos or the Panthers wake up happy Monday morning, we’ll all wake up to an increasingly programmatic world.

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