InSkin Media are an ad network who offer innovative custom creative solutions for video and display advertising. VAN caught up with Steve Doyle, Commercial Director, Europe (Steve is also Chair of the IAB’s UK Video Council), and Mark Davey, Publisher Services Director, to talk about the InSkin Media’s international expansion, how the formats perform, and the role of the custom formats in the programmatic age.
Could you first give a little bit of background about who InSkin Media are and what you do?
Steve Doyle: We’re a rich media video ad network and we have three products, two of which are video and one is display. They all compete in separate parts of the online display/video marketplace. We’ve been in business for four and half years. Before that the company spent a year and a half in R&D and then became fully commercial in early 2009. We’ve grown our business over the last four years and took on some investment from a well-known VC towards the back end of last year, so we’re going through an expansion phase at the moment. When we received that investment there were 40 of us working at the company, and by the time we’ve finished this round of growth there will be 75 of us across the four territories.
We’ve been primarily UK focused over the last four years but we also opened an office in Germany in the middle of last year and we have an office in Hong Kong, a little bit of stuff happening in the Nordics, and we’ve just started talking to the international divisions of agencies with a view to offering pan-European reach as well. Much of our work this year has been around growing our reach into European publishers as well as UK publishers, and extending our publisher network so we can talk about running campaigns across multiple territories. A core focus for us in Europe is the big five, so as well as the UK we’d like to develop in France, Spain, Italy and Germany.
Commercially we have a publisher sales team and an ad sales team. The ad sales team sell inventory across the network of our own format. Mark has been running the publisher side of things from the beginning and our focus has always been on the very top publishers. We work with what we would call traditional media owners which advertisers and agencies know well, which ranges from broadcasters, magazines, newspapers, radio stations and various different titles which are well-known and well-loved.
Mark Davey: Just to add to that. We’ve developed a number of formats which help publishers better monetise their audiences and inventory. So we’ve got the network side which has an ad sales team that go out and sell these formats, but we also have the publisher sales side which allows publishers to sell these formats directly to their own advertisers. In the UK we’re very much focused on our own ad sales efforts which generates the majority of our revenue, but outside of the UK we’re expecting the tech play side to become much bigger than it is in the UK. We’re already seeing that in Sweden where we have partnered with Aftonbladet, the largest newspaper group, who take our technology and sell the formats directly to their own advertisers. We’ve also had some success with that approach in other markets like Germany.
So how do the formats perform?
SD: Our formats are online branding formats, so they’re a way for an advertiser to position their brand in the mind of a consumer. So what we do is usually a combination of several things. Obviously there’s the impact of the unit on a page. More often than not, our ads will be strategically placed in the user’s eyeline. When we’re talking to advertisers we’re talking about different metrics, but dwell-time is amongst the most important as it represents the amount of time you when with a brand. So that’s includes not just people who click on the ad, but also those you don’t but are watching the video and see the message that the brand wants them to see.
Our click through rates tend to be much stronger than traditional display ads and it’s also about the number of unique users we reach across our network as well. While we’re not a mass reach play, certainly the number of unique numbers we can deliver across our network is a bit part of what we do as well. We also back that up with brand research as well, so showing people what brand uplift they’ve received, what the users thought about the advertising, whether they think more favourably about the brand. So all of these things together are what we would bundle as ‘performance’.
This is still a nascent market so I have been sitting in markets where I’ve done a lot of projects with advertisers who have six figure deals in terms of ad spend, and for the whole campaign — i.e. not just what they’re spending with us — they’re conducting a post-campaign analysis and they haven’t decided what the key metrics are for that campaign. There are just so many things they can look at, whether it’s view through rate, click through rate, dwell-time and post-click activity. Ultimately, we focus on the time spent with the brand and the brand seeing some uplift by being in the right place at the right time.
Assuming the publisher is happy with the design of the formats, it’s difficult to see why a publisher wouldn’t want an incremental revenue stream. What reasons do publishers give you for not wanting to use these formats?
MD: From a commercial perspective, there are really very few times when we get pushed back from publishers. It’s an incremental revenue stream and in addition to any in-stream formats they’re already running and it doesn’t have any negative impact on user experience. However, there are multiple stakeholders within a publisher who have to buy into this and it does change the look of the page slightly, so editorial teams have to sign it off, you’ve got techical people involved to integrate it — it isn’t just an ad tag and there’s quite a bit of work involved in getting it up and running on the site. So the main areas we’ve had push back from in the past are, for example, from the big US portals like MSN, AOL etc. That’s because it’s generally very difficult for those type of companies to do a deal that is going to change the product across more than one country, which we haven’t always had the resources to push through. However, that situation has changed in the last few months with opening up more of Europe and Asia, so we’re expecting to sign one of those deals now that we’ve got multiple territories involved.
Then of course you have publishers who decide to do it themselves in house, which in theory they could, but when you start looking at the opportunity cost and how much resources it’s going to take for them to actually develop this, and then work out how they’re going to future-proof the technology with the speed things are changing, new platforms, new technologies etc. Normally we can work through that and demonstrate that it’s much better to partner with a specialist company in a specific area like us than trying to build it in house.
Finally, then of course some people don’t like the format. It’s a subjective thing, but there are so many publishers who we’ve been successfully working with for many years, like the Telegraph, the Sun and Virgin Media, who have done their own research into the impact on user experience, plus we’ve done our own research into the industry, and each time we found that the formats have no impact on user experience. Which is actually one of our key strengths.
Do you see the formats becoming an IAB standard so they can be traded programmatically?
SD: It’s not an ambition of ours to go down that road. The one way that we position ourselves and that the market buys into what we do, is that we’re a bespoke format that we build specifically for them. So I think that level of bespoke premium is what we do and what we’re about, and for us programmatic buying for us is something that we’re not currently interested in. You simply couldn’t serve custom campaigns properly programmatically as we build all of the creatives as well – for example, we’ve an entire department that takes assets like banners, MPUs and pre-rolls and transforms them into InSkins.
MD: A lot of the publishers we work with look at us as a very specialist, niche ad network, that can deliver high CPMs for high quality brand advertising. So, being in that space, it just doesn’t work with a programmatic approach. In fact I think we’d lose a lot of our value.
So how do you perceive your formats, as brand, performance, or as brand response?
SD: We’re pure brand. If you think about why agencies and advertisers use us, it’s consistently because they’re looking for a very deep engagement with the audience. We’re a cheap and reach solution, we’re not an off-the-peg mass solution, where the advertiser wants to hit three million users in ten minutes. We’re about deep engagement and people spending time with the brand. That’s very much where we see it — we’re not a mass media solution. We’re still getting a lot of impressions, but compared with the volume of YouTube and MSN, we’re still relatively small. But that works for us as we’ve got strong relationships with the key publishers, which is why we’re not particularly worried about these formats being traded programmatically, because we’ve got strong direct relationships on the publisher side.
MD: We’re also about getting the performance right between high performance for advertisers and a really good experience for the users. I think the positive user experience adds a huge amount of value, because they know when they book campaigns through us, it’s going to appear in its full entirety as it was supposed to. So there’s a lot of value to simply getting ads displayed in the right way and at the right time.
So you don’t see there being a programmatic premium future for InSkin?
SD: I don’t see where programmatic premium fits in. In fact I think it’s an oxymoron. It’s people trying to make programmatic sound more appealing, but if you can do what we do programmatically, you’d devalue the product by definition. It would next to impossible to automate the custom creative work we do, and those units work really well, but there’s are reasons for that. If you automate the process you’d turn the product into a different beast altogether.