RTÉ’s Conor Mullen on Private Marketplaces, Content Quality, and Digital’s Dark Side

Conor Mullen, RTERTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, have been using private marketplaces to monetise audiences in markets where it isn’t always cost-effective to have a sales team on the ground. But choosing to go programmatic – even for just international audiences – wasn’t a straightforward decision. As a national broadcaster, RTÉ have to be extra careful when it comes to complying with EU privacy regulations, while on the commercial side the broadcaster was keen to main control over advertiser access and pricing. Here Conor Mullen, Commercial Director at RTÉ Digital, discusses all things programmatic, from the quality of content on the exchanges to the dark side of digital.

How much of your inventory are you selling programmatically?

It’s only the international content. We needed to work out how to monetise the international side of things, so we went and looked into the possibility of working with ad networks and exchanges. After looking at the various options and the level of control we’re given and we liked what we saw with Adap.tv in terms of control over the pricing. When people ask how we got our prices up to the same rate as domestic levels, I tell them that it’s because that’s where we started.

If you go in cheap it’s harder to go up and at this moment in time you have to see what kind of yield you can get. The UK yield is doing very well and is in line with what we get domestically. In the US, what we get is more akin to the US domestic rates than the Irish rates, but in the US premium VOD content is more widely available with the likes of Hulu etc.

Where’s the end point on programmatic? How much of media will be traded programmatically do you think?

I think the prediction is for about 25 percent in Ireland by 2017 and then for it to grow even more than that afterwards, but I personally think there will always be a role for manual direct sales for a variety of reasons.

First of all, there’s far less quality VOD inventory than there is with display as there’s simply less quality content available. I also think there’s a large amount of education that needs to take place on all sides. For example, we need to define premium a little more clearly. In my experience, some of the ‘professionally produced’ content is anything but, and they call it professional because they’ve used a digital camera placed on top of a tripod.

There’s no comparison with broadcast-quality content and few brands would want to associate themselves with that type of stuff. I’m talking about family brands who can unwittingly find themselves associated with a three minute vignette on ‘Learn How to Date Women’. It’s just not the same. Just because it doesn’t look like user-generated content [UGC], doesn’t make it premium.

I think the shift towards audience-driven thinking carries risks. Sure, that might be the 15-24 year-old that you’re targeting, but is that the type of content you want your brand associated with?

Then buyers also have risks around data. For example, it appears that a leading third party data company have built out a profile about me that suggests I like gossip, country and western music, movies and hip hop. That’s 25 percent accurate in that I like movies, but it’s taking data from a multiple use PC, so they’ve no way of knowing they’re targeting the right person. Throw cookie deletion and the browser clampdowns into the mix, and you have to ask some serious questions about what’s going on.

As a company at the top end of the market, what do you make of what’s taking place online in terms of viewability and context?

You will not find ads appearing alongside adult content on TV or in print, but it’s happening every day online. There’s a breakdown somewhere, whether they’re chasing the last click or if data is being used to blindly chase the audience, but there’s a disconnect between what brands want and what some vendors are doing with their money.

What has your experience been with private marketplaces?

It’s largely about building relationships with the agencies so that they know who you are, they know your face, and you have a chance to educate them about the brand. The big challenge that publishers have – ourselves included – is that selling programmatically.

As a public broadcaster, how do you approach data and the privacy implications that accompany data-driven advertising?

We have to be very cautious as if you open up the gates there’s suddenly cookies and tags all over the place and you find yourself raided. It’s something we’re trying to work on as it is a minefield. We’re going to combine our own strategy with Google Audience, which we think will give us added opportunities whether it’s through audience extension throughout the site, through more accurate delivery of campaigns, or by giving us the added string of being able to offer audience buys as opposed to just format or genre buys.

But you have to be careful with how you present audience buys as we can’t go down the same road that some of the data companies and ad networks do, where they’ll say ‘Yes, we can get you the silver surfer with the drop-down Cabriolet’. We can’t do that and we have to stay honest in that regard.

That said, I think there are companies out there who are collecting data without consent – even without the consent of publishers – which is something that I think more people are aware of. But that type of behaviour has fed into publisher fears about getting involved in selling programmatically.

Publishers need to have a clear understanding of what type of data is being collected, what type of cookies are being dropped, what’s the latency of the cookies, and are they affecting the performance of the site?

Do you see programmatic trading as something that is being driven by the buy-side or the sell-side?

If you had asked me last year I would have said it was an advance for the sell-side. However, this year I think it’s being driven by the buy-side, who seem to be more enthusiastic about the efficiencies and the benefits.

There has probably been more awareness and education on the buy-side too. It also depends on how you perceive ‘programmatic’. In some people’s eyes, we’ve just created more ad networks, and in actuality it is an ad network in the sense that you’re farming out your inventory to a third party to deliver on campaigns.

However, a more accurate view is to look at how agencies are investing in technology and trading desks, and in time things like Deal ID will enable proper partnerships between publishers and agencies. It’s hard to say where it’s going to go, but one would like to think it’ll evolve and give greater confidence to publishers, agencies and clients, who will be able to feel confident they’re getting what they’re paying for. Once things like verification and viewable metrics on top, I think it’s going to clean up a lot of the messiness that currently affects online advertising.

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