Publica, a Silicon-Valley based connected-TV (CTV) ad tech specialist, has been one of the few companies still taking on new staff and expanding during lockdown. And having doubled its staff count since the start of the year, the company is now expanding into Europe, hiring Paul Gubbins, ex-programmatic strategy lead at Unruly, to lead the charge.
VAN spoke with Publica co-founder and chief product and operations officer Ben Antier, alongside Gubbins, to hear more about Publica’s ambitions in Europe. The two also gave their thoughts on whether SSPs are adapting well to CTV, and what it’s been like trying to expand into new markets during the pandemic.
A lot of American companies believe Europe’s CTV market lags far behind the US, how do you view the opportunity in Europe?
If you look at the OTT landscape in the US, you’ve got three big players – Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Samsung TV. I’d say those three account for around 85 percent of the market. But distribution of Roku and Amazon Fire TV is still limited in Europe. And the fact that Europe is missing two of the leaders makes it very different from the US. It would be like not having Chrome and Safari or Firefox in the browser market, it makes a big difference.
But you do have Samsung TV, which is distributed in all European markets. They have an ad supported app with Samsung TV Plus, so they’re really the pioneers of the European CTV landscape.
And I think we will see CTV adoption increasing in Europe, the market seems ripe for it. I can’t imagine that viewers wouldn’t want to adopt this technology which makes it easier and cheaper to watch TV. But I think growth is going to be dictated by when Roku and Amazon decide to really push into Europe.
Paul Gubbins: And I think that the recent IAB studies illustrate that consumer eyeballs are there, so the trend is happening right now. It’s just a question of making sure the right infrastructure is in place to support brand confidence to invest in the CTV ecosystem.
Publica was one of the earliest companies to bring the concept of a header bidding wrapper into CTV environments. What are the specific challenges with bringing header bidding to CTV?
So in the CTV space, you have to build around that from the very start. That’s fantastic for publishers, and great for ad tech companies who want to do this well, because it’s all about giving more control. But what’s missing at the moment is authentication, measurement and fraud detection. For server-to-server connections there’s an extra level of measurement that is required, and that’s not really there yet.
The second difference is working with live ad breaks, since so much ad-supported content in CTV environments is live. And you’re working with ad pods, where it’s multiple ads in a row. That means you have to deal with traffic spikes, where you have no ads for 10 minutes, and then all of a sudden 100,000 requests come through in the same second. That creates pressure on your infrastructure, and you have to design all of your systems with that in mind.
Then you’ve also got specific challenges around creative deduplication and competitive separation, and that’s something we focussed on very early on. You cannot deliver an ad break that has the same ad three times in 2020, I would just refuse to run a company that does that!
You mentioned issues with measurement for SSAI (server-side ad insertion) solutions. What causes these issues, and how soon do you think they will be fixed?
Ben: An SSAI server delivers content until an ad break comes up, and then when the ad break comes, it calls an ad server to get an ad back and inserts that into the stream. So that means the initiating request comes from a server and goes to a server. But that means you need advanced authentication methods to make sure you’re transacting in a safe environment, and that there’s no fraud. And that’s something our industry is still working on.
To fix it, we need the different players to adopt the same authentication layers, or at least some version of them. And there are at least two major ones that are being discussed by the likes of the IAB and MRC. One is using SSL [Secure Sockets Layer] certificates, so the receiving server understands that the request is certified. Or the other is using shared secrets [a piece of data only known by the relevant parties] between servers. Again, that means that a server knows the request it’s receiving comes from a trusted and legitimate source.
There isn’t an industry standard yet, but standards come about when people start using them. One of the challenges is that a lot of companies at the moment still refuse to see the problem. But I think it’ll be solved soon, because there’s so much money at stake.
We’ve seen a lot of SSPs enter the CTV advertising market in recent years – how are they faring do you think?
Ben: I think there are a lot of SSPs that are doing a terrific job at identifying their CTV inventory separately and creating differentiators with other SSPs. For me, the most important thing for SSPs to do is differentiating the way they sell inventory in order to create value for publishers, and ultimately to win auctions.
I think the area which has been a bit slow is there are few SSPs that have really adopted podding logic, where you’re running an auction for a pod of multiple ads rather than for individual slots. Some SSPs are doing that really well already, so it’s not impossible by any means, but I think the industry would benefit if more SSPs adapted to ad pods.
And I think DSPs would really appreciate that, because then they can start to understand how the slots they’re bidding on come together inside an ad break. And that opens up lots of new bidding strategies.
I also think we’re going to see a lot of changes by both SSPs and DSPs in the next few years. In the past few years, both sides have changed a lot in how they interact with each other. In five years time, I still think that we’re going to have platforms that specialise in selling and platforms that specialise in buying. But are they still going to be SSPs and DSPs as we know them today, and will they be the same players as today. I think probably not, things are going to change massively.
Do you think the growth in CTV viewing we’ve seen during lockdown will outlast the pandemic?
Ben: I think so, because viewers have discovered applications and shows on CTV that they didn’t even know existed. And once they’ve seen what they can get for $20 a month on Hulu or Philo or for free on Pluto, they’re not going to want to go back to paying $150 for a cable package with three hundred channels that they never watch.
So the landscape is changing. Obviously at the moment we’ve seen uncertainty from advertisers which has affected revenues. Publishers who rely heavily on direct sales have been massively impacted. And for programmatic, we’ve seen CMPs decrease because there’s less competition in the auctions.
But overall, it’s booming. We’re seeing new services and platforms launching and having a big impact, like Peacock in the US, TiVo’s 4k connected TV device they launched earlier this year. I think the wheels are in motion. And the more eyeballs you put in front of these services, the faster the transition is going to happen.
Paul, you’ve got a lot of experience with video from your days at Unruly – what attracted you to move over to CTV?
Paul: As a consumer myself, I’ve seen my consumption habits change over the several years. And there’s no escaping the fact that the opportunity is there for the publishers of that content to monetise it better.
There are still times when I’m watching these services where no ad is served, and you’ve got a black screen or a ‘please wait a moment’ message. And you still see issues with frequency where you’re seeing the same ad several times in the same break. But at the same time, we’re spending so much time with these services.
And having seen firsthand how publishers have adopted programmatic and the benefits of header bidding for display and video, it seems like such an underinvested area in CTV. I think there’s a great opportunity for companies like Publica and others to build the infrastructure which gives brands the confidence to start increasing their budgets in addressable advertising on those CTV environments.
Publica has been quite unusual in hiring and expanding during the pandemic. What’s it been like taking on new staff and expanding into new markets during the pandemic?
Ben: As an entrepreneur, you don’t get to choose when your company takes off and whenever it does, you’re happy that it does! And that’s what has happened to us. We’ve roughly doubled the size of our company since January in terms of staff, and have been hiring a lot during the pandemic.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s been much more difficult than if we weren’t in this pandemic. One thing that’s missing is being able to celebrate with your team! Obviously we’d have loved to be able to have a beer with Paul to celebrate him joining, and when everyone works so hard, it’s a shame that we can’t celebrate like we usually do.
But in terms of growing and hiring new people, we’re able to run interviews via video conferences, and can still do reference checks and things like that, all the tools we need are there.
I guess some companies might be using the pandemic as an excuse to not hire. But I think there’s incredible talent available to be hired these days, and there’s really no reason not to.
Paul: Before speaking with Publica, I’d been doing a lot of consulting and working for various different companies, and I think as we’ve alluded to already, the industry has been going through so much change. I think many of the vendors that we have today will look very different in two or three year’s time. So for me it’s been about placing strategic bets and trying to find a company with the right sort of vision and product roadmap which is going to be well placed for the changes we’re seeing. And that’s why I’m excited to be joining Publica!