Agency Trading Desks and the Issue of Transparency

9 May

With the rise in digital advertising budgets and the dramatic expansion in the level of inventory available from publishers, advertising agency holding companies have developed a viable alternative to ad exchanges for securing a portion of their clients’ digital media inventory needs.  This is being done through the use of agency trading desks.

Simply put, a trading desk is a separate holding company service entity that integrates a demand-side platform with other technology and a wealth of consumer data to deliver targeted audiences at scale.  While primarily focused on display advertising, this dynamic method for purchasing media on a real-time basis is expanding to the buying of online video, search, mobile and social media.   This approach leverages an auction based model to buy unsold publisher inventory at efficient rates relative to pre-procured media.

The benefits to the advertiser can be significant when it comes to audience buying and ad impression optimization relative to content/ context based digital media buys or purchasing packaged buys through an ad network.   Given the relative newness of this approach combined with the complexity of the service offering and the limited understanding of trading desks among advertisers there remain concerns about the approach tied primarily to what is perceived as a lack of transparency.  This in turn has resulted in questions ranging from how agencies are compensated for this service (“Are advertisers  double paying their agency partners?”) to the potential for an agency’s objectivity to be compromised as they become both a buyer and seller of inventory (buy from publisher at one price, resell to clients often at a premium).

There are a number of ways for advertisers to enhance transparency into the trading desk operations of their agency partners.  The first is to check your agency letter-of-agreement to determine if there is language related to the agency’s trading desk operation.  If not, check to determine if a separate agreement with the trading desk operation was executed and read through the agreement carefully.  Secondly, engage your agency in dialogue about whether or not they are currently using buying digital media on your behalf through their trading desks and if so, what percentage of your overall digital buy is being channeled through the trading desk.  If the agency is not utilizing their trading desk for your digital media buying, ask whether or not it would be appropriate for your business model and what percent of your digital media buy would be a candidate for this approach.

With the answers to these questions in hand, it is time to discuss how the agency expects to be compensated for this service.  Compensation could include any or all of the following; commission on executed media buys, fee for service, incentive compensation tied to performance (i.e. cost per action, cost per lead, cost per acquisition) and mark-up on the media purchased by the trading desk and sold to the advertiser.  Further, inquire whether or not the trading desks earns rebates or discounts from publishers or technology partners tied to volume and if so, how is your pro-rata share calculated and passed through to you.

It is important to note that the trading desk model employed and the approach taken will vary by agency, so asking questions and establishing guidelines on how to evaluate both the efficacy and efficiency of this approach is critical before allocating a portion of your digital media budget to this channel.   While questions remain with regard to this emerging agency service, the level of risk represented is no more than that represented by ad networks.  Having direct conversations with your agency about the approach, costs, reporting and performance metrics will go a long way to ensuring that you have a sound understanding of how your investment is being handled.

Finally, incorporate a “Right to Audit” clause into the agreement which you execute with the trading desk operation to contractually insure your organization access to the date required to support your desire for full transparency. If you would like to learn more about this area and or how AARM can assist you in assessing the relevance of this approach or analyzing the performance of your agency’s trading desk, contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on the topic.

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