What is the Future of Agency Trading Desks?

17 Apr

crystal ballIt was recently reported in Adweek that IPG was re-organizing its trading desk operation, Cadreon.  Representatives from IPG cited the costs and conflicts across its agency brands and offices stemming from having a centralized, autonomous trading desk with its own P&L.

This is a timely issue as publishers, agencies and advertisers brace for a pronounced increase in the role of programmatic buying.  Internal squabbles aside, the reason why some agencies aren’t totally on board with holding company trading desks comes down to one item… their own bottom line.  While agency holding companies could easily address this dilemma via a revenue sharing model between their entities that is not the seminal issue with trading desks.

The primary consideration in our opinion should be focused on an agency’s role in serving the advertiser and whether or not that obligation can be fulfilled when they’re acting as a re-seller of media where the original inventory cost is not disclosed.  Secondly, while the agencies and the ad networks have figured out how to make money moving digital inventory, publishers and advertisers are now evaluating the financial impact of programmatic buying and assessing alternatives which drive both efficiencies and performance for their respective organizations.

What are the financial implications?  The aforementioned Adweek article cited “agency insiders” who indicated that trading desks generated “high profit margins” in the “40% to 50% range” (hence the internal conflict).  Easy to see why advertisers would forgo the arbitrage model and opt for having their media AOR handle the digital media buying, on a fully-disclosed basis, within the context of their letter of agreement and the remuneration program that has been established.  Throw in the desire for advertisers to understand more about the quality of their digital ad placements and the environment is ripe for change.

Does this spell the end for trading desks?  Not at all.  Change and refinement are to be expected for a business model that only came into being within the last several years.  The technological capabilities that trading desks possess to manage reams of client data to effectively match advertisers with relevant inventory/audiences on a real-time basis is incredibly valuable.  This is particularly compelling as a higher percentage of an advertiser’s budget is shifted to digital media and programmatic buying.  Having said that, most advertisers are simply not willing to accept the level of opacity and the resultant hidden learning’s, which reside within their agency’s trading desk operation.

While media has evolved through the decades, the formula that has governed the media marketplace should remain constant; publishers sell inventory and advertisers buy inventory through their ad agency partners… not from them.  In the words of the noted American author Wendell Berry:

“The past is our definition.  We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

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