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[Congress speaker Q&A] Still plenty of opportunity in digital advertising – Flipboard exec

The digital advertising space faces a number of challenges – not least the dominance of big players such as Facebook and Google. But, FIPP World Congress speaker Rick Welch, head of programmatic advertising at Flipboard and former Condé Nast exec, believes there remain plenty windows of opportunity for other players in the market…

Below he shares more some thoughts on AdTech, digital advertising, and tells us a little more about himself.

 

***At the FIPP World Congress in London from 9-11 October, Rick will lead an in-depth session on “Making sense of AdTech” in our Innovation Theatre (see the preliminary agenda). Join him there***

 

 

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Tell us a bit about your background and the route you took to where you are today…

 

I actually started on the advertiser side back in 2004, handling general digital media for a financial institution [Prudential Financial]. From there, I jumped over to the publisher side covering ad operations and sales support – and managed to learn a bit of the technical side of things before trying my hand on the agency side for five years. I worked for a few agencies, including some of the big holding companies [Publicis & IPG]. It went well on the agency side, but I felt like the roles I was handling were a bit siloed and task-oriented; it was hard to make an impact within a large organisation since I was still junior.  

 

Around that time I came across an interesting company who could provide the Nielsen & Acxiom offer, but was substantially more nimble – and still early stage. They were out of Colorado and had just changed their name from NextAction to Datalogix. They needed someone to break into the agencies for them, and since I had just come from that side it was a logical fit. As a result, I got to learn the sales side of things.  

 

The company grew in notoriety and I could tell they were nearing an exit, so I started to look where I could take my ops/agency/sales and overall ad tech landscape knowledge and leverage it. Then I crossed paths with Alanna Gombert and Chris Guenther who were building out adtech and programmatic capabilities at Condé Nast. I figured this was a great opportunity to work for a well-known blue chip publisher and to get my name out there. So, I helped build out the programmatic practice, eventually wanting to find a place to build my own version of this. 

 

Flipboard represented another great opportunity. Flipboard is a growing business with quality content and audience, and is a sizeable player in the mobile app space – which is where we all know the world is headed.

 

That leads nicely into discussing adtech. How well do you feel the industry is adopting and deploying ad tech right now?

 

I think it’s very subjective. Everyone is adopting at a different pace and I think different brands and publishers have different uses for adtech, including programmatic. Some want to flip a switch and “make more money”, others see it for its true intended purpose, which is workflow efficiency. It’s obviously a confusing space; crowded – and certain products are definitely commoditised. There are a lot of businesses that are really just features rather than a standalone offering.  

 

If you look at some brands, such as Netflix, they have brought it all in-house. They really know what they’re doing. They’re killing it. But that’s because they’re a digital-first company – so it’s easier for them versus some of the larger brands who have been around for decades. Unilever is a great example of a traditional, large company that does it well; so it’s not impossible.  

 

As mentioned, some publishers look at ad tech and say, ‘oh, it’s a way to make a quick buck’, because it’s a buzzword these days, but you need to have a lot of upfront investment and knowledge, otherwise you end up working with the wrong partners who can tarnish your reputation.

 

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Can you give me a sense of where it works as a sole component and where it needs more of a human influence?

 

I think whether it’s specifically programmatic, or adtech, or whether it’s technology in general, its all the same: there are clearly ways you can leverage to your advantage – but it only gets you so far if you don’t have the right people leveraging that technology. 

 

Everyone in your business needs to understand the technology you’re implementing, otherwise it goes to waste. For example, if I do my job correctly, in 2-3 years I should be optimised out of that job because programmatic/adtech aren’t standalone tactics. Having isolated, specialised teams covering these subjects may work for a while, but long-term, everything’s got to merge.

 

Digital marketing/advertising was standalone initially, but now its part of an overall integrated strategy, right? It’s marketing and you use digital alongside all the other tactics available to you. It’s just marketing. So, those descriptors or those words like programmatic, for example, should just be part of everyone’s vernacular. If you’re an operations person you can traffic I/Os or you can trade on a platform. If you’re a seller you can sell sponsorships or you can sell programmatic – and if you can’t do both then your future might be a bit short.

 

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How do you feel publishers are handling the other digital ad-space challenges right now, such as the dominance of Facebook and Google?

 

Interesting topic. There are a number of different challenges here, and like with ‘programmatic’, I think everyone’s handling them differently. If you look at some of the big companies – Hearst, Condé Nast, Time Inc – they are taking different approaches to growing their businesses.

 

So, Hearst is kind of involving itself with a bunch of tech companies and hedging its bets. They’re going heavy on the tech side and they’re investing in digital first publications for younger audiences, like Complex for example.  Then you have Condé Nast, who seems to be putting all their proverbial ‘eggs’ into the video basket. And then you have Time Inc, who has actually acquired technology businesses like Viant and Adelphic.  

 

I’d say there are a number of overall challenges for publishers. As we all know, their businesses are being eroded on the print side and it’s a challenge to make up the difference in a digital world. This is exacerbated when you have Google and Facebook as necessary “evils”. You have to work with them as it’s very hard to draw the users to your own domain, but then you have to share the revenue.  

 

So, it’s obviously very tough to work around those big guys, but I think there is an opportunity for quality content/journalism especially with things like fake news and an increased awareness for users to ask “where is this content coming from?”

 

Facebook seems to be addressing it quickly. If you look at your feed, you can see that they’re positioning articles differently, right? They all fit a format now and they have the URL on the bottom. But it’s still a window, and Flipboard’s a great example of a well-lit space with quality content that has no fake news or fraud, etc. 

 

So, there’s the opportunity for someone like Flipboard – to get out in the market and make some noise. To let people, especially advertisers, know that we have 100 million-plus users and there is no fake news. Google and Facebook have both stumbled a little bit recently with those things, so that gives you your window – and when the big guy gives you your window you’ve got to grab and climb through it.

 

Flipboard ()

 

 
 

And how are publishers handling the issue of ad blocking, which has been around for a while now?

 

So it’s an interesting topic that I really haven’t had to address since I left Condé Nast a couple of years ago. It came up and we said, 'oh man, this is a small percentage now, but let’s get ahead of this and really figure out ways to protect the advertising revenue' through things such as saying to people ‘if you appreciate our content, please turn this off’. But of course now there are whole businesses, like Sourcepoint technologies for example – run by Ben Barokas, the former founder of Admeld – which are dedicated to this area. From the Flipboard perspective, we’re a mobile application so we don’t really have this issue, because everything’s native to our own environment. That’s not to say we don’t have other challenges, but fortunately this isn’t one for us.

 
 

Ad fraud is another of those challenges high on the agenda right now. How well is that being handled, do you think?

 

The networks have to deal with this issue, for sure, and it is one that people are talking about quite a bit right now. Again, we don’t have bots or fraud or anything like that in our environment, because you have to download the Flipboard app and then you physically have to flip from page to page. 

 

There are some lower quality, longtail apps, especially like picture-editing applications and some games where there’s malicious stuff put into the app itself, so that’s a little different. And sure, there are click farms where there are humans somewhere in a dark room with a tonne of phones, figuring out how to manipulate it.  

 

Where there’s money, there’s always an opportunity for fraudsters, right? But Flipboard is a closed environment and no one would benefit from running that type of thing on our app. So I guess what you’ve got to do when investing budget into mobile is work with quality partners and look out for those longtail apps run by individuals who would benefit greatly from doing something fraudulent.  

 

*** Join Rick at the 41st FIPP World Congress from 9-11 October in London. Join him there.***

 

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