‘Those who understand the relationship between data, delivery and strategy will rise to the top’ - Xaxis’ CEO on why all media buying will soon be digital

As the “media investment” arm of the world’s largest advertising agency network, GroupM has undergone a host of changes in the past months, reflecting the ‘digitisation’ of media.

Among these changes have been: Brian Lesser, GroupM chief executive, North America, graduating from the ranks of its ‘ad tech hub’ Xaxis; the integration of the newly-acquired Essence Digital; plus the purchase of The Exchange Lab.

In the first of a two-part interview, The Drum catches up with Lesser’s successor Brian Gleason, global CEO of Xaxis (pictured), to find out his immediate priorities at the helm of one of the world’s largest advertising units.

Among the topics of discussion are: the integration of Xaxis’ newly acquired units; why data literacy is relevant for the advertising industry’s leaders of the future; plus worrying deviations from ‘industry standards’ on viewability.

The Drum: What are your priorities in the new role?

BG: If you look at the companies we’ve acquired over the last couple of years – such as optimisation tool BannerConnect, or app re-engagement tool ActionX - the first order of business has been to see each of these great pockets of talent within these new groups and then uncover whatever synergies we have between the groups.

Between these groups there’s nearly 200 people, and while we want each of the different units to maintain their own unique culture – for instance you look at Plista, which has been in the native space in the German-speaking markets since its inception – but we’d also like to get each of them to benefit from the scale of Xaxis.

The most important thing is to make all these different people feel like part of the company, rather than like ‘something we acquired.’

The Drum: How do you intend to integrate all of these new acquisitions into the prior Xaxis offering?

BG: Well, if you look at Turbine [Xaxis’ DMP] that is the heartbeat of Xaxis, I’m looking at how we can benefit from taking the native experience to Turbine [audience] segments. And then I’m also looking at things like BannerConnect, and things such as engagement time, so we’re not looking at things like clicks and more, but how much do users really care about ads, and what’s the right frequency [of ads to serve].

The Drum: It seems across the industry that programmatic advertising is taking a more prominent role within the big agency networks, both in regards of moves within WPP and its peers, what do you see as driving this trend?

BG: What we’ve had in recent months and years is that the industry has been completely flipped on its side in terms of how media is being consumed. For instance, you don’t really see people walking around with newspapers any more, and if you look at broadcast, you get kids now watch TV on their iPads, and iPhones, and that trend is not going to change.

However, as an advertiser the mission hasn’t changed, we still have to connect with consumers, so the industry has to change and programmatic [tech] and data have really driven that. The levels of spend are also starting to reflect that with programmatic accounting for forty-plus per cent of total [online display] spend this year.

Now you start to see the people that have been at the fore of that change starting to rise to the top, as they are the ones that understand how important a role that plays. This is because they ask question things like attribution and analytics, while also staying true to the initial marketing brief.

It’s the people that understand the relationship between data, delivery and strategy that will rise to the top.

The Drum: As programmatic comes more and more to the fore, issues around accountability are increasingly rising up the agenda with ad viewability. While there are agreed ‘viewable’ outcomes, there’s still fragmentation over the measurement methods of different vendors. What’s your thoughts on this?

BG: A few years ago, we were the first to come out with 100 per cent viewability as standard, because we have to make sure that we eliminate fraud. With something like viewability, you shouldn’t be unique, it’s either an ad was seen, or it wasn’t.

So first, we need a standard of measurement, and I think we’re getting there. And then we need all of the big players [including Facebook and Google] to agree what the metric and methodology is.

The challenge is that the technology is a bit complex. For instance, with desktop, the technology is fairly straightforward, but with the [mobile] app game it gets a bit more complex. Moat, and a few of the others have come to a standard, and then start to work of it.

When you see the different methodology from the different vendors – last I looked there were 16-18 out there – but we deal with three-or-four for two different reasons.

The first is that if you don’t have a common practice from a media owner, and a media buyer, then it creates trememdous imbalance. When that happens, some are going to feel like they got cheated, regardless of the outcome. There shouldn’t be debate when it comes to viewability.

In the next installment of the interview, Gleason discusses further issues such as how the need for transparency is driving his outfit’s refusal to buy media from open exchanges, plus its attempts to ‘make advertising more welcome’.

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