“Fraud, transparency and viewability are distractions because the fundamental issue is that marketers want to put money behind a campaign and see whether it works,” Gowthaman Ragothaman, chief development officer for Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa at the GroupM agency tells The Drum.
“However, when you really go and analyse the campaigns, we are stuck with permanent partial information. The search and social gardens keep information to themselves, and the inventory that is running outside these gardens is fragmented across different publishers.”
That means the consumer journey is a myth even though marketers want to map the consumer journey, adds Ragothaman, as they are doing it from their own perspective, so there is a search, social and display journey, with nobody really knowing the full journey.
“Hopefully, a technology like blockchain, which ensures the gardens' individual business and privacy is protected because the ledger takes care of these things, should be able to give a comprehensive view of the entire journey,” he explains.
“That will be when marketers will meaningfully say from search to sale, what is the various stages the consumer moved across various stages of the product's life cycle. They will know the consumer's journey better and deploy budgets appropriately.”
To help marketers do the fundamentals right again, the project recently announced a prototype for its blockchain programmatic alliance, which consists of MediaMath, Integral Ad Science and Rubicon Project as partners.
The ‘Project Proton’ prototype aims to create a smart contract system built for the programmatic industry, allowing all players in the chain to have transparency over trading.
However, the smart contract is only one of five pillars of the project, says Ragothaman, with the first being the use of data itself in the programmatic space. He says the general view is that more than two thirds of the data is sitting elsewhere, because the search, social, CRM and first-party data universe is trying to map the second and third party data.
The second pillar is how the alliance will connect these data together through the concept of ledgering, where everybody will see the same data and not individual versions of their own data.
Once these two pillars have been achieved, the third pillar is how the alliance will make these data talk to each other, which is where cryptography and smart contracts come in. Only when these three things are done, the fourth step sees blockchain coming into effect because there needs to be some kind of a consensus where everyone owns this information and agrees to this smart contract.
Finally, the last pillar is deciding what kind of platforms is being used and how the consensus being built in.
“We believe the market will continue to evolve to a place where less and less data will be owned by the respective individual and the person or the corporation is predominantly dependent on the outside world for the data to come inside to be use like location data and GPRS data sets,” explains Ragothaman.
“That is very critical for us to understand the way it is flowing into the system. Every single corporation is trying to find in some form how they can access this information and you can see the emergence of all cloud-based propositions from various players.”
“Getting the data and ledgering it is critical for the success of blockchain and the industry is now spending a lot of time getting these two things going. If you look at it from that perspective, companies like IBM already has more than 60 patents in the space of getting the data and making it into a ledger.
“At the consensus protocol, we have only 20 companies trying to do something with it because you are moving into new types of challenges like how fast they can process this consensus.”
The focus of the alliance
The use of blockchain as a technology in media has been widely debated and Ragothaman blames this on companies who are claiming that they use this tech to build things like reconciliation, identity management and supply chain reconciliation.
He also points out that the lumarscape of blockchain already has 38 companies, which is worrisome because it defeats the purpose of having a unified view on it.
“Today, there are many companies, not just us, who are trying to build a proof of concept on the back of this five pillars. However, the problem we are facing is that all of them are trying to solve a part of the problem, not the full problem,” he explains.
Ragothaman asserts this is why Mindshare feels that if '10 other companies' are required to come and solve '10 different problems', there will be no solution found because all they are doing is replacing the old band-aid with the new band-aid.
Instead, the challenge for the agency, like many others, is that in its entire sub value chain, from the time an advertiser wants to release an ad to the time a consumer sees an ad, there is already 10 companies like a DSP, DMP, SSP and a monitoring agency in the process, which means the clients are now getting very worried because there are different words being used and it is not being translated to them.
There are also words like technology tags, non-working media, tags getting added and claims about whether half a dollar is spent for every dollar in advertising or 30% more or less.
“In reality, whether high or low, at least a third of it goes away towards these technology tags. The worry we have is in the process of doing all these things, we remove those kind of tags and put up blockchain technology tags, then it defeats the purpose of doing it,” says Ragothaman.
The focus of the alliance, he adds, is to check whether a consensus can be built in real-time by all these partners so that the claims and the counter-claims of speed, latency, throughput and its relevance can be achieved or not.
“If you ask me, I am an optimist and I believe in the next 12-18 months, all this five stages will be ticked so that some kind of protocol will be developed for our industry which is ledgerised, smart contracted and the consensus protocol is taken care of,” he says.
“If you look at blockchain as a technology, if it is going to be a private and permission platform, throughput is not a problem because it is like a small consortium of people, where five or six of them coming together to sign a smart contract and the speed can be achieved.”
Will clients be sold by the blockchain technology?
Mindshare is keen to stress to its clients that blockchain will not solve the world's problems entirely, as it is aware that because they are concerned about fraud and the lack of transparency, they think that blockchain is a magical wand that will come and wave their problems away.
According to Ragothaman, the agency’s top 10-15 clients around the world want to know if blockchain will solve their problems. There are also some clients who are very curious about what is going on because they are keen to demystify this entire technology and want the agency to walk them through the concept of data ledger, smart contracts, consensus and platform, so they get to understand the concepts.
He is also aware that the scalability solutions in the Mindshare-Zilliqa blockchain partnership have not been tested in uncontrolled environments and will take some time before they are enterprise-ready.
“We are at a stage where we tell them about this partners and our pilot testing, and we come across as genuinely trying to help others solve the problems. There are four or five of our clients who are willing to partner with us on this on their campaigns,” Ragothaman explains.
“We are on track to run our own pilots in November, December and January. By January, we should be able to say if this technology works or not. The thing that gives me optimism is we have the smart contract code done.”
Future of the blockchain project
Ragothaman is confident that once the results are out, Mindshare will be able to go to other players in the adtech ecosystem and get them to come onboard to run campaigns on the platform, as the alliance’s goal is not only to choose one set of consortium, he explains, but eventually, build a platform where all the tech players are on board and work together.
“We would like every single DSP and SSP to be onboard. We are engaging with all of them, but the purpose of Proton is to proof or disproof whether this tech works or not, so we are not going to stop with these partners,” he says.
While experts have previously told The Drum that for the ad industry to collectively move all communications in adtech to a blockchain platform, all players must be willing to work hard and give up some competitive advantage, Ragothaman dismiss such concerns.
“Nobody is going to eat anybody's lunch because everyone is on the same page and we should be able to focus on the fundamentals of helping marketers' money work better, rather than trying to put more band-aid to the system," he says,
Ragothaman is also open to the idea of agencies from the other holding networks to come onboard. Publicis Groupe was unable to respond to The Drum’s queries about its potential participation, while Omnicom is known to be part of AdLedger, a nonprofit research group that has similar goals with Mindshare’s blockchain programmatic alliance.
“I don't think we are concerned about it (other holding companies joining) because it should become an industry standard and somebody has to start the process. As we speak, I am taking this initiative across the whole of WPP,” he says.