Tolls

As you might have guessed from the name of my company (Keith Ritter Media), I’ve spent a great deal of time in the media business, both as a marketer and as a publisher. The business model used to be pretty simple. Create something about which people care, make them aware that you’re offering it, get them to read, listen, or watch it, and aggregate those people into a saleable audience. You hired salespeople to meet with the representatives of your real customer – the advertiser. Usually, these representatives were media buyers from an ad agency. You with me so far?

In TV, we’d offer a unit of time at a “gross” price and asked the agency to remit a “net” price, which was usually the gross minus 15%. That commission was the toll we paid to get the revenue. Obviously, how much of that the agency kept was between them and their client but it wasn’t really our concern. We did our budgeting on the expected net revenues we’d get which was pretty much a straight line derivative of the gross monies sold. Other media had similar models but in every case, the dollars received by the publisher were directly and clearly tied to the size and desirability (to marketers) of their audience.

That statement in no longer true for digital publishing and the fact that it isn’t has serious negative implications for other media as they shift to a more programmatic sales model. I have no idea how digital publishers are able to do financial plans since they can’t project revenue from audience size. That’s because they’ve allowed themselves to generate billions of dollars in ad revenue while only capturing somewhere around a third of what is spent. The 15% that used to be paid in tolls is now more like 67% although some estimates are even higher. More importantly, it’s usually impossible to predict the net revenues received from the gross revenues sold. Digital audiences are growing while publisher revenue is declining.

Where is the money going? A sponsor pays $1 for an ad impression. The agency still takes their commission, but added to the toll-takers are trading desks, DSP providers, data providers, supply side platforms, ad serving platforms, verification services (viewability, etc.) and who knows who else. In some cases, it’s the agency double-dipping, but most of the time these are third parties. Most of these ad services have no interest in either the publisher’s or the marketing client’s success. They aren’t about a quality ad environment. They facilitate a transaction. In some cases, a platform that connects both buyers and sellers charges each side a separate fee without disclosing that they’re doing so. In short, publishers, agencies, and marketers have created a system that works for no one but the VC’s that fund these ad tech companies. What happens when programmatic spreads to other media such as TV?

Publishers have many other challenges. Facebook, for example, makes more money off of some publishers’ content than do the publishers themselves without paying the publishers a dime. But the real threat to a healthy media environment is the toll-takers. When you create great content and grow your audiences, you should be the entity that benefits and not some opaque service provider. More eyeballs used to mean more money to the bottom line. Can we make that equation true again?

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