Adtech 2015, San Francisco: Our Top Takeaways

I spent the past two days soaking up the zeitgeist at AdTech SF. The conference took place here in San Francisco, May 20-21th. Like the name implies, the focus is on advertising technology.

I went to a bunch of sessions and talked to everyone I could. Some stats on AdTech SF attendance:

  • 7,000 marketers of various stripes and 200+ exhibitors
  • Attendees appeared to be approximately 1/3 agency, 1/3 client side, 1/3 tools providers

Here’s my highly subjective overview and takeaways:

1. One-to-One Marketing is still mostly aspirational (for now).

This was actually a relief to see. Based on some of the hype, I always worry that glassCanopy might be behind the times when it comes to personalization. But it turns out that we’re actually ahead of the curve, especially in our own niche of marketing to hard to find audiences. Bigger audiences seems to equal more nuanced views of those audiences.

Everybody talks a big talk when it comes to one-to-one personalized marketing — but when you push people as to what they’re actually doing, it seems like the high bar is a granular version of the much-vilified “batch and blast” process.

In other words, marketers build a finite number of personas or lead nurture paths they want to take people down based on behavior or profiles — and then basically treat everyone the same within these batches with the exception of customized fields based on the customer profile.

This is achievable, easy to explain, and is a big upgrade over sending the same email to every prospect in your database. More importantly, to the end user, it can feel very personalized. But while the amount of personalization can vary — it’s still not exactly the much-hyped “one-to-one customized content based on what the consumer wants.” At least not yet.

That said — if you’re not trying to achieve more and more customized marketing efforts, it’s very clear that you’re going to find yourself at a huge disadvantage. One-to-one isn’t today, but it is tomorrow.

You have to crawl before you run… get started today with a manageable program by building up good personas, good data habits, and a do-able number of nurture tracks.

2. Programmatic is happening. But the really cool stuff is still down the line.

Programmatic is no longer in the experimental stage. Not everyone is doing it, but most of the big players are. So are an increasing number of the smaller organizations. Some people seemed to feel like the ROI on programmatic ads has been oversold based on their initial results.

However, the marketers with foresight are already trying to marry programmatic with ever increasingly levels of customization. And when these two trends finally get together, I predict that ROI (and creepiness) will go through the roof.

Potential Example: Marketer for Uber sets up a retargeting campaign that bids on customers who normally live in the US, but suddenly start browsing with a Paris-based IP address or geo-targeting at Charles de Gaulle airport. Uber could then present them with a “Welcome to Paris” offer with a 10 Euro discount to the city center and guaranteed English speaking driver.

If you’re not on the programmatic train yet, get on it. It’s leaving the station.

3. “Ad Operations” is a source of frustration.

“Ad Operations is a bit of a shit-show.”

— Eric Hoppe, Senior Product Manager, Pandora.

I heard variations of this from attendees, panelists, and in the vast numbers of tools out there trying to streamline the process of reporting and attribution.

The problem:

  • There’s a plethora of marketing platforms for everything from ad serving, marketing automation, revenue attribution, CRMs, web analytics, etc.
  • Prospects are interacting with brands across a profusion of devices: work desktops, home desktops, phones, tablets, phone calls, billboards, TVs, radio, etc.
  • Tracking across these is worse than anyone wants to admit.

So, we’re all trying to build multi-channel attribution reporting to optimize to the nth degree, all with crappy data. Much like one-to-one customization, you should accept imperfection and work diligently on this anyway. Ad operations and analytics are still a work in progress.

One of the panels was called “Your Data is for Crap, Measure Crap Anyway.” This was probably the best advice I’ve heard on the subject.

4. The numbers guys win. With bad numbers.

If there were any artistic, creative-oriented folks at this conference, I didn’t see them. I’m sure this was skewed by the theme of the conference — but really, we’ve stopped arguing over whether advertising is science or art. Everyone clearly thinks it is science.

The weird thing is that it’s science with mostly crappy data. Science with crappy data is more akin to astrology than astronomy. But here we are.

I was always more of a numbers guy than a creative guy. But I think the pendulum has swung too far. By all means, let’s measure everything we can measure. But let’s be honest about the margin of error.

Until we can confidently predict with those numbers (i.e. Put $10k in that campaign, and you’ll get $50k in revenue in 6 months), let’s admit that we’re still a little like those financial gurus back in the 90s with 10,000 cell spreadsheets that came up with really definitive, but wrong, answers. Garbage in, garbage out.

Numbers should inform our decision making, but they’re not good enough (yet) to relieve us of the burden of good judgment.

One-off Observations

1. Mobile is king, baby!

Pretty much every metric cited at the conference showed mobile at, near, or above 50% of engagement — and still growing. The only caveat is that actual revenue numbers were often skewed for desktop, especially when looking at high value items.

2. So is Content Marketing.

Like mobile, this argument is officially over. The paradigm has shifted. Marketers LOVE content marketing. The only arguments I heard about content marketing was over who had been doing it the longest.

“I’ve been a fan of Content Marketing ever since the early 70s in Cleveland. I was listening to them in small clubs — way before they made mainstream radio.”

— Overheard at Adtech SF

While everyone can agree that content marketing is a critical component of their marketing mix, marketers are still struggling over distribution and measurement issues.

One senses that there is a lot of content marketing that is seriously underperforming, whilst others are seriously under-appreciated.

3. A new ad unit from Google.

Google introduced a pretty awesome new ad unit. It incorporates a shopping component into video ads. An obvious winner for B2C. Could be cool for B2B, too.

4. The web cookie is dead.

Too many devices. Mobile makes it hard, because:

  • there are so many
  • people change them every 18 months (according to Pandora)
  • people spend most of their time in siloed apps instead of browsers.

Everybody claims to have a solution for cross-device tracking. I’m not convinced any of them work.

5. “Omnichannel” and “unified” are the new “integrated.”

“Integrated marketing” as a term seems passé, but “omnichannel” and “unified” marketing are just trying to integrate and measure marketing across an ever-increasing number of channels. I think the Buzzword Bingo people just got bored.

6. Buzzword Bingo forever.

  • We need a better phrase than “consume content.”
  • If I hear “Hit the consumer with the right message, at the right time, in the right place” just one more time, I’m going to puke.

Favorite Quote From the Show

“Entrepreneur: someone who will work 24 hours a day to avoid working one hour for somebody else.”

— Chris Guillebeau

Final Adtech Review

  • Pros
    • Great overview that helped make sense of the bewildering state of Ad technology tools
    • Generally very solid breakout sessions
  • Meh
    • B2C felt like it muscled out B2B in terms of examples and presenter orientation. That said, where B2C is today, B2B will be heading tomorrow. B2B has much smaller scale in terms of spend and scale of data.
  • Cons
    • Size of the conference was a bit overwhelming. I personally prefer smaller conferences for networking.
    • Amenities were kind of weak. It seems petty, but I had trouble finding free coffee. And I need coffee. Preferably free.
  • Would I attend again? Maybe.
  • Note: The conference is moving to LA next year, so the amenities will likely change.
Rich Quarles
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