This edition of Real-Time Banter features a conversation about digital out-of-home advertising with Michael Provenzano, CEO of Vistar Media. Michael was interviewed by Jennifer Lum, Chief Strategy Officer for Adelphic.
Jennifer: What is Vistar Media?
Michael: Vistar Media is a software company that bridges the gaps between location data and media in the physical world. We do that by ingesting geo-temporal data sets – location and time – and then we analyze that data to make better advertising decisions by understanding where consumers are moving throughout the day and their purchase behaviors.
On the media side of our business, we built the first programmatic system for the out-of-home industry. We connect our customers to over 90 percent of the digital out-of-home assets in the U.S., and in 2017, we plan to expand into the U.K. and Canada.
We have a whole stack of products – everything from an ad server to a DSP – kind of like the old days of Right Media, where it was all in one. We have revenue management tools for suppliers, direct ad serving, reporting and billing, and inventory management tools as well as access to our exchange. On the buy-side, we have the traditional ad server for tracking, providing transparency and accountability for buyers, and our DSP for digital savvy clients to login and purchase digital out-of-home ads. We do a lot of things for one company.
Can you share the founding story of Vistar Media with us?
Vistar Media official started in January 2012.
Jeremy, my good buddy from college, and I stayed in touch over the years. He had an interesting life having lived in London and Monaco working in finance. At this point, I had wrapped up Invite Media and was taking a few months off to travel. Jeremy was doing research in the real estate business and realized that there was a large out-of-home business. After all, it is a $7.5B industry. He didn’t know too much about advertising, but knew I had been in the tech industry and thought this would be a good opportunity.
I jumped in and started researching. I quickly realized there were no data sets or measurement solutions for out-of-home advertising. The industry was really behind in terms of media, which is fascinating considering this market is not going anywhere. People are always going to leave their homes. Out-of-home is real estate, just like an apartment in downtown Manhattan would be. It will continue to have value. A billboard will always be there and have eyeballs. That’s value and a great messaging vehicle.
This opportunity was very logical in terms of starting the business. I always had passion in software and building companies, while Jeremy is very entrepreneurial. I reached out to Mark, our Chief Architect at Invite, who was at Google, and the three of us got it started in six months and moved to Philadelphia. We had to do three to 12 months of integration work with each media owner – there’s no simple handing over an ad tag. The first year and a half was just building the pipes and getting everyone connected.
Our value proposition was to sell to digital buyers who don’t buy out-of-home ads today. It’s important to these media owners, it’s a few million dollars to some of them.
You pioneered the DSP category as a founder of Invite Media. Has the programmatic market played out as you thought it would? What changes do you foresee over the next few years?
I think I was a bit naive to expect the programmatic market to be more than it is today. Everyone knows that programmatic has skyrocketed, but I’m still shocked to see people buy banner ads via ad networks, taking 60 percent margins out of a media buy or buying commoditized media in a non-transparent way – media that you can’t plan against, buy and measure very simply. Search falls into that category, video, online display, social, mobile is half and half right now, brands are still trying to find the measurement component.
I’m shocked when I hear about ad network business models “crushing it” and making tons of money off of that lack of transparency. As a marketer, how irresponsible is that? Most of the stuff I see is simply arbitrage and it’s scary that that can exist today. I don’t understand why all these ad networks exist. I’m a little disappointed.
I would like to see more agencies focusing on transparency for their clients. I get it’s hard as an agency person. Some have over 300 vendor meetings a year. It’s crazy people spend that much time in meetings. That’s an investment problem. I blame VCs and investors for that problem because they allow companies to raise large sums of money and that puts them in a nasty spot. If you raise enough money, then you can’t sell the company for a reasonable amount and you can’t merge because a VC gave them money to make the same software – so many mergers in this space don’t make sense. So companies will build a duplicate sales team to do the exact same thing. This has gone on for a while and there are so many display DSPs that are still in startup purgatory because of this. That’s an issue. We just saw TubeMogul get purchased. Focusing on one product and being great at it is important from a channel perspective, but over time I’m not sure what these companies do.
Management at agencies needs to clean that up and fix those problems. On the investor and vendor side we need to be more responsible about how we move money around.
Why did you specifically choose to focus on DOOH?
I think OOH is an under-appreciated medium. Not too dissimilar to real estate where you have distressed assets, up and coming neighborhoods – the assets are there, the eyeballs are there. Marketers have always suffered from not understanding which eyeballs are there and how to measure success for the marketer.
There’s a gap in attribution, and without attribution, we’re at a time where it won’t grow. The growth side of OOH is very small, somewhere between two and three percent a year. I have a fear that it could have the destiny of print. The reason I say that is mobile phones are just a moving, smaller billboards with a much more personal connection and data on the consumer. So if OOH doesn’t elevate itself as a measurable, attributable medium, it will get its lunch eaten by mobile. And there’s no reason for it because the same ways people can measure mobile they can measure OOH.
When you look at verticals, usually under one percent of CPG spend is spent on OOH. That’s crazy. It’s the largest vertical advertiser there is and they don’t spend nearly anything on OOH in U.S. That’s scary. You have such a small piece of the pie from one of the largest verticals. Their TV spend is off the charts, but as TV becomes more addressable or TV dollars move into digital dollars, OOH is in a really unique spot to catch that money if we upgrade our systems, prepare ourselves and work with proper measurement companies in the same way the digital vendors have in order to catch those dollars.
This transition is happening and it’s not exactly from one channel to another, it’s simply from media that cannot be measured in an efficient way to media that can be measured. We need to be in the bucket of “can be measured.” It’s very binary. At the end of the day, the goals are very logical around the business – this is a valuable piece of real estate but people don’t understand why it’s valuable because it has not been properly measured. If we can show attribution for some of the largest marketers, it’s logical that the overall investment in OOH would increase.
Are emerging measurement and attribution solutions for out-of-home similar to those in other channels? Or are channel-specific standards developing on their own?
Foot traffic is one measurement mobile has tied itself to in the past few years. It’s really important for mobile marketers as well as out-of-home. When we think about retail and QSR clients, we slap a study on to every campaign we can. If you don’t have enough impressions in a market, then it’s hard to measure something.
Vistar Media has recently partnered with name brand measurement companies to create the first-to-market out-of-home sales lift solutions for automotive and CPG products. Marketers will be able to target against segments just like you can online, then validate those who are exposed at a household level. 2016 was all about automotive and CPG. These companies believed in the opportunity of out-of-home, how big it could be and have worked with us for years. And it’s not just a Vistar effort. This is huge for the industry and should increase overall investment in OOH across the board.
Is there a publically known stat on the digitalization of billboards and out-of-home?
Most media owners work hard to digitize as much as possible. There are two factors here. One is the municipalities and government where they usually have to do trades. If you have three paper billboards, you can trade those in and put up one digital billboard. Digitizing boards requires a lot of government regulation and decision. That slows the process down.
They’re controlling utilization. Typically, they take their highest grossing assets in the best location and they digitize those first so they can show eight adds instead of one in that location. At the same time, if you were to take a location only 50 percent full out throughout the year and digitize it, now you’re talking about an even lower utilization rate – 50 percent divided by eight. It’s a much more drastic utilization problem, lowering the share of voice with a specific advertiser, CPM, and the rate. So it’s a balance. If the amount of eyeballs in one specific location at specific times aren’t growing then there is no reason to digitize more because you’re sitting on an investment for which you can’t prove ROI.
That’s the balancing act.
How should marketers be thinking of leveraging DOOH as a component of their cross-channel plans?
It goes back to measurement. I wouldn’t tell a marketer to invest in media that they can’t measure. That would be irresponsible to recommend. There are measurement solutions for all major verticals – retail, QSR, automotive, CPG. They shouldn’t think of out-of-home as a just a tonnage platform. We’re past that now. We’re able to look at true sales lists and in-store traffic. This is what we’re focused on and it’s the core to revenue and sales marketers.
I would urge them to think of out-of-home. Don’t just buy the medium, but look at how to measure and validate it’s working for your brand. A lot of brands can question that across the board. There is still a lot of vanity buying of out-of-home. I’m not a big fan of people investing in that way because we know data platforms exist that tell us who we’re reaching and if it’s working. I think people are scared of the results. They don’t know if they will be good or bad. But we can’t let fear dictate our investment decisions.
What other standards are developing for programmatic buying of DOOH media?
We’ve been working with the IAB and DPAA, and OAAA to help develop standards in programmatic advertising. We wrote the first OpenRTB spec and we’ve written a lot around creative in points as well as how to do approvals for creative. We’ve been very open about our API and how it works in terms of communicating ads and making media more transactional than it was prior to us. Being a younger company, it’s hard to tell the big guys how to do things or what’s right versus wrong. It’s hard to build standards when there are a handful of big players in the space and they dictate what’s going on.
The final questions are personal and mobile-based and we ask them of all of our guests:
What was your first mobile phone?
It was probably a gold-plated Nokia with the game snake on it. It worked. I loved it! I was able to go online and create my own ringtone.
What is the first app you open every day?
Gmail. No question about that one.