Faaez Samadi
Mar 28, 2019

‘I’m not a data guy’ is no longer an excuse in advertising

Tim Mahlman of Verizon Media explains why marketers need to get smarter with data, and the benefits of operating both sides of the digital ad supply chain.

‘I’m not a data guy’ is no longer an excuse in advertising

It’s one thing as a marketer not to know all the intricacies of the digital ad ecosystem, concedes Tim Mahlman. That’s why brands, and a lot of agencies, have programmatic advertising partners such as Verizon Media—formerly Oath—but its president of ad platforms warns that those in adland who don’t think data is part of their job description will need to dust off their CVs pretty soon.

“Everyone, including ourselves and our clients, whether on the publisher app or advertiser side, has to be more aware,” he says during an interview at Verizon Media’s Singapore office. Given that issues around digital advertising are usually big news—think YouTube and brand safety, bots and ad fraud—it’s incumbent on agency folk and marketers alike to ensure they fully understand how the digital ad ecosystem they’ve bought into works.

“If they’re not aware of it, the ‘hey I’m not a data guy, I don’t know’ response no longer works,” Mahlman says flatly. “If you’re not fluent in how you’re executing across your media spend, you’re not going to be executing that media spend much longer. Because a lot of these tools, like our DSP and even our SSP, they’re built for self-service, they’re empowering you, the advertiser/agency, whoever’s executing your media spend, to have full control and actually, in many cases, dictate the destiny of where that campaign is going to be executed.”

This advanced level of understanding is, Mahlman says, what Verizon Media has built its digital advertising products for. Obviously, he says, clients and partners are advised throughout their relationship with Verizon Media on how to get the best out of their products, whether on the demand or supply side. But clients are increasingly asking for more control, and Mahlman says Verizon Media’s products, while simplified for clients to use easily, require users to match their demand for control with reasonable understanding of digital advertising today.

Mahlman is quick to admit it’s taken Verizon Media a long time to get up to speed with competitors, given the amount of consolidation required in bringing together AOL, Yahoo and other properties under one banner.

“The reality is that when you go through that type of consolidating, you do fall behind. So we’ve been in catch-up mode, though we’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished because we’re set for the future,” he says. “It did set us back, and I’d say we weren’t competitive from a platforms perspective strictly because of all we had to do.”

Tim Mahlman

That time spent catching up, in Mahlman’s eyes, allowed Verizon Media to futureproof itself by, among other things, creating a sophisticated mobile header bidding platform, building for connected television, which he believes is the next biggest opportunity, and launching as GDPR-compliant globally.

“We love being the early bird getting the worm, but we’ve also succeeded many times being the second mouse getting the cheese,” he quips. “It wasn’t intended, absolutely, but based on the dynamics of our industry changing at the pace that it does, it actually helped us set up to be successful in the next three years.”

A key part of that success, in Mahlman’s mind, is Verizon Media’s rich pool of first-party data. “When we were acquired by Verizon, one of first conversations I was lucky to have was to talk to the Verizon Wireless people about bringing their opted-in first party data into our DMP to use across our DSP, which was a huge differentiation in the marketplace,” he explains.

“If you think about it, that’s deterministic data that allows us to be able to authenticate, when you talk about a world right now of fraud and whether or not an ad’s been served.”

That model was then replicated in the US with Sprint, and has been taken global with many telcos—Mahlman explains that NTT Docomo in Japan are passing their data into Oath Ad Platforms (the unit hasn't rebranded as Verizon Media yet).

Is third-party data dead? Mahlman doesn’t think so yet, but the goalposts have definitely shifted. “There has never been anyone to really vet the validity or quality of what that third party is,” he says. “There are more companies now enabling us to understand that more. It’s definitely changed the perception of ‘let’s just buy that data for whatever price because it’s cheaper’.”

Mahlman also believes the growing trend for ad tech firms offering supply path optimisation spells trouble for shady third-party data providers, as it offers stronger direct relationships between advertisers and consumers, which in turn could “get rid of a lot of these middlemen”.

“I think that’s one way that you’ll start to see first party data as a more powerful vehicle for advertisers,” he continues. “SPO I think will be very interesting. We’ve built it within our own platform, but I can see it across other players becoming even more profound.”

Another area of worrying opacity is the loose use of the term ‘premium’. Mahlman is only half-joking when he says “I don’t think there’s anyone on the sell side who doesn’t have the word ‘premium’ in their offer,” which is concerning for ad tech platforms that have genuinely invested in their inventory.

But again, he is comforted by Verizon Media’s operations on both sides of the digital ad space, in this case it’s owned media properties such as Yahoo News.

“They’re some of our biggest partners, but they’re also our biggest critics,” he says. “It’s almost unprecedented to have publisher and platform as partners. We consider them our number one customer, and they push us in platform development to the point where third party publishers now get the benefit of what we’ve built.”

With all the pieces finally in place, Mahlman is ready to take Verizon Media’s offer to market—especially in Asia, which he sees as a strong area for growth, particularly in mobile and connected TV in the future. Having swapped the early bird for the second mouse, it may be that Verizon Media is now the tortoise, and not the hare.

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