How Digitas North America’s Leah Askew is looking to rein in the agency’s programmatic supply sources

This article is part of a series covering our Programmatic Marketing Summit. More from the series →

For as much energy as advertisers and agencies have put into supply path optimization over the years, the programmatic supply chain is still in need of cleaning up. See the recent examples of made-for-advertising sites, Forbes and Colossus calling into question ad buyers’ abilities to control what inventory they’re purchasing programmatically.

This helps to explain why Digitas North America is planning to take a stricter approach to how it sources inventory.

“I’m setting a rule this year that we’re coming off of the open exchange. We’re going to start buying on auction package only. … So basically setting up [private marketplace] deals with suppliers,” Leah Askew, svp and head of precision media at Digitas North America, said on stage at the Digiday Programmatic Marketing Summit in Palm Springs, California, on Wednesday.

The aim is to tighten the line between client demand and publisher supply. That doesn’t mean having to go directly to publishers, though, said Askew. Instead, the agency will set up deals with “each of our key [supply-side platforms] and starting to curate that supply,” she said. As part of the process, she expects to cut her roster of SSPs to 10 or less from the current count that she pegged at under 15.

The balance that Digitas North America will need to strike is between control over inventory and access to inventory. So the curation for performance-minded clients is likely to differ from that for brand advertisers.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody’s reach. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s ROAS. But I do want to get closer to supply, and I’m tired of the reselling. I’m ready to kick it out,” said Askew. “What’s funny is even with the PMP, I don’t think my work is done. I think I’ll still find MFA sites in PMPs.”

But corralling the programmatic supply chain through these PMPs with SSPs should at least make it easier for Digitas North America’s programmatic team to find those MFA sites. It may still be a matter of finding needles in haystacks, but at least they’ll be smaller haystacks.

The current process for auditing where ads purchased programmatically ended up running can be a bit cumbersome. It involves the agency’s programmatic traders crawling through reports and assessing the various URLs included, which can number in the tens of thousands per report. In assessing the sites, the traders evaluate the hierarchy of sites by criteria such as impressions delivered, spend amounts and percentage of total spend.

“We used to make a joke whenever we would train folks about how often the sites comes up and how sometimes it can have stellar performance too,” said Askew.

And given that dynamic, it can be hard to tell if is just a legitimate publisher with a lame URL or an MFA site gaming the system by juicing its performance metrics. That susceptibility is unlikely to ever go away. As long as there’s money on the table, there will be bad actors attempting to swipe it. So it’s a matter of programmatic marketers making it harder for companies in the programmatic supply chain to grab at ad budgets, such as by cutting off access, as Digitas North America is looking to do.

“At the end of the day, as a buyer, your biggest power of negotiation is the ability to walk away,” said Askew. Some programmatic relationships can be harder to walk away from, she acknowledged, “but for the most part, when it comes to supply, I’ll shut you off.”

And if more agencies adopt a similar strategy, then the programmatic supply chain will be, if not completely clean, less of a mess.

“When there’s actual repercussions, then we’ll start to see that narrowing of the supply group. And hopefully the good ones remain,” said Askew.

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