Friday, March 07, 2008

Google: The world's largest ad agency

I wrote a series over 3 years ago for where I explored the advertising market in 2010. One piece of this predicted that Google would be the largest ad agency by 2010. So far, it looks like most of what I wrote is playing out. Here’s a look back at that segment of the series.

In the third of three parts, Dave Chase of the Altus Alliance predicts that in five years Google will be the world's biggest ad agency.

Editor's Note: In part one of this short series, Dave Chase explored where interactive media and marketing will be in five years, and described the media consumption habits of a hypothetical married couple, Mike and Jill. Then, in part two, he discussed the backend technology that could serve ads to the couple.

Will Google be the biggest ad agency in the world by 2010?

In part one, I laid out a future of how internet-based advertising models will pervade the TV world. If you buy it, then changes will inevitably happen in the ad industry. I predict that Google will be the largest “ad agency” in the world by 2010.

Dramatic industry shifts usually don’t happen from obvious places. Ample evidence of that exists, whether you look at the music business, the encyclopedia business, the newspaper classified business, the retailing business or many others. Companies that too narrowly define their competition inevitably have their business cratered from unexpected places. Aggressive, growth-oriented companies -- Google and Wal-Mart are just two examples -- don’t care about pre-existing industry dividing lines. If it weren't them, some other organization would gladly eat away at incumbents’ businesses, even though the leaders of the change are attractive bogeymen for those under attack.

If you take a step back, the purpose of ads and search are to connect buyers with someone selling what buyers want (even if they don’t know they want it yet). In both cases, fees are collected from the people who have something to sell for connecting them with buyers of those items. No one is rushing to categorize Google as an ad agency -- “they’re in the search business.” 

You don’t have to study Google very hard to realize they aren’t limiting themselves to the “search business,” which is increasingly hard to define in any case. It’s important to recognize that Google isn’t charging for search: their income comes from advertising. As the old saying goes, if it looks and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. If they were considered an ad agency, they’d already be in the top five with a much stronger trajectory than any of the top five agencies.

You may be saying, “Wait a minute, they are more like a media outlet than an ad agency” (which is largely true today), but withhold judgment for a moment and some interesting insights can be drawn. To begin with, they are already doing media planning if the business has a high volume of clicks and it’s highly likely they are working on ways to make that easier (and thus scale to smaller advertisers).

If I walked into most offices of the leaders of the largest ad agencies in the world today and stated that Google/Yahoo!/MSN are their competitors, at best I’d get a polite laugh. They may say that I don’t “get” the ad agency business. Having been on both sides of the challenger/incumbent equation, I can say unequivocally that not “getting it” is usually an advantage for the challenger. The challenger isn’t shackled by the current way of thinking or, perhaps more importantly, the current business model. Like virtually every other company (especially a public company), Google and “their competitors” are inspired by what will make them the largest sum of money. Today, Google’s revenues are advertising-based, but tomorrow they may have increasingly more characteristics associated with the agency business.

Comparing some of the assets that agencies have versus Google is instructive. I’ll put these in context of some of the criteria I used to evaluate the ad agencies that I worked with when I held large ad budgets.

1.  Efficiency with my budget: When my team owned the relationship/budget with an agency, I counseled them to look for padding and inefficiencies as the model shifted from a commission-based model (which had its own issues) to a salary multiplier. The latter seemed like a fair approach, based upon the number of people on the account. Furthermore, it was hard to know how well the agency negotiated with media outlets to get the best CPMs. With Google’s Adwords, you bid on how much you are willing to pay for a click that can range from pennies to dollars depending on the term. Google has a great feature where if you bid $1.50 for a click and the next highest bidder is $0.75, they’ll adjust what they charge you to $0.76. This looks like a more efficient way of spending my ad dollars and infinitely more trackable.

2.  Consumer insight/research: I’ve worked with some fabulous media buyers and account planners. Their ability to dive into various syndicated research to identify the media properties with the optimal demo/psycho-graphics often impressed me. However, when you combine the almost unbelievable volumes of click behavior -- across many thousands of websites -- it provides a robust picture of brand motivation and preferences. It’s an approach that virtually any cold-blooded capitalist selling stuff would appreciate, and it is unrivaled by other means of capturing actual buyer behavior.

3.  Ability to reach my target buyers where they live: Google’s Adsense offering (i.e., syndication of their contextual search ads) has major implications and makes them look an awful lot like a media agency. Not only does Google serve up ads on their own high-traffic site, they are syndicating their ads to virtually every nook and cranny of the web. As an advertiser, it gives them an efficient way to reach into highly targeted sites that would be impossible to buy in a manual manner. Anecdotally, I’m seeing Google ads on all kinds of obscure and relatively low traffic sites that happen to be highly relevant to me professionally or personally.

4.  Ability to service local, regional and international markets: This has at least two dimensions: First, can you run particular ads for people who live in particular geographies whether that is England, New England or Boston? Second, is it easy to localize the advertisements themselves? Particularly on the first point, it’s much easier to do this with Google than the machinations an agency has to go through to make it happen (e.g., working with dozens of different media outlets around the country/world). On the second point, it’s comparing apples and oranges since localization of text ads is easy compared to localization of ads that involve more than simple text. That said, they cover many languages and countries today, so it’s a straightforward process.

5.  Focus on driving results vs. their ego: Since much of the execution of a campaign on Google is strictly driven by machines, there is no ego involved. From time to time, one runs up against this dynamic with agency creatives where they are more focused on winning awards than selling your product.

6.  Creative work: This is an area where it would appear that agencies have a clear advantage if for no other reason than that the creative palette is limited with Google today. If you look at some of the trends outlined in part one -- combined with increased bandwidth and broadband penetration in the next five years -- it seems inevitable that the creative palette Google provides won’t be so limited. The advantage Google has in this scenario? Its cost to launch and test a new campaign is low, so creatives can refine their creative and copy while avoiding the high stakes and slow turnaround of typical campaigns of today. Such campaigns frequently get bogged down by approvals at the client level. This quick turnaround should shift creatives perspective from a) thinking of how limited their palette is to b) relishing the opportunity to get immediate feedback on campaign ideas that may be conceived of, executed and killed/expanded in less than a day.

7.  Account service: This is an area where agencies should maintain a clear advantage for the foreseeable future, as people-oriented service is a core part of their value proposition. As Google and others gain an increasing share of their customers’ wallets, there will be an expectation of increased account service for large accounts. In a competitive market, Google will respond if Yahoo! or MSN try to offer better service. This factor can diminish the inherent advantage agencies have.

8.  Media neutrality: Most agencies like to claim media-neutrality, but it’s virtually impossible to find in practice. The core obstacle is that the client’s budgets aren’t media neutral. There are often different teams, let alone different budgets for different media -- print, online, broadcast, etc. This makes it difficult for agencies to be media neutral. The philosophy behind Google’s technology is media neutral. It just so happens that it’s all executed on HTML web pages right now. Take the notion of delivering ads in the content you prefer to consume, on the device (PC, mobile device, etc.) you happen to be using at the moment and delivering the most relevant ad at the moment you consume it and extend it beyond online. It’s not hard to imagine this happening when your TV and radio have their own IP addresses along with your more traditional computing devices (this is already in process). 

9.  CRM: Marketers and agencies working on their behalf spend large sums of money to create and maintain an accurate customer database that helps paint a picture of their customers’ behaviors, likes and dislikes, demographics et cetera. It’s not unusual for a marketer to spend millions each year simply keeping their database up to date with basic information such as addresses. Meanwhile, Google’s customers do much of the maintenance work themselves as their cookies capture every web search, links you clicked on and when you did it. One area that Yahoo! and MSN have a clear advantage over Google is a much larger database of demographic information via their email/IM users (certainly one of the drivers for Google launching Gmail to much fanfare). Combine the demographic information with the surfing and searching behavior, and there isn’t an agency in the world that wouldn’t die to get their hands on that rich picture of their clients’ customers.


Is Google explicitly out to get the agencies’ business? Unlikely. It just so happens that when you look at the natural progression of their activities, it ends up dramatically impacting the agency business. The ironic thing is that Google is -- with complete sincerity -- probably spending significant sales and marketing resources to cultivate agency relationships. Like many other successful businesses, over time they will have more and more channel conflict where parties who were previously 100 percent complementary, and thus start to step on each other's toes. In the end, Google won’t look like an ad agency any more than eBay or Craigslist look like a newspaper classifieds business, but they will capture money from the same customers as the business that they are pilfering. It’s the agency leaders that should ask themselves what facets of Google’s business they need to develop or co-opt. Agency leaders would be wise to make sure they don’t have blinders on regarding their current business and their partners, or they are liable to be victims of an inevitable force.


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