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The next step in digital advertising: Fusing direct and programmatic sales and inventory management

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Vivendi-owned Canal+ Group – the largest media group in France – has selected FreeWheel (now including StickyAds.tv) to provide an advertising management system that will combine a supply-side platform (SSP) for programmatic trading with direct sales – with increasing integration between these two demand sources. The deal adds another major French programmer to the list of companies using the SSP that StickyAds.tv developed.

To be precise, the deal is with Canal+ Regie, the sales house for Canal+ Group. FreeWheel will help the media company expose its digital advertising inventory programmatically. The deployment also signifies that Canal+ buys into the FreeWheel vision for more holistic management of direct and programmatic digital inventory and sales. Thomas Bremond, Managing Director for Europe at FreeWheel, is also pleased to be working with another company that combines its own media sales, channels and a distribution platform (the company already works with Sky).

Canal+ Regie has taken two of the core FreeWheel solutions: Monetization Rights Management (MRM) and the supply-side platform. These will be used with all inventory sold by Canal+ Regie on the Canal+ Group digital platforms, and thus covers both live streaming and on-demand content. (The new advertising system does not yet cover Canal+ content served via Pay TV operator TV Everywhere apps). Catch-up VOD programming, served via IPTV distribution partners and their set-top boxes (via traditional IPTV networks) is also covered by the new technology. So advertising inventory within this programming will be managed by the MRM platform and made available programmatically via the supply-side platform.

MRM provides the tools to manage advertising sales rights, accurately forecast inventory, manage yield optimization, make ad decisions, serve ads and analyze performance. The SSP enables data-driven trading and automation that guarantees the interests of broadcasters. It integrates with leading demand-side platforms like those from DataXu, TubeMogul, MediaMath and Turn.

FreeWheel (a Comcast company) used to be best known for its management of direct-sold advertising, including its strong compliance. Anticipating greater demand for programmatic trading, the company acquired StickyAds.tv, which specialized in digital advertising, in May 2016. You can read more about the rationale for the acquisition here.

FreeWheel now plans to create a holistic ad management platform that can be used for any inventory delivered via any distribution platform to any screen, and which ensures broadcast-standard compliance and what Bremond calls “safe automation” in the programmatic environment.

One of the first steps towards integration was to enable price comparisons between the two main demand sources for inventory – the direct sales and programmatic. Any publisher driven purely by CPM (cost per thousand) rates could make a spot available to a direct-sold campaign or to a programmatic buyer, depending on who is willing to pay more.

FreeWheel is about to go much further by making it possible to sell ads within an advertising pod (break) either directly or programmatically, with holistic management of the inventory regardless of the demand source.

Bremond says this is pioneering technology. “Before, if you had seven ads in a pod then either all seven were sold programmatically or all seven were sold direct. You could not combine [these demand sources]. Now we are passing the FreeWheel decisioning information to the StickyAds SSP and telling it not to return ads [in the same break] that are competitive to the direct-sold advertising and not to return a Coca Cola ad if there is already a Coke ad in the break. Now we have built these integrations we can pass certain information that we cannot pass to partners outside the FreeWheel environment.”

By integrating the decisioning, you can now manage how each ad during a break is sourced (direct or programmatically). This capability can be combined with dynamic advertising insertion. In effect the decisioning engine is taking account of all demand sources – and this includes an understanding of the prices available either direct or via the SSP.

In a three-advert break, for example, the system might decide that the second spot in the break should be sold programmatically and, crucially, it also knows what ads (sold directly) are playing in the first and third spots (ensuring there are no competitive issues or duplicate ads). The direct sales team can sell the first ad spot to an established client who always likes the first spot during a particular programme, and this does not limit your ability to trade other ads programmatically during that same break.

Bremond adds: “Our strength has always been to manage the decisioning around the entirety of the ad break, across all screens.” The ability to mix programmatic and direct sold ads in the same break is going to be a game-changer, he reckons. He thinks FreeWheel has a unique proposition, given the combination of holistic ad decisioning and holistic yield management across the two demand sources and the ad serving technology to complement these.

Doug Knopper, Co-Founder and Co-CEO at FreeWheel, is excited about the product roadmap being developed by the combined FreeWheel and StickyAds.tv teams. He points to how the StickyAds ‘centre of gravity’ was programmatic in Europe and the Freewheel centre of gravity was direct sales in the U.S. FreeWheel made its own foray into programmatic with its FourFronts premium marketplace, a product announced in May 2014. This gave access to only a handful of demand-side platforms (DSPs) however, whereas StickyAds has over 100 DSPs connected into its supply-side platform, providing significant scale.

Both companies already served the Tier One market, although with the StickyAds.tv SSP there is more scope to address smaller media companies. Knopper says there was a great cultural synergy between the two companies, too.

The combined technology is a natural fit and Knopper believes there will be clear benefits for customers who seek holistic management of all their inventory and demand sources. Ultimately they will be able to improve yield management and maximize revenue.

He points to a bigger role in future for FreeWheel in managing creative and in addressable TV (focused around ad decisioning) but contends that the bulk of the market for ad management among Tier One media companies is going to be won or lost based on how well you support holistic ad management [across all screens and demand sources] across the whole value chain. And he thinks FreeWheel is better placed than anyone else to compete on this basis.

As we reported previously, FreeWheel has helped pioneer the unification of advertising inventory. In a summer 2015 pilot the company joined Comcast, Canoe (the ad-tech company formed by major US Pay TV operators that focuses on dynamic advertising insertion for VOD inventory), ABC (one of the major broadcast networks in the US) and A+E Networks to unify ad inventory across classic cable VOD (served via set-top boxes) and digital (online/multiscreen TV).

This pilot exposed STB and digital inventory as if it were a single audience pot. It also provided an early example of how you can unify direct sales and programmatic buys.

The high-level ambition was to overcome the audience fragmentation that threatens the easily achievable reach that television has always given advertisers. And this is a theme that Bremond took up again recently, speaking to Videonet at Future TV Advertising Forum.

“If you are a broadcaster, you are being attacked by people with mountains of data on proprietary platforms and they can go deep into the value chain to target and retarget audiences. But the new media companies are very focused on targeting and what has made TV and broadcasters successful is the concept of reach – delivering a certain audience in a given time.

“In the digital environment you have to deliver that reach by covering all distribution media. We need to aggregate the audience in terms of numbers and unify the reach across all devices and also currencies so that a broadcaster can sell a package to advertisers that is similar in look-and-feel to TV.”


Photo: Thomas Bremond speaking at Future TV Advertising Forum in London last month.

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