Thought Leadership
Surviving in the Dog-Eat-Dog World of Adtech with Wholetone Media


Chris Martellotti & Phil Matarese
Wholetone Media



For those of us not familiar with Wholetone Media, please tell us a little more about your company / consultancy.

Wholetone was founded a little over a year ago and business has been going well.  We both have a unique background in this space spanning over 20 years.  We helped build some of the first modern day adtech that exists, including media exchanges, data/modeling businesses, and we have sat on both the buy and sell side, so at the core of our business is platform and technology expertise.  In a real-time world, there is a need to have a very analytical approach to media.  We help provide analytical expertise and frameworks for companies to utilize.  For publishers and app developers this has meant different forms of monetization support and for marketers this means helping them create a media buying operation that is unique to the data and behavior of their customers and potential customers.

The challenge we felt in the marketplace is that every company is selling a unique “technology” and taking big margins while leaving both buyers and sellers of media confused.  In adtech, we feel much of the technology is commoditized and we help inform companies investing in these systems to maximize the value, and choose best of breed partners.

In today’s market it is refreshing to offer services and solutions rather than selling what in many cases is just duplicative technology.


There has been a lot of hype about ‘Header Bidding‘ of late, with many publishers claiming that it is a Godsend in terms of increased yield due to all demand being forced to compete at once (instead of following a typical waterfall setup where bids happen in sequence). What are your thoughts on header bidding, and do you think it is something that all publishers can benefit from?

Yes. Header bidding is really helpful and we have seen a ton of success with partners, in some cases increasing yield by more than 1.5x. HB also solves for a few different AdOps challenges. With companies that have large sales forces, there has always been a challenge to give programmatic buyers access to premium inventory within the ad stack. If well managed, header bidding takes the guesswork out of the possible in-stack cannibalization that direct sold publisher can run into.

Also, it is good as it puts pressure on the Google tech (assuming DFP/AdX is the primary set-up).  What we have done thus far is implement best of breed solutions, help publishers set this up, and then teach them how to manage it properly.


Ad blocking has become an (almost sensationalized) concern in the last few months, with the media reaching a frenzy at one point calling it an existential crisis to publishers and advertisers worldwide. To your knowledge, where does ad blocking currently stand and how do you think the market will evolve to mitigate the effects of ad blocking over the coming years?

In the boom of adtech, specifically mobile ads, the consumer has lost.  If you spend any time on the mobile web, you can’t navigate around ads, your browser is hijacked, there are ads flipping through the page. It is absurd.  Desktop isn’t much better. There is browser crashing, autoplay video with audio, and ripe with fraud.  Adblocking isn’t installed by users to screw over the ad industry, users install it for sanity.  Adtech created this problem for itself and you will only see adblocking grow. The unfortunate part for publishers is that they keep digging a deeper hole and they keep adding more units to make up for lost revenue, making the consumer experience worse which drives more adblocker.  For advertisers, and specifically brands, it is fairly clear that standardized ad units don’t work like the once did, especially as it relates to mobile, so changes will certainly happen, and quickly.

In the past, when publishers are looking to generate revenue, they added a new ad unit and sold harder.  In the evolving programmatic world this is not possible, less is more.  A viewable ad, that is part of a pleasant user experience, will be purchased at a much higher rate from an advertiser or specifically a trading desk than poorly placed ads.  Programmatic buyers are very smart, so publishers and app developers need to catch up. In the short term, there are ways to help solve for adblocking. In it’s current state, adblocking is extortion from publishers but end-users don’t know that or care. This issue was created by publishers and network together, they need to come to terms with that. Long term, adblocking is a signal that publishers need to be smarter with their audience, they need to take a long term approach, and need to better balance UX with revenue needs.


When it comes to mid-long tail publishers, what would you say is the ideal monetization team structure? (1 ad ops, 1 ad sales, 1 account manager, 2 editorial, 1 engineer, etc).

Modern monetization is economics more than it is traditional sales. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that most sales reps and marketers don’t have a background in economics and that most economists are not rich. You could call it growing pains and at the heart of the current rift is a pretty classic “jocks vs. nerds” culture shift.

There are three main parts to monetization as we see it. Stack, Ops, Product. First is having a streamlined ad stack where you work with a small group of vendors that compliment but also put pressure on each other.  This requires engineering work, ad-ops expertise, and proper data analysis to understand.  There is sales/account management that can navigate the ad stack and understand how to up sell, package different demand partners, manage client-facing needs, and offer more exclusive opportunities. That said it is essential that no one, not even direct sales, goes “on the top of the stack”. Price dictates all. To get out in front of the programmatic ecosystem you need to be able to make a real business case. Finally, there is a product element that needs to understand how user experience, advertising performance, and ad experience impacts overall publisher trends in the short and long term. A lot of publishers are hurting the long-term opportunity for short-term gains.


Programmatic is a buyers market, and publishers need to understand how they can be bought rather than sold. It is the difference between selling at an auction and selling retail. A lot can happen, good and bad, in an auction. How do you manage that?

What we saw as one business opportunity was to have publishers of a certain size outsource this work to us, similar to an agency. If you add up what a monetization team could look like it is 500-1MM+/year in headcount.  We set up all technology contracts with our publishers and simply man the technology to create efficiency and revenue.  So far, it has worked out really well and it has been nice providing a lot of industry education on top of that.


Are there any ways that publishers can segment their inventory using existing tools to better package their audiences for advertisers to purchase? What are some of these tools and how do they work?  

Yes and no.  A lot of this comes down to A/B testing but it also is understanding where your audience comes from and metrics around the behavior of those visitors.  If you look at what Washington Post has done it is an enterprise version of audience analysis, which plays into how they create their content, promote their content, and monetize their content.  In the world of traditional media the brand behind the content was important, it created a sense of validity.  Today good content can appear anywhere and surface anywhere, and the better it is, the more people will engage with it.  Good publishers pride themselves on creating great content and we help them understand that this means they have great data. Understanding how data and media fit together is where big strides can happen.  This means having a clear understanding of user value based on referral traffic source, understanding the demographics and behaviors of micro-audiences within a property, and leveraging this as it relates to ad sizes, floor pricing, and even relationships with different types of demand partners.  Data management platforms have grown in popularity as publishers feel the need to better understand their data, but these tools primarily help in publishers selling their inventory and don’t necessarily help in how publishers’ inventory is being bought, and these are big differences.


At what point (uniques or impression volume) do you think it makes sense for a publisher to shift their monetization reliance on ad networks or exchanges, and use an actual Ad Server like DFP? What are some things that a publisher can now do with DFP set-up, and best practices for maximizing yield?

The DFP set-up is a big deal. DFP for Small Business is basically free and Google AdX is the best in the game (today). There is no reason not to start early. If you are doing 500K – 1M PVs per month it is probably time to tackle DFP, but to be clear, DFP (or any ad server) is just a smarter way to manage ad networks under a programmatic exchange.


What do you think is the biggest challenge the digital advertising industry faces today?

In advertising you have this shift happening of an old school media business changing to a new school media mentality.  The large sum of money at stake, and the fast changing consumer has added to the complexities that organizations face internally, and this friction creates short term thinking.

During times of heavy technology innovation (which you could argue adtech has had the last 10-15 years) it is hard to lead organizations with a long term mindset as “the next big thing” may pass you by.  Today, much of the infrastructure that will power the media business for future decades exists, on both the buy and sell side, and only some organizations are starting to plan and execute their long term business strategies around this technology.

In general, users hate ads, and the current state of ad sales resembles penny stock trading in the 1980’s. Middleman are gouging advertisers, the diluted revenue is what the publishers see. Publishers need revenue to run their business and generate content, so they resort to more ads on the page, more intrusive ad experiences, and less tested technology….which user hate more, which drives ad blocker adoption, and delivers poor brand messaging for advertisers.

For most pubs, mobile-web is a growing 60% of their page views. The current state of the mobile-web ad experience is garbage. There is no other way to say it. Over 90% of the ads you see on your phone are re-purposed desktop ads. Ads designed for a device and experience with >10x the horsepower and ~8x the real estate (height and width of the screen). The actual standard format for mobile ads is still up for grabs and some of the best brand executions on mobile have little to do with planned media spend as it has traditionally been thought of.

So the big challenge is that with the fast changing consumer, and the increasing pace of new technology, most companies are executing on short term strategies rather than long term.  The leadership at most organizations, which has the power to drive these companies in new directions, doesn’t stem from the seed of the modern day platforms, where there is real-time consumer feedback and deep understanding of customer data.  The analytical teams, which can operate the new media and data platforms, don’t necessarily have the leadership skills to evolve and lead a company, in perhaps a dramatically new direction.  Many leading organizations, that are planning for the long term, share a similar view in that at the core they are all data companies, that also offer “XYZ”.  This sets the framework for long term thinking and it is true whether you sell shampoo, are a local newspaper or a politician.


There is such a glut of ad networks and ad technology companies, that it’s become virtually impossible to keep track of all their capabilities, and differentiators (and to even take a call with most of them). Do you think that this is sustainable, and how do you think the market will evolve over the coming years?  

“Consolidation” is a nice word to describe what will happen.  I think things like Thalamus are helpful with this, but I agree it is difficult.  Even in our role, we are constantly learning about new partners and vetting them. I have seen given companies change their business model by the time we come back to them to integrate their solution for a given partner.  You will see specialists help in given markets as the global media industry is massive, but today there are many companies that don’t have a very unique offering.

In many ways, Wholetone exists because of this glut of technology and companies. We help companies navigate the nightmare, and create customized technology solutions that fit their unique business.


It’s been said that there is a 55% “Adtech Tax” on every $1 that a marketer spends, with only $0.45 being spent on media / making it the publisher. Do you think that advertisers and publishers will start to push back against this huge ‘adtech margin’ soon, and how do you see them doing so? (sticking with native ads / branded content to cut out the middlemen, auditing their programmatic partners to ensure they provide 100% transparency).  

Yes, this is a huge issue.  It is similar to banking where the fine print shows lot’s of little fee’s on both the sell and buy side…and that is if you are lucky.  What is becoming clear is that there are a few foundational vendors that one can build their ad stack on.  There is a TON of recycled demand and this creates challenges all around from ad quality, to the adtech tax, etc.

In 2011 Eric Schmidt, then outgoing CEO of Google, said that display advertising would be a 200 Billion dollar business and that Google was going to focus on this channel as a new growth sector beyond search.  His quote was used in thousands of slide decks by entrepreneurs as they pitched VC’s for funding to hop into the adtech game.  Capital has been easy to find due to macroeconomic conditions (zero interest rates) and this has fueled speculation.  Adtech is just one of the industries that has seen extreme growth from this.  When macro-economic conditions change, companies that don’t provide measurable value for their clients or profit for their shareholders will disappear. The market at large will be forced into greater transparency.  The “adtech tax” is a result of confusion, competition, and some corruption. Consolidation and transparency will help publishers and brands as it will force the DSPs and Exchanges to compete on the margins and revenue shares.


The world is becoming increasingly programmatic, with many brands and vendors utilizing self-serve platforms or automation of some kind to make their workflow of buying or selling ads more efficient. What are some tips to surviving or growing in a 21st century programmatic world?

What are some tips to surviving, or growing, in a 21st century programmatic world? Learn to code, start reading psychology and philosophy texts on “what makes us human”, develop a long-term plan and don’t get distracted by boom and bust stories and cycles? Easier said than done :)

But seriously, we are living in a world of relevancy and that relevancy is growing every second.  Data informs the colors of the sweaters on the showroom floor at a retail store, to the new series being produced by Netflix.  The world is awash in data and most don’t know what to do with this data. It can be overwhelming.  It is important to understand macro-trends and micro-results and this is where the human element is very important in being able to differentiate between the two.  One thing that excites us is how the adtech foundation and infrastructure can be used outside of this industry.  At large, the ability to collect massive amounts of data, make sense of it, and apply it in real time will be a the foundation of the biggest companies of the future across all industries.

As it relates to ads, advertisers and their agencies can do a great job of understanding their customer in detail, applying data to their media buys to make them far more efficient, and thus buying less waste.  Generally, with programmatic tools, buyers will buy less actual people, but they will have interest in engaging with those people in a deeper way.  As a publisher, it is important to leverage exchanges properly to understand how your audience, and different segments of your audience, overlap with given advertiser segments and then leverage that in content that you create, and use that as the foundation by which you form deeper advertiser partnerships.

We don’t work with Netflix directly, but you can see how they have evolved their business over the years.  In the past the entire internet saw “Netflix, free trial” ads.  They bought nearly everyone, generally at a cheap cost.  Today they have a very sophisticated data engine that links their media buying directly into viewership hours of given subscribers they advertise too, and this system gets smarter and more efficient every day.  Their ads are optimized before they are even served.  Amazon, P&G, and many other large companies are building out solutions of this sort to fit their respective businesses.  For publishers it is really important to understand this change in buying behavior as it will help inform how you generate content, and also what the advertising experience should look like for your users.


Any thoughts on a publisher can best monetize their international inventory?

Today we deal with this a lot.  There are obviously given partners that specialize in different international markets, so understanding that is important.  In the past year there have also been larger than normal currency fluctuations on a global basis and this can have a profound impact on bottom line revenue.  These big currency fluctuations don’t appear to be changing in the short term, so that is really important to understand.  What we have worked on with certain clients is to focus on given international markets while avoiding other markets altogether, or putting in a minimum viable solution in those markets.


As the digital advertising and monetization landscape unfolds, how do you think mid-long tail publishers will monetize? Do you have a rough breakout of what % you think these publishers will garner their revenue from in the next 5+ years? (60% programmatic, 20% ad networks, 20% direct sold)

The answer to this really depends, and it comes down to audience size and scarcity of the audience.  If you are a publisher and have a very good understanding of your audience and have unique ways in which advertisers can execute media buys, the audience may not be properly valued in exchanges.  That said, you also don’t have the resources to hire a big full time sales team.  Many publishers have a niche which they service, which can be a given industry, a localized demographic, or given topic area.  With these publishers, they will thrive with direct sold solutions as they aggregation of their audience is hard to find and there is value in brand association for marketers.  Other publishers that have a broader, less defined audience, will benefit dramatically from maximizing programmatic solutions. Not because their audience is less valuable, it is just that programmatic tools can play a better role in maximizing the efficiency of their inventory.  There will always be a place for ad networks in the middle servicing this client base, but there will be less “recycled” supply and demand in the future.  Today it isn’t hard to start an ad network, have no direct publishers and no direct advertisers, and have a business.  This will disappear!


Do you have a rough breakout of how you think advertisers will be spending their budget in the future, whether it be through programmatic / self-serve channels as compared to purchasing direct sold inventory? (60% programmatic, 20% direct ad buys, 10% Multi-Channel Networks, 10% specialized ad networks)

This really depends on the size of the advertiser and the objectives.  As the market condenses it will be easier for advertisers to go to a few select partners and access nearly all demand available.  For simplicity sake, there will be dashboards and electronic ways to buy this inventory, so as far as digital media is concerned I think this will all blend together and not be broken out into different categories. That said, there are ways in which sponsored content, or offline initiatives, may be mixed in with online efforts, and the relationship between buyer and seller will be very important.  If advertisers are buying audiences at their core, they won’t have a breakout of how it is executed, they will simply know which methods are most cost effective at achieving their desired outcome.


Lastly, what do you think the future of digital and mobile advertising will look like?  

What you are seeing now is a big push towards cross platform identification of users, and there are many players trying to solve for this, while the big players certainly have a head start.  This is the first step of an important journey where advertisements and the stories behind them will bleed across different media execution channels.

I think you will see the growth of native advertising (pardon the industry buzzwords). There are challenges with video and banners at large is that all of these units evolved from older media models (newspapers, magazines, TV).  Instead of having ads for the masses, ads and more specifically the messaging can be individualized to a given user, and this has a long way to evolve. What Optimizely, Monetate, and Shopify do for publishers and e-commerce will makes it way into content creation and ad/user matching.

With programmatic, targeting is better than it has ever been, and it will only get better. This is great news for advertisers and marketers and should also be for publishers.  The ability for brands to tell stories, communicate, and educate is at the cutting edge of commerce today.  The growth in content marketing is just a start to how his will evolve.  Consumers are changing, and rather than seeing a banner for 20% off of a product, users want to engage with brands.  People want to learn where the products are made, how they are made, ways in which it can make their life better, read reviews, and understand the personality behind the brand.  The tools for individualized storytelling have been built but most brands haven’t developed stories around those tools just yet. That is the future.



Programmatic media and data expertise, with over 20 years of experience, servicing global buyers and sellers of media.

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