Thought Leadership
Say Media on the Future of Independent Ad Networks and Adtech Players

AJ NaberMadhuri Immaneni

Madhuri Immaneni is the Programmatic Ad Manager at Say Media and is responsible for establishing and managing PMP relationships on the buy side. Her focus is on securing quality inventory in US, UK and Canada regions for running their Desktop and Mobile ad units. Before joining Say she was in Technical Support role at Adobe for ‘Adobe Media Optimizer’ solution.

AJ Naber manages the Fulfillment team at Say Media, which includes Ad Operations, Yield and Programmatic. In his time at Say Media he has worked in both advertiser & publisher facing roles including Account Management & Yield Management. On the programmatic front he has worked closely in developing Private Marketplace relationships for both Supply & Demand. Prior to joining Say he served as an Integrated Marketing Manager at American Express Publishing, with a focus on digital solutions.



Originally starting off as VideoEgg, Say Media started off as a publishing platform then moved into providing monetization products for your publisher partners. Now as an independent ad network, can you share more on Say and where the company stands today?

That’s right. Say Media was formed in 2010 when VideoEgg (founders of the first ad-in-video model) acquired Six Apart (creators of Movable Type and Typepad), bringing together pioneers of digital advertising and publishing. As Say, we grew to own and operate a suite of digital brands for which we continued to develop technology and advertising solutions.  Through owning brands, it became clear that publishers were navigating a myriad of specialized capabilities including SEO, Programming, Advertising Operations, and Social Syndication. We also learned just how challenging it is to create significant scale behind distinct publications and to be experts in both technology and content creation.  So we took those learnings, divested the brands and made a decision to focus completely on our technology and rich media advertising solutions.  And that’s Tempest. It’s full service publishing platform with integrated advertising solutions. It gives publishers all of the tools and technology to create great content, grow their audience, and earn a living.

History recap here.


There has been a lot of hype about programmatic advertising over the last few years, with the last report from eMarketer stating that it has reached over 65% saturation rate for all US digital display advertising. What are your thoughts on this?

Programmatic advertising is an example of technology making a process more efficient.  It is no surprise that dollars will move to where they can literally get the most “bang for the buck.” One big advantage is the ability to adjust in real-time based on audience behaviors. This is the power of digital – but also the reason why adoption hasn’t been more pervasive to this point.

Agency models are predicated on a “waterfall” approach to media planning that involves some element of audience research, planning a campaign across many vendors (ad networks helped alleviate some of this pain), execution, gathering results, and hoping you get it right.  A programmatic approach should rely more on iterating quickly until the right performance metrics are reached. To date, programmatic has really only served as an efficient way to spend money and adjust budgets. This works due to the standardization of the transaction.  But in that standardization the constraints increased and what remained were the most basic IAB experiences.

So targeting dramatically improved, but we’ve taken a few steps back on the types of experiences you can deliver due to the barriers of having a common message format.  This is why programmatic is great for “bottom of the funnel” type advertising and why you also see “native” advertising techniques being the go-to for “top of the funnel” brand advertising campaigns.  Or you see those brand dollars going to where agencies are most comfortable, the digital equivalent of TV buying – video.  Now that bandwidth and video technology are so accessible there is a tremendous shift of dollars going toward that format.  Not because it is the most effective – but because that’s where the agencies are most comfortable using the same model that has been used in the past.


Do you think there will ever be a point where publisher direct ad buying, or buying from specialized ad networks will go away? In the not too distant future, where do you see this ratio falling between publisher direct buying, ad networks, and programmatic? (eg. 40% pub direct, 20% ad networks, 40% self-service programmatic)

The industry and technology change too fast to predict something like that. We are in a constant state of evolution. I think we will see a new generation of ad networks whose value is in curation of audience/content.  As long as there are many choices for where to capture attention there will be some need to rely on curation. Networks of publishers who have a lot of attention and can marry the targeting with effective native messaging capabilities will be your new ad networks.


Have you had the opportunity to run a private marketplace deal, and what was your experience with it?

We have had the experience on both the buying and the selling side.  The challenges on the buying side boiled down to technical issues around our ad formats not being simple flat banners.  On the selling side, in large part agencies still want to buy on a CPM basis (which is contrary to our accountable offering) and essentially cherry pick a specific audience through a private deal.

This ends up not driving meaningful volume. While the private marketplace helps to reconcile some of the challenges of open exchange buying (primarily consistent access and quality control of inventory), there is still a need for relationship management within the PMP to ensure there is clarity on buyer goals for the deals to be set up for success.  In some ways this is just the new ad network, where instead of having a tag directly in a publisher’s ad server, there is more real-time and efficient transactions.


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

Archaic buying models, lack of value transferred to publishers, and massive consolidation of attention onto a handful of platforms (Facebook, Google).


The last few years have been a huge rally for optimizing performance, targeting, data, and tracking. However, there has not been as much of a focus on the creativity is needed in advertising, to give that consumer desire which will ultimately drive a purchase. Why do you think creativity is so important in media, and how do you think marketers can best think about their creative assets in advertising?

This seems to be a pendulum swing. 2009-2012 was all about the dollars going to rich media where it was all about creativity of message.  Since then, the focus was all about targeting (using data to optimize performance).  But we can’t forget, creativity is crucial in media because that is how you differentiate and capture attention. If you have the correct audience but no impact then your marketing has failed.  These days you must have it all – high quality, high impact creative in the right places.


It was reported by AdExchanger in February of this year that impression volume on AppNexus fell by over 90% after fraud was removed from their exchange. What is your opinion on the fraud that exists on open exchanges, and how can one mitigate buying these impressions?

It was an issue that should have been addressed sooner – and just blew up.  Advertisers pulled out demand due to unchecked fraud, so legit publishers took out supply because they saw rates drop. Then when supply dropped, rates increased which made advertisers take out more demand. We are always going to have to deal with fraud – and it’s a matter of mitigating risk. This is why you see such an intense focus on concepts like viewability and verification.

We have always seen – and faced – this challenge and have avoided many of the pitfalls because of our accountable pricing model (CPE) which forces us to look in detail at the data.  When you’re looking at just three data points (rate, impression, click), you  are severely limited in your ability to make an accurate assessment. By partnering with DoubleVerify and IAS, AppNexus essentially added more data points to the equation to help expose the fraudsters.  Those who don’t have advanced data mechanisms must try to partner with someone to mitigate risk.  In short, look at the data and if it’s too good to be true – it probably is.


Mobile CPMs have been known to be notoriously low, especially for traditional web publishers. Is this actually the case, and what do you think the reasons are for this?

Yes they are due to the lack of ad formats that demonstrate good performance. When you start being able to demonstrate that the mobile format is as good as a desktop format then you will see the rates start to climb.  The rate at which mobile supply is increasing has outpaced the innovation of ad formats so the demand simply isn’t there to match the amount of inventory available, thus resulting in low rates.


What are some innovations happening in digital or mobile advertising today that excite you the most?

The innovation in tracking emotional data and facial expressions of ad viewers is super interesting. Equally interesting are the technological advances in keeping track of users as they move from one device to another.


Lastly, what is your take on the future for independent publishers and ad networks?

As always, there are challenges to be faced – but a ton of opportunity to be had. Independent publishers will continue to face lack of value given to them by advertisers/agencies and struggle to add value to an advertiser who is essentially self-serving through programmatic. They’ll be at risk of losing their voice and their audience to a few big players (Facebook, Google) and seeing the dollars go there too.

Ad networks won’t disappear, but will certainly evolve – simply because there is power in numbers.  Sharing technology and tools and consolidating infrastructure means more time and resources can be spent creating amazing content and connecting with an audience. That’s why we made Tempest– because at the end of the day, isn’t that what digital publishing is supposed to be all about?



At Say Media we build digital magazines, we develop state-of-the-art technology, and we partner with advertisers. Our unique ecosystem for brands engages audiences and provides exceptional reader experiences.

We own and partner with a portfolio of influential digital magazines, including xoJane, xoVain, Fashionista, Gear Patrol, Remodelista, Honestly…WTF, Not Impossible Now, ReadWrite, LifetimeMoms, and Bio. They each have compelling, quality content and readerships that were organically grown, making them real, devoted, and hyper-engaged.

Tempest is our next-generation publishing platform that caters to the needs of storytellers, marketers, and readers. With features like editor-friendly smart layouts, premium advertising experiences like Adaptive Ads [link to Adaptive description], and device-agnostic article pages, Tempest creates quality editorial experiences focused on driving engagement rather than inflating pageviews.

We work with marketers to create authentic campaigns that are aligned with editorial and designed to captivate readers. Our accountable pricing models guarantee that advertisers are only charged for real consumer engagement. And we do this at scale—between our portfolio and our extended network of high-quality lifestyle sites, Say Media reaches 400 million people worldwide.


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