TV’s New Data Recruits Don’t Do Suits

Engineers and scientists, wooed by media’s possibilities, are recalibrating the $70 billion television advertising business
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Related: The Predictive Engine That Could

When Donna Speciale, president of advertising sales for Turner Broadcasting, walks into client meetings these days, she is flanked by a new set of fresh faces in addition to the usual brand managers and agency account teams—data scientists.

Clients have them, and networks are hiring them. And television advertising’s new layer is changing the way time is being sold.

Turner already had people dealing with data, but they’d mostly operated behind the scenes. “Now, obviously, they have a seat at the table, up front and center. And now we just need more of them,” Speciale says. One recent high-visibility hire: Stephano Kim, who joined Turner a year ago as chief data strategy officer after stints at digital companies such as AOL and Rocket Fuel. He’s working on the algorithms behind Data Cloud products for advertisers such as TargetingNow and AudienceNow.

Similarly, Viacom last year brought in Bryson Gordon from Microsoft as senior VP of data strategy, working on Vantage, one of the products Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman is telling investors will boost ad revenues even as traditional ratings dive.

These moves are occurring against a backdrop of anxiety and transition in traditional TV. Turner, Viacom, NBCUniversal, ESPN and other giants—not coincidentally, a bigger presence than ever at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—are rolling out their own bespoke data systems designed to identify and package audiences for advertisers. Turner is even looking to patent its own system for predicting what targeted consumers will be watching.

All of the sweeping remodeling is happening as Nielsen and its new aggregated rival, comScore-Rentrak, are trying to create more effective ways to count viewers who are taking advantage of digital technology to watch what they want, when they want on computers, tablets and smartphones. Amid that rapid viewing shift, the $70 billion TV advertising bundle is under attack from pure digital competitors. These outlets tout their ability to leverage technology to tell marketers exactly who is watching their ads and which of them chose to find out more information or actually buy a product. The momentum swing is such that some agencies even predict that digital advertising will eclipse TV advertising this year.

And yet, some marketers are also finding that digital advertising just isn’t the same as TV. It hasn’t the same reach or marketing muscle, and it comes with unforeseen problems such as fraud created by robot viewers and the fact that some advertisers are getting charged full price for ads as small as one pixel that run for one second, thanks to the menace known as viewability.

Increasing a Net’s Net

Out now networks are fighting back. TV advertising has been sold the same way for years—based on overly broad age and sex demographics such as women or men 18-49. TV advertisers are embracing that same digital technology to drill down into their own mass audiences in ways they never could before using data science. They are taking data from Nielsen, adding in information on consumers—from car registrations to credit card receipts to loyalty card check-ins—to create powerful new metrics that show marketers that commercials are still crucial to selling products.

That data’s being used to build TV ad campaigns that should be more effective and efficient.

In a report last week, Credit Suisse analyst Sheikh Omar said he expects this year there will be “greater traction for targeted TV advertising products, including NBCUniversal’s Audience Targeting Platform, Viacom Vantage and Turner’s Data Cloud, highlighting how powerful ‘enhanced’ TV advertising can be.”

With data becoming as important to selling TV advertising as Ben Benson’s steaks used to be, sales departments need people with skill such as fusing data sets and creating algorithms.

They’re coming in from outside the industry and even people who have been in business for years are listening to them and starting to do things in new ways.

“I think there’s a lot of things that were true for a very long time that are being reassessed in terms of what is the truth behind currencies, what is the truth behind how we evolve our ability to utilize linear, how do we interact with multiple platforms and how do we accelerate all of these organizations using data as a foundation to have a more nuanced conversation with our consumer, our viewers,” says Vikram Somaya, senior VP, global data officer at ESPN. Before working at ESPN, Somaya was general manager of adFX and analytics at The Weather Company, and worked at ad tech companies including Omniture.

Meeting Expectations

One example of how these new guys are having an impact comes from Viacom’s Gordon, who describes what he calls a “data recipe meeting.”

Viacom’s data guys get together with their counterparts at the advertiser and its media agency “to understand how we can define who their target is and find them within our content,” says Gordon. “We have a lot of levers that we can pull to help an advertiser go and reach their custom target.”

These days those meeting are attracting curious media buyers and brand managers. “If you’re a product manager, you are typically the person who has worked with the data team to define who the target segment is and now they’re able to actually bring that work to bear on the media plan, and that’s why there’s a lot of excitement around this,” Gordon says.

The excitement comes because TV is finally participating in what Gordon calls an evolution in marketing science. “Over the last 10 years, digital has actually forced a rapid evolution in the sophistication with which you can target and attribute media,” he says. “And what has happened more recently, and what is compelling about what we’re doing here with Vantage, is that level of sophistication around digital targeting and attribution [that exists] for frankly the first time ever, you can actually apply that to premium content and the scale of TV.”

Vantage does that by taking viewing data from multiple sources and matching them with other types of data, including sales data, that Gordon says couldn’t be matched before. This allows a custom audience segment to be created.

“Once we do that we have the ability to essentially deploy an optimized media plan that, down to the atomic level of the ad units, will show them the precise set of ads that are going to significantly over-index on their custom target vs. a broad, demo-based target like adults 18-49,” he says.

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Clients who sign up with Vantage have the ability to buy what Viacom calls “in-target impressions.” They have access to all of Viacom’s inventory, which means “we are going to create a media plan that essentially creates the best version of Viacom for an advertiser,” Gordon says. “And we don’t really stop there. What we then do is we run [an] optimization every two weeks.”

Does it work? Gordon says the pilot customers for Viacom Vantage all came back for more. And Viacom CEO Dauman has told investor groups that 11 of the largest advertisers in the U.S. have adopted Vantage and that he expects that to triple by the 2016 upfront.

Safety in (More) Numbers

Those results mean more work for the data people.

“We started off with a small team of data scientists last year. I could count them on one hand,” says Turner’s Kim. “And what we’ve done is tripled, quadrupled that team over the past year.”

Turner’s data team has put together innovations including AudienceNow, an audience-based selling product that uses an in-house predictive modeling tool to find the best schedule for a brand’s target audience.

Kim says Turner’s data engineers are working on not only decision-data models for ad sales but they’re thinking about “how do we better target our own marketing for tune-in for audience development. They’re thinking about how do we optimize programming and the scheduling of programming to make sure that we’re targeting the right content to end users.”

Where do those data people come from? “We’re looking for folks with relevant experience who have managed or worked within data programs perhaps on the digital side and we can train them on the television and the linear side as well,” says Kim.

That approach is limited because “at the end of the day the universe of people who understand the media business, digital and linear, and have a keen understanding of how these transactions are done and how the optimization and ‘decisioning’—yes, a common ad-tech term—data modeling backgrounds, there aren’t a ton of them,” Kim says.

So Turner is also trying a Silicon Valley approach, seeking the best and the brightest from grad schools, Kim says. He is finding that the media business is an attractive one for people with a data background.

“I’ve been a person who’s always been attracted to businesses in transformation,” says Gordon.

“Media is an industry that’s undergoing a period of hyper-transformation and again data is going be at the center of essentially monetizing content and thinking about the new modalities through which you can target, attribute and drive incremental value when you deliver to your advertisers. And that’s fascinating,” Gordon says. “Frankly, being able to do that at Viacom, it’s awesome because Viacom is a place that has been producing iconic content since I was a kid.”

Kim says he’s worked in a variety of media, from digital and direct mail to outdoor, before coming to linear television. “I think what’s interesting is once you understand the intricacies of the television business, there’s a lot of applicability of other areas of data science and marketing analytics from other channels that you can draw upon.”

And though the TV business can be tradition-bound, he feels like it’s open to data. He says he’s getting questions like, where do I go from here and how do I do that? “Those are all good questions because it means that they’ve accepted the premise of, I do want data-driven decision-making,” Kim says.

Data Base

Similarly, ESPN’s Somaya says he’s always been interested in the confluence of data, advertising and marketing. “TV is not so esoteric that you can’t learn and understand it, as long as you’re willing to wipe the slate a little bit and not be held prisoner by the bondage of what it has been historically,” he says.

Somaya adds that many of the data people coming into the TV business don’t have media or media buying backgrounds. “They came from ad technology or straight technology and because of that are able to look at the same problem and perhaps come at it with a slightly different point of view.”

Data is not a fad, Somaya insists.

“Do I think everyone should be doing it? Yes. Do I think everyone will succeed? No.”

Somaya says stronger networks such as ESPN have a point of view and a stronger story to tell. “I think we have a better chance to find data to validate that story, prove it and create a better sense of synergy with marketers,” he says.

Weaker networks need to employ data as well but that will only slow their decline. It’s not a magic bullet.

“We speak to other people on the supply side of the business or on the marketers’ side of the business and there’s a consensus that in many ways this is the way they’re thinking about operating going forward,” Somaya says. “And the marketers are looking for a lower number of partners from whom they can get more programs. That means that not everybody is going to make the cut.”

Related: The Predictive Engine That Could

When Donna Speciale, president of advertising sales for Turner Broadcasting, walks into client meetings these days, she is flanked by a new set of fresh faces in addition to the usual brand managers and agency account teams—data scientists.

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