Digital Agencies & Blockchain: A POV From IMM’s Fred Askham

MetaX caught up with Fred Askham, Director of Analytics at Ideas Made Measurable (IMM), to gain an agency’s perspective on the importance of data and how it relates to the potentials of blockchain to better service advertisers.

Askham’s team is responsible for managing the company’s data ingestion, automating reporting and media intelligence (MI) insights, structuring data generation processes, conducting quantitative research for clients, and pushing forward the R&D of proprietary data products.

Fred Askham — Director of Analytics at Ideas Made Measurable

We’re lucky to have IMM participate in the upcoming Blockchain & Advertisers panel during our Blockchain Bootcamp in New York on September 27th. Go here to request an invite.

According to the IMM’s website you work, “to provide operational insight and wisdom from some very large and complicated data sets.” What is your biggest challenge when it comes to dealing with large data sets?

So let me start off by saying that isn’t the size of the data that is typically an issue. Dealing with large volumes of data is not all that difficult. The technology for conducting analysis on enormous datasets already exists in market. With the appropriate hardware and production environment it’s possible to process TB of information in relatively short timeframes and run machine learning algorithms across scaled parallelized infrastructure to return results in real time. That is even more so the case now as cloud computing continues to emerge as essentially an infinitely scalable way of implementing production level processes.

And I think that speaks to a misconception of the data science profession by businesses, which can be summarized by the fallacy that simply increasing the size of a data set makes it more useful or somehow allows additional insights. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll never turn down extra degrees of freedom in a model, but the idea that adding an additional million rows to a data set suddenly makes it more useful is absurd.

The primary issue that I’ve seen businesses face with data is that they have an enormous amount of data which is structured very poorly or which isn’t measuring what they need it to, and that keeps them from being able to leverage it in meaningful ways. Let me caveat here that this isn’t an issue with complex data structures, those are fine, it is convoluted, poorly generated data structures that are holding back businesses from being able to pull actionable and meaningful insights from the data, regardless of the size of the data set.

At IMM we believe in the power of analysis to drive business results. Our teams see that from the results of our media analytics every day, and that is why we have robust data generation procedures for the media data we generate as an agency. It’s also why when we consult with clients on setting up BI, one of the most important conversations we have is around building and/ or cleaning up the data generation processes. In other words, make the data useful and accurate above making it “big.” From there the possibilities for generating value start to become clear.

IMM prides itself on using the latest tools to gain insights and analytics to maximize media planning. Why is data so important to IMM?

Well I think the key here is that we see that data has value because it is a means to an end. Our goal as an agency is to drive return on the ad spend we put in market for our clients. And to accomplish that, and drive the best results that we can, it is critical for us to have a nuanced and deep understanding of the markets we are buying in and the consumers who are buying our clients’ products. We do that with proprietary data systems we have in place to measure the incremental sales lift of media, retrieve deep customer audience profiling data from media buys, test creative performance at large scales, and optimize programmatic bidding, but the enriched data we generate can be used by our clients outside of media as well. And the results really speak for themselves.

To put it another way, data is valuable when it has a purpose. And IMM believes that the purpose of that data is to further optimize our campaigns and add value for our clients, which is why we take data so seriously.

P&G made major news headlines recently by announcing their intent to pull 2 billion dollars from their digital advertising budget, included in that figure is 500 million dollars from agency fees. Do you think P&G is making the right decision? And how is IMM responding to brands who want to follow P&G’s “cut and run” example?

Time will tell on P&G’s decision. I don’t know what their sales numbers look like pre & post, but I would assume they are smart enough to know that if they saw a significant decrease in sales after pulling digital media, they would reinvest. Given what I know about their business being very CPG-focused, I’m honestly not all that surprised that they didn’t see a short terms sales drop. The real question will be: did digital have enough of a branding effect that they will start to see sales decay in the coming months? Marketing for a family of brands like that is typically a pretty long-term investment in brand image and status. So we’ll see.

In terms of how IMM is responding, one of P&G’s major issues with digital media was a lack of transparency. We encourage that thinking and make certain to provide the most accurate and effective metrics possible, in real time, so that our clients have all the information they need to make smart decisions. Given this, I don’t see us changing our long term game plan. That said, we are always challenging each other to find innovative partners like MetaX to help us better measure the quality of media delivery and provide deeper levels of transparency and insight into our media effectiveness.

The blockchain is a universal database where transactions are publicly recorded. Here at MetaX we created a blockchain protocol called adChain to provide more transparency and trust for digital advertising. What is your opinion about blockchain technology in general? And what role do you think it will play in the future for digital advertising?

It’s pretty apparent to me that blockchain is a burgeoning technology at this point and that it is simply a matter of time before it is more widely used throughout many industries. That is pretty well exhibited in the recent trends in states like Vermont and Arizona passing legislation to make the smart contracts associated with certain blockchain protocols like Ethereum legally binding.

In terms of blockchain technologies affecting the digital advertising industry in the future, I think we will see two main transitions. The most immediate change will likely be in the way that direct-to-publisher buying and contracts are purchased by agencies. We will begin to see agencies place direct-to-publisher insertion orders through smart contracts and smart contract markets like NYIAX, the New York Interactive Advertising Exchange, which is a marketplace being set up by NASDAQ. The second area of impact that I really see blockchain affecting is the monitoring of programmatic inventory supply chains and providing transparency into the supply side of the digital space. As more and more digital advertising budget moves to RTB and programmatic buying environments, I foresee blockchain applications developing to provide more transparency into the supply chain of markets.

Outside of those two major changes, in the short term, the application of smart contracts will certainly help agencies and brands ensure that they aren’t paying up front for ad waste from fraudulent inventory and non-viewable inventory, while also eliminating what can be a lengthy insertion order enforcement process.

If you could apply blockchain technology to solve any one specific pain point that you face in your day to day operations at IMM what would it be?

As I was saying before, just using smart contracts to eliminate the process of insertion order enforcement from vendors who delivered some portion of fraudulent inventory would be a significant win for us. We have campaigns where we are running two or three programmatic buys and 10–20 direct-to-pub purchases, so you can imagine that managing all of those relationships and making sure that the appropriate clawbacks are delivered would be an extremely helpful operational efficiency for us.

In the near term, initiatives like ads.txt, put forth by the IAB Tech Lab, are designed to root out much of the fraudulent inventory that currently hides throughout the programmatic landscape. What are your thoughts on ads.txt and the issues it’s trying to solve?

Ads.txt is a step in the right direction. The IAB is implementing standards to help make domain spoofed fraudulent ad inventory more difficult sell, which is a good thing. I do think it is a little naive to believe that this is some sort of silver bullet for eliminating ad fraud though.

If we think of domain spoofing in the context of a counterfeiting effort, and then we look at the level of protection put in place by an organization like the US mint — which has an extensive background in anti-counterfeiting efforts — we have to realize that even their best efforts haven’t eliminated all counterfeiting of the US dollar. So do I expect the IAB Tech Labs ads.txt to be 100% effective? Of course not. However, I do applaud the effort and think that it will make a reasonable dent into the domain spoofing fraud in the digital inventory market.

It is pretty well acknowledged that digital ad fraud is a diverse and complex problem with many avenues, so it is critical for us to remember that to fully address the problem of domain spoofing and other ways of creating fraudulent ad inventory, the industry will need to develop a series of tools and countermeasures that attack different aspects of the problem and begin to adopt them all in tandem. In terms of what those tools are, some of them are technology-based, and some are just better standard business practices for agencies and media buying groups. I see space for technologies like Blockchain and ads.txt in that mix. I see space for continued development of more rigorous industry standards in that mix. I see space for more stringent legal contracts and more regular audits between agencies and suppliers in that mix.

To close it out, as a data-driven agency, we are encouraged to see brands, like P&G, demanding transparency while companies, like MetaX, work to address the fraud side of the equation. We will only see the interest in reliable, smartly utilized data continue to grow as brands see more value from data driven insights and emerging technologies.

There is a lot of opportunity for data driven agencies and companies offering unique and valid measurement technologies right now, and I see P&G’s recent moves as an acknowledgement of that fact and a condemnation of the old world set and forget, accountable to only quarterly reviews, style of advertising. It’s an exciting time to work in the industry as a data scientist, to say the least.