Ashwini Gangal

"Why's a video of a cat on a skateboard not 'premium'?": Sameer Singh, CEO, GroupM South Asia

As GroupM's Sameer Singh moves to ByteDance, we bring you a quick throwback to his recent vdonxt asia interview. Watch the session here. Or read on for highlights.

At vdonxt asia (3rd edition), our recently concluded convention on the business of online video, Sameer Singh, CEO, South Asia, GroupM, answered a few questions about the marketer's hopes -and more importantly, worries- in the context of digital video advertising, a rather imperfect universe.

Now on the media buying side of the table, Sam, as he is fondly known in the industry, has spent a significant chunk of his career on the advertiser (P&G, GSK) and platform (Google) sides as well.

"Why's a video of a cat on a skateboard not 'premium'?": Sameer Singh, CEO, GroupM South Asia

Sameer Singh

"With the scale that's coming into this space (digital video advertising) and the amount of money that's moving here, it's not a hobby anymore; this is serious business," said Sam, right at the outset of the conversation. Add to that the fact that things on digital video are not as structured as they are on television. It's a challenging space to be in for brands and their "agents".

P&G's chief brand officer Marc Pritchard has been going blue in the face for several months demanding more transparency in the automated online marketplace for advertising inventory. Sam brought it up too.

"What Marc's been talking about is a supply chain problem. Like any other supply chain, it must product materials (such that) people know what they are getting, it should be relatively transparent, there should be some amount of standardisation so that you can plan accordingly... and what you forecast and pay for should be, by and large, what you get at the end of the day. In a nutshell, it is no different from any other supply chain that has its own challenges..." he said.

He went on to say, "In TV, you could have one to three big ideas and your entire network -not just channel- could be working at speed. In the OTT space, you need a lot more ideas. The corresponding problem on the client's side is - every time you move 10 crore from TV into digital, the amount of human time you need to spend creating and curating content starts going up exponentially."

Therefore, one of the big "asks" in this context is creative format standardisation. Sure enough, television advertising has the 30-second TVC. What's it for digital video advertising? At the moment there are one too many formats -most are classified by duration, yes- and no one format is more promising than the next. The onus, per Sam, to standarside digital video ad formats, lies on the "supply side". It will involve "training the ecosystem" and "partnering with creative agencies", before it eventually starts impacting sales volumes.

"What if 30-40 years ago TV channels made ad units basis the content they aired? That model didn't work..." asked Sam, giving us a hypothetical analogy to better understand the need for ad unit standardisation in the digital video world, something that will help professionals on the content and the advertising front - it'll give them clearer rules of engagement, help churn good content more frequently, people can look at content before it is put onto digital media, and they'll be able to predict whether it will work.

When asked what Indian marketers make of Pritchard's suggestion that marketers ought to 'take back control' of their digital advertising (slashing online spends? going to publishers directly?), Sam said it really comes back to having more transparency in the supply chain, having a very good understanding of how the chain works, knowing what one is paying for, knowing whether you're getting what you're paying for and being able to forecast the impact one's online advertising will have on the business.

"When I decide to put in a certain amount of money, not only am I looking at media metrics of optimisation, but as the media buyer at the agency or as the media leader at the client's end or as a brand leader, I am telling the rest of the organisation that I will deliver the sales volumes that I started to plan for in the first place... and one of the biggest drivers of that is predictability," he said. Which means being able to answer questions like 'Am I being able to plan and predict what I will get?' before the campaign and 'Can I measure what I got out of the effort?' at the end of the campaign.

And of course, towards the end of the discussion bots came up. Another question marketers have been asking of late, given the rise of ad fraud, is: 'Am I paying for human beings at the other end who are seeing my ad?' "So there is a fiduciary risk that you carry," said Sam, in this regard.

There's also a "brand risk"; marketers want to know whether their content (the ad) is going to be shown in an appropriate context. "In the case of television -and sometimes print- it's relatively easy because you know what the content (that your ad appears within) is. You can see what's being telecast. All viewers are seeing the same thing. But that's not true of digital at all," he said.

He also spoke about the legal risk marketers face; they have to ask themselves questions like: 'Are the targeting systems legally compliant from a privacy point of view?' "These complexities come in from the buying perspective. Then there's the post-delivery side and its impact on sales. At the end of the day, in a market like India, video content and buying on video is more expensive than buying on television. Had this been a world in which a view on television was more expensive than a view on digital video, this conversation would not be happening, except for the fraud and viewability part of it..." said Sam.

About programmatic buying and real-time bidding for online ad inventory, he said, "It's the future, but at this point in time, specifically on video, I'm not sure it's a big play outside of the walled gardens. Ground zero for programmatic today is display advertising."

Finally, I asked him whether marketers worry about the lack of premium content to place their ads in, seeing as how more and more such content is being put behind pay walls. This has a great deal to do with the way marketers classify all the content that's out there presently.

"As content and eyeballs move behind the pay wall, the way for brands to engage is through branded entertainment and branded integration into the content itself," fielded Sam. However, he did question the meaning of 'premium' (for definitions, read this).

Sam's own definition of premium is: If a consumer is leaning into the content, is highly engaged, and if the content around the ad is "brand safe", that's premium.

Thus goes his argument: Who's to say a video of a cat on a skateboard is not 'premium'?

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