Microsoft’s evangelists readying for new programmatic offering

November 20, 2013  |  Jeff Fraser  |  Comments

Microsoft Canada sees two ways forward for digital advertising: programmatic for scale, and custom content for message. To innovate in both these directions, Microsoft has spent the last year putting together a Canadian creative advertising solutions team to liaise with media agencies and AORs and help advertisers find the best way to activate digital opportunities.

The team, led by head of creative solutions Robert Jenkyn, includes evangelists and experts on digital strategy, programmatic targeting, and Xbox marketing. They recently announced the addition of  Chris Walton (a 2012 Marketing 30 Under Thirty pick) and Valerie Whiffen (who together won the Globe and Mail’s Canadian Young Lions competition last year for their work at Media Experts on a digital campaign for YMCA). Jenkyn also comes from Media Experts, where he was senior vice-president, digital solutions for seven years.

“As media buying evolves, it’s clear that the opportunities are splitting into two streams — there’s programmatic, which is more machine-driven, and the highly customized content integration,” said Jenkyn. The creative solutions team is purpose-built to meet at the intersection of those two streams, he said, and has been so successful that Microsoft branches in other international markets are looking to the Canadian setup as example.

To develop its programmatic offering, Microsoft plans to launch sequential cross-platform targeting in January that it says will allow advertisers to control the frequency and order of messaging a consumer receives across Microsoft platforms, including MSN, Outlook Mail, Windows 8, Windows Phone, Skype and Xbox. If it lives up to the hype, sequential targeting would mean access to multiple well-defined touch points along the consumer journey, from ideating at home to browsing online stores to shopping in brick-and-mortar on a mobile device.

Cross-platform frequency capping, while less novel, has become a concern for programmatic buyers who are ultimately targeting their audience too well, and end up unintentionally inundating consumers with a constant stream of ads. Making sure each consumer receives the optimal amount of messaging means tracking individuals across platforms, something that (so far) only big technology companies with direct access to a variety of consumer channels (i.e. Google and Microsoft) have been able to promise.

Microsoft has also recently announced plans for “programmatic direct” advertising, which combines the strengths of programmatic optimization with the exclusive human relationships of direct sales. Programmatic direct will let Microsoft buyers interface directly with its ad servers, smoothing out the programmatic process and enabling them to buy inventory at negotiated bulk-prices without bidding against others on an open exchange. Yahoo and AOL have also moved in this direction, with AOL leading the charge at its first programmatic upfront earlier this fall.

The major advantage of direct programmatic is the quality of inventory compared to what’s available on the exchanges. Buyers will have access to direct sales ad placements, but will be able to target using programmatic means. “It’s not remnant inventory, it’s all our inventory,” said Jenkyn.

On the custom content side, Jenkyn’s team works with agencies to develop campaigns on Microsoft’s media platforms. Corona’s Mas Fina, for example, was heavily marketed through Xbox and MSN. Microsoft was also a big partner in Amway Canada’s shift to pure online advertising, which saw them promote custom content through MSN’s lifestyle channels and Skype.

Jenkyn said developing the creative solutions team is part of Microsoft’s effort to position itself as a premium digital media provider. In addition to hiring evangelists, Microsoft has spent much of the last year redesigning its offerings to have fewer, but more engaging ads. “[Microsoft is] creating more of a premium brand canvas,” Jenkyn said. “That’s not without sacrifices. We’ve restructured Hotmail and released Outlook, which has one advertiser per page, one ad unit that’s highly customized. We’re trying to create more native and relevant experiences for the user.”

Advertisers are especially excited about premium marketing opportunities on the new Xbox One, which debuts this Friday — but they’ll have to wait for details. Microsoft has declined to give information or interviews about ads on the Xbox One, explaining that they want to keep the focus on consumer experience.

Ostensibly, the company doesn’t want Xbox gamers to see the console as an ad platform — a perception that stirred controversy last month after Microsoft’s vp marketing and strategy spoke about the company’s plans for cross-platform marketing and data sharing.

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