Ad Nets Find Q1 Less Horrific Than Expected

NEW YORK So far, the first months of 2009 aren’t looking as dire as once predicted for the online ad market, according to buyers and sellers. However, many report that business has slowed down, resulting in intensifying pressure on pricing, particularly in the ad networks space.

But the abysmal first quarter that many anticipated-one in which shell-shocked clients either delayed all decision making or went into budget-slashing mode-hasn’t happened, said many industry insiders.

“I was one of the people that thought Q1 would be disastrous, but so far it’s not that bad,” said Jim Spanfeller, president and CEO of While Spanfeller said that business wasn’t exactly going gangbusters, “things have been OK. It’s not the nuclear winter we feared.”

That’s not to say there’s no uncertainty. “What’s different about this year versus last is that we had a lot more knowledge about what was going to happen the rest of the year. Instead, this year many brands are unable to plan long term,” said David Rittenhouse, media director, Neo@Ogilvy. “Let’s plan 2009 is gone,” echoed Mark Kahn, CEO, Traffiq, a company that acts as a go-between for midsize publishers and buyers. “Now, it’s mid-January, and buyers are saying, ‘Let’s plan February.'”

Depending on whom you talk to, the ad nets are having a rougher time than most. Last week, eMarketer cited a recent report issued by PubMatic (a company that helps facilitate various publishers’ relationships with ad networks) that found ad pricing for small, medium and large sites had plummeted in the fourth quarter by 52, 23 and 54 percent year over year, respectively, and that average CPMs for display ads had dropped to just 26 cents. According to PubMatic’s co-founder and general manager Rajeev Goel, the trend has continued. “January has been pretty light,” he said. “What we are hearing from publishers is that they really hope things pick up in February and March.”

Many in the ad network space dispute PubMatic’s data, questioning its methodology, sample size and lack of transparency. But Microsoft’s Rapt, an online advertising inventory management firm that also has insight into pricing trends, backed PubMatic’s findings.

Rapt co-founder Tom Chavez, who’s now gm, Advertiser & Publisher Solutions, Microsoft, said pricing for remnant inventory (the specialty of many ad networks) is down by as much as 30 percent this year, while more premium inventory is down roughly 10 percent.

However, execs at some of the larger ad networks back up Spanfeller’s remarks-that so far Q1 could be a lot worse. “I don’t think anyone is going to blow their numbers out of the water,” said John Ardis, vp, corporate strategy, ValueClick. “But what I’m hearing is that things are more promising than [what’s been reported].” Michael Cassidy, CEO of Undertone Networks, acknowledged that while some clients are being more aggressive in negotiations, “I haven’t seen a huge dip in pricing.”

According to Cassidy, some networks that rely solely on low-cost, performance-based ads may have seen conversion rates take a dive in Q4. Consumers reeled in their holiday shopping, which led ad nets to increase inventory outputs, diluting pricing. Plus, a quiet January is normal. “It’s slow, but [January] was slow in ’08 and ’07,” said Cassidy. “It’s not any worse than usual.”

One segment of the ad network world that is weathering the economy is online video. Jason Glickman, CEO of the online video network Tremor Media, claims that money continues to flow to his company out of TV. “We actually think Q1 is going to be better than projected,” he said.