The ‘Programmatic Endgame’ Is Coming, Says Luma Partners’ Terence Kawaja

Ad tech’s top investment banker on 5 market segments driving future M&A deals

Image of Terence Kawaja with Big Tech CEOs in red background
Luma Partners CEO Terence Kawaja kicked off the third day of Adweek’s NexTech 2020 Virtual Summit. Adweek

Away from the much-anticipated Big Tech antitrust hearings earlier this week, Luma Partners founder and CEO Terence Kawaja simultaneously delivered his presentation for Adweek’s NexTech 2020 Virtual Summit. 

“You all have choices,” he began. “You all could be live-watching the four top tech CEOs spew their PR excuses—ahem, I’m sorry.” 

Kawaja, ad tech’s top investment banker and self-styled funnyman, kicked off the third day of the NexTech summit with a lively talk on M&A during Covid-19 and a potential impending wave of industry consolidation.

Even as advertisers pull back on some fronts, projections for overall digital ad spend have remained surprisingly resilient, pointing to steady growth over the next few years. As such, shares in listed ad-tech and mar-tech companies have surged in recent months. At the same time, though, ad-tech dealmaking has remained subdued during the pandemic. Moreover, as Kawaja noted, those that have gone through have tended to be “legacy deals that were in the pipeline pre-Covid.”

Such split fortunes—with shares up but deals down—could reflect a short-term lack of confidence amid longer-term optimism about ad tech. Kawaja anticipates confidence will pick back up toward the end of 2020. “Based on our pipeline and what we’re seeing in the marketplace, buyers are back in and looking for deals,” he said.

But where will this renewed wave of tie-ups come from? Kawaja singled out five market segments he sees as driving future deals: connected TV, identity, mobile apps, audio, and what he termed “programmatic endgame consolidation.”

To explain the last of these five, Kawaja cut industry growth into three generic phases: new formation, maturity, plus rationalization and consolidation. At first, pioneer companies experiment with commercializing new ideas. As profit opportunities become clearer, competitors crowd in. Lastly, a few triumphant companies either buy or force out the competition with superior practices and products.

For ad tech, however, the entire process is “on steroids,” he said. Backed by venture capital and easy market entry, thousands of companies initially flooded into ad tech, with early successes, fueling a rush of IPOs. But by 2015, the industry was in consolidation mode. “We’ve been on that rationalization push for the last five years,” said Kawaja.

He sees one last phase—an endgame—of consolidation due soon, accelerated by the pandemic. If Kawaja’s prediction holds, it would come after a multimonth lull in deals. Following that with an M&A sprint is likely to leave the industry with some welcome whiplash.

Ethan Wu is an intern on Adweek’s media team. He is also a rising senior studying economics at Cornell University.