The mechanics of buying display ads increasingly functions like search marketing, especially for direct response advertisers. That's thanks in large part to real-time bidding on ad exchanges and networks, which lets media buyers identify and retarget site visitors with offers that pick up where a site visitor left off.
Retargeting specialist Criteo is among the firms supporting the alignment of display and search ad buying. With a new tweak to its platform, the company is going a step further, allowing marketers to adjust multiple CPC bids to match the margins and goals for specific product categories - just as they've gotten used to doing in Google AdWords.
Using the capability, Criteo says its retail clients can optimize campaigns based on the cost of sales in various product categories. In the case of Zappos.com, one of the company's largest U.S. customers, that might mean setting different optimal bid prices for boots, backpacks, and watches.
Golf gear retailer Golfsmith International has been a Criteo customer for just two weeks, having previously used Dotomi for retargeting. But Dillon Smith, e-marketing and social media manager, looks forward to category-level bidding.
"We operate on a monthly budget, so if we can allocate spending to [more lucrative] products that's a good thing," Smith said.
Criteo VP of Marketing Karen Dayan said marketers like Smith are focused on the potential of self-serve. "Advertisers are much more open to adjusting CPC when they can do it online using a tool," she said.
Additionally, she noted advertisers can now use Criteo to create campaigns with customized CPCs based on whether prospects are cold or hot; whether they are first-time or repeat buyers; or whether they will historically pay full-price or respond only to discount offers.
Founded in France by an executive team that includes two former Microsoft research developers, Criteo claims to serve 5 billion unique banner ads per month on behalf of 700 clients. Many of its customers are e-commerce behemoths in the retail, travel, and finance categories - companies such as B&H Photo, Art.com, and Groupon.
For its most active customers, Criteo provides a display ad management platform. It operates as ad network, media planner, creative automation partner, and ad agency - all in one. It also handles manual banner creation, building templates to the look and feel of clients' brands.
More than any of those services however, it's Criteo's management of customer data that may be most powerful - to an even frightening degree.
Ed Montes, managing director of Havas Digital's AdNetik trading desk, suggested it may be possible for advertisers to give away too much control to platforms like Criteo's.
"The most important data is the data advertisers already have," often in the form of customer sales data and cookie profiles based on website traffic, Montes said. However, campaigns over time generate large amounts of additional campaign data that are still of importance to a brand.
Montes said, "The question for marketers is, 'Is Criteo the company you want to manage all that data? In which case, they do start to look like an agency."
Criteo's Karen Dayan insists campaign data generated by a given customer's ads is never used to optimize another client campaign, though doing so would be a cinch. Theoretically, she said a parent company could choose to leverage campaign data generated by a subsidiary (for instance, Amazon might use Zappos data) but the company has yet to encounter such an arrangement.
"We don't optimize across clients," said Dayan. "We could very easily port that data among advertisers. Today we're very strict about sharing data."
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.