Cable ad veteran Paul Woidke on the state of the biz

Had a chance to catch up with the dean of cable advertising technology, Paul Woidke, last week. Came away as always with some fresh ideas about where the business is going.

Woidke is cable advertising’s version of Leonard Zelig, the Woody Allen fictional character who managed to be just about everywhere. In the 1990s, Woidke was one of the instrumental figures in building Adlink, the Los-Angeles multichannel video advertising interconnect now owned by Time Warner Cable. There, he helped instigate early applications of digital video advertising distribution technology plus two ahead-of-their time applications for customizing advertising content (known as AdTag and AdCopy). Later, he (along with other Adlinkers including Charlie Thurston and Hank Oster) joined Comcast’s advertising sales group as SVP of technology, where he helped to shape the seminal industry standard for advanced ad delivery known as SCTE-130. Woidke is now SVP of strategy for Nagra, whose Eclipse line of software traffics close to 100 million spots a month for cable advertising partners.

Here’s Woidke on the state of the cable ad business today, and where it’s going tomorrow.

Advanced ad platforms: They’re out there and they’re producing meaningful revenue for cable companies. Except “they’re not in the context that we’d necessarily think.” Woidke says the under-appreciate value contributor for the industry today is online advertising, particularly the customer portals cable companies maintain to serve video, enable remote product management and offer e-mail access, among other things. Woidke mentioned Time Warner Cable as a leader here, not just in monetizing its own customer portal but in putting together an ad-syndication network across third-party websites and helping local clients get their messages out there in the online world. “It goes back to the roots of the business. Who else in the video business today has feet on the street in 230 DMAs?” Woidke’s also enthused about work being done by Comcast and others to bring advertising to cable’s on-screen program guides, a medium he considers “the primary lean-forward experience on television today.” EPG advertising is huge for programmers that seek to influence tune-in viewing and sampling, Woidke notes. And of course, on-demand advertising, pioneered early on by Cox Communications, is now coming into its own as networks and operators collaborate on inventory allocation formulas and business rules around ad insertion. “I think there are lots of suggestions that these new methodologies are being experimented with in very palpable, tangible, action-oriented ways,” Woidke told me.

The second screen: Woidke thinks interactive advertising is making its long-awaited arrival. But it’s landing in a place the cable industry didn’t anticipate when it began pursuing a technology solution known as Enhanced Binary Interchange Format, or EBIF, to help support interactivity around commercials. “You’d probably have to grit your teeth real hard to talk about what a success EBIF has been,” he said. Although the CableLabs-authored specification set is used today to support several interactive advertising applications, he thinks the more compelling action is happening across iPads and smartphones. The “second screen” movement is a curiosity because we don’t know yet how cable advertising distributors will participate, or whether they’ll risk being shunted aside by others. But Woidke said there’s too much potential to ignore. “There are just huge strides in that area.” As for a final word on EBIF, Woidke said it’s unfair to “beat it about the head.” “Guess what? If the iPad had existed in 2004, we probably wouldn’t have gone down that road.”

On cable advertising’s secret weapon: Regardless of what ad-delivery technologies rule the day, Woidke said cable brings a big competitive differentiator to the table: the thousands of commissioned sales representatives who call on local advertisers every business day. “The cable advertising business is feet on the street in the DMAs,” he said. “It’s still, to this day and naysayers notwithstanding, the company that has the relationship with the television viewer that wins.”

On Nagra’s work: Woidke is overseeing the development of a next-generation advertising management and billing platform that takes into account the increasingly sprawling collections of inventory his clients offer: web placements, linear TV, dynamic ad insertion into VOD streams, IP video on tablets and more. The mathematics are more demanding than ever when you consider the range of insertion options multiplied by the number of geographic and user-specific targeting choices. Yet Woidke is convinced advertisers ultimately want one invoice that expresses the entire range of their buys and where their ad messages landed. The future is about translating one currency into another, while orchestrating campaigns that roll up a variety of advertising vessels into the common cause of racking up GRPs against a target audience – regardless of medium. “That’s an entirely different scheduling notion than anybody does today,” he said.