Inside Kimberly-Clark's Ad-Tech In-Housing Strategy

By owning its ad-tech contracts directly, the CPG giant could fine-tune its media strategy

As transparency and media quality continue to frustrate programmatic buyers, consumer packaged goods giant Kimberly-Clark is tackling these challenges directly by in-housing its ad-tech contracts.

Hidden ad-tech fees and ads inadvertently ending up on low-quality media are spurring buyers to use a bevy of tactics to improve their programmatic buying, often by simplifying the path between buyer and seller. In-housing ad-tech contracts is one tactic that gives advertisers more control, which comes with the added benefit of letting brands, and not their agencies, own the data that flows through ad campaigns.

“When you own the data … you can turn it into a reusable asset,” said Mairi Fogle, global media tech product owner at Kimberly-Clark, adding that when the company didn’t own ad-tech contracts, it would get reports in Excel or PowerPoint documents.

Kimberly-Clark started in-housing its ad-tech contracts in 2022, first taking ownership of an ad verification contract. Later that year, the company brought contracts with two demand-side platforms in-house, and in 2023, it in-housed a deal with a paid search vendor. The company is planning on in-housing its ad server and dynamic content optimization next.

Fogle said that with the increased visibility that in-housing has given Kimberly-Clark, the company has been able to divert money to higher-quality media and find inventory for which it was overpaying. It has since reduced CPMs (cost per thousand impressions) by 47%. The company wouldn’t share further specifics.

In-housing ad-tech contracts has been in the spotlight lately. In December, the Association of National Advertisers found that 52% of 67 respondents owned direct DSP data access via contracts, while a separate ANA survey found that over 70% of brand marketers that don’t already own direct contracts with DSPs and ad verification firms plan to strike these deals over the next year.

A survey from industry group the World Federation of Advertisers, published in December 2023, found that 70% of respondents have some sort of strategic capability in-house, compared with 65% in 2020. However, this figure includes all agency capabilities, and not just those focused on media or programmatic.

Kimberly-Clark shows some preliminary evidence that this in-vogue strategy can be effective. But practitioners warn that it’s just a tool and that like all tactics, it must be employed thoughtfully in order to meaningfully improve a brand’s programmatic buying.

A granular view of inventory quality

When agencies own the contract with an ad-tech provider, which is often the default, brands don’t get access to valuable data about their audiences.

“The in-housing of contracts is mainly so the brand has data rights,” said Tom Triscari, founder of programmatic consultancy Lemonade Projects. “You think about privacy, consent …. [Brands] want access to the data so [they] can make better media decisions.”

Fogle said that while the data accompanying Kimberly-Clark’s media buys has always existed, before gaining ownership of contracts with several ad-tech providers, the company couldn’t access it directly nor interpret it to impact its media strategy.

When we dug into the data … we found that some of those were low-quality inventory sources.

Mairi Fogle, global media tech product owner at Kimberly-Clark

Once Kimberly-Clark could look under the hood, it didn’t always like what media the ad budget was buying.

“We utilize MMM [mixed media modeling] ROIs [returns on investment] in our measurement strategy, but the MMMs don’t have the level of granularity to fully understand the quality at an inventory level,” Fogle said. “When we dug into the data, we found instances of cheap CPMs where, in an aggregated view, it looked like we were reaching users efficiently, but we found that some of those were low-quality inventory sources.”

To avoid the low-quality media that the brand had been buying, Kimberly-Clark is exploring creating a supply-side platform strategy and using inclusion lists instead of exclusion lists, Fogle said. For now, the brand is using prebid controls to limit the brand’s exposure to inadequate viewability, fraud and brand safety and suitability.

While in-housing ad-tech contracts can provide brands with insights, Triscari warned that without a measured and thoughtful approach, brands that in-house their contracts risk falling for another one of ad tech’s many band-aid solutions.

“You took your contracts in-house. What really changed? Did the quality of the inventory change?” Triscari said, noting that some brands just became more efficient at buying low-quality media. “Forget about in-housing: Do you have high standards or not? Or do you have low standards, particularly when it comes to transparency and media quality?”