Google may be frustrated that this quote is now a little too well worn, but when their VP for Europe, Matt Brittin said, “It's like teenage sex. Everyone is talking about it and thinks everybody else is doing it - when they’re not - and those who are doing it probably aren’t doing it very well.” he put the state of programmatic squarely into context.

But when the IAB suggests that 85% of advertisers and 72% of publishers currently use programmatic buying we have to ask how many are using programmatic technology to its full potential and more importantly do they even understand it?

Is ad-land bluffing?

The programmatic ecosystem is a web of complex connections shrouded in arcane theory and esoteric language, not unlike the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). Nick Turse in his book The Complex likens the MIC to the fictional Matrix in the film of the same name,” ...The Complex is nearly everywhere and involved in almost everything, and very few people aren’t plugged into it in some way, shape, or form.” Leaving aside the insidiousness of the quote, it describes the nature of the programmatic industry pretty darn well.

We can argue that this complexity is in direct response to a consumer whose media habits have become equally elaborate. Not only are they, as a group using fragmented media cross multiple mediums but their consumption patterns are paradoxical; according to a recent 2014 Millward Brown study, consumers seem to be spending most of their time with the smallest screen, mobile. Manual planning and buying can't respond efficiently to such convoluted consumer pathways so machines and algorithms take their place; but in the absence of a Intelligent designer and - fuelled by West Coast easy money - the ecosystem has grown unchecked.

Without an architect, many of the ecosystem's players compete for the chance to explain programmatic’s benefits to anyone who will listen but the voices remain buried in the arcane language already described. The result is a message that is indigestible by the ultimate beneficiaries of this technology, the client marketeer.

This view was reinforced at Cannes this summer where I felt there was little output that might be digestible by marketing and/or brand managers. The vast majority of the glossy collateral was targeted at the ad-tech community and the talks, whilst fascinating for the technologically enlightened, stopped at the point where sales and incremental revenue began.

The UK's client side trade body, ISBA, conducted a study into the client marketer perception of programmatic and found that although 76% believed it to be important for the future a third said they did not have a positive perception of it. Ninety six per cent however said they intend to learn more in order to equip themselves for an automated future. This shows there is clearly a huge appetite amongst end-user marketers for knowledge that fits their frame of understanding.

Some say as technology increasingly becomes part of the language of marketing, brand marketeers have a professional duty to reach out to understand it. Perhaps. Right now though a programmatic phrasebook of sorts is needed for client marketers .Tom Caswell, International Account Director at Havas Media Group positions the issue more bluntly. “Programmatic and its technology is an alien concept to client marketers. They also don't care about the technology, they just need results.”

Before we race to translate programmatic for marketers we must avoid urging a reductionist overview prematurely. The ecosystem needs time to evolve, to solve the problems that a complicated consumer environment has created. The jigsaw of demand side platforms, supply side platforms, audience management platforms and third party data providers needs time to jostle with the more recent cross device vendors, location providers and dynamic creative tools. In time the picture will come into focus and when this happens then the programmatic industry collectively has a duty to include end-user marketeers in the conversation.

Figuring it all out

One of the most pressing problems our hypothetical programmatic phrasebook must translate is what the technology was built for, and, what can it do today to help marketers with brand objectives. The prevailing view is that programmatic only works for direct response campaigns. More progressive brand owners however have realised it can help build brand by finding the right consumer and retargeting to drive attitudinal metrics.

Marketers need media channels that people use all the time so that their messages can be delivered at high frequency for optimal impact; we pick up our mobiles one hundred and fifty times a day so smartphone apps appear to fit this challenge well. Many mobile app titles such as Shazam, Words with Friends and Draw Something are now household names in their own right. The frequency of usage of these apps allows advertisers to manage brand perception at a pace that matches rapid real-time events and this is where programmatic comes into its own.

Experience is the teacher of all things

Programmatic can help marketers with a new problem, one that has in many ways been foisted upon them by social media. Looking to the future, advertisers will increasingly seek ways to gain efficiencies. The next logical step is cutting out the human element and programmatically integrating social media events with real time billing across exchanges to deliver automated artificial intelligence written brand stories at scale. In order to benefit from the evolving ad ecosystem, the programmatic industry needs to write its phrasebook for brand owners so that they have the resources to do their part by educating themselves.

There’s no denying that as the industry continues to embrace programmatic we’re going to all get better at harnessing its potential to find and influence audiences at scale. Realising its full potential requires time. During this time, marketers must self-educate, and the programmatic ecosystem needs to come into focus. Stakeholders must also develop the resources to help client marketers clearly understand its benefits in Lehman’s terms .

Before we consider taking this next step we need to find a common language to help ad-tech, agencies, media owners and marketers finally build to completion this programmatic Tower of Babel together.


By Chris Bourke, Commercial Director EMEA at Qriously. 

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