The contradictions within the programmatic claim

The contradictions within the programmatic claim

We should be more mindful of the language we use when talking about programmatic ad trading, warns ISBA’s Bob Wootton.

In my admittedly rather overlong experience of the ad industry, I’ve learned that it loves nothing more than to seize upon the new and jump aboard bandwagons and their attendant jargon. It’s often been said that for an industry which claims innovation as its lifeblood, it’s terribly conservative.

The bandwagon it’s on right now is both one of the most pervading and the most runaway I can recall (since ‘media-neutral planning’ – RIP – or ‘bought, owned, earned’, that is). And the jargon out there is in a league of its own, believe me!

I come from a time when Prog meant embarrassingly long, complex and often incomprehensible pieces of music delivered with virtuosity, show and pomp to a mainly stoned audience.

To the current generation of marketers and media folk out there it means something entirely different.

Programmatic – Prog to its friends – promises to deliver the Holy Grail of the right message in front of the right person in the right place at the right time. Even the right mood. In doing so, it also promises to clarify, simplify and make transparent.

Sound too good to be true? Yup.

Instead, we have a fog of evangelists, technologists, more conferences than you can shake a fistful of sticks at and yet still a whole lot of confusion.

I had a moment of clarity at a private event ISBA held for its members recently, where TubeMogul and Adjust Your Set delivered two really excellent presentations on different facets of the convergent space between TV and online.

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The flash of clarity was that too many people are enthusing (good news) but not using sufficiently accurate language and thereby confusing, bemusing and even misleading (bad news).

A number of the leading advertisers then started hitting me with a riff that’s been going round in my head for some time. It comes from a question – how can a billboard or a primetime TV spot be ‘programmatic’.

Programmatic has been sold with some gusto as the marketer’s equivalent of a very sharp needle whose tip can be placed (increasingly in real time) on a very specific target consumer. (Pace privacy hounds – not a named individual but a very accurately described type of person).

Granularity is the watchword, and very sexy it is too. Yet Prog is now claiming to be the saviour of media which are intrinsically massive too. That is, they reach many people at once, and/or quite indiscriminately.

Indeed, the common frame of reference, aka ‘the watercooler moment’, is their charm and their lure. Think of ITV’s and latterly Thinkbox’s work on the value of fame, widely subscribed to by many big advertisers serving large and mass markets.

These media are inherently not granular, rather their appeal is in the aggregate. So how can they practically be traded programmatically in any useful sense?

This is where we get into trouble with loose language. What I think the perps mean is not programmatic but automated.

(Businesspeople once swapped long division for log tables and slide rules; then calculators for slide rules; and then began to adopt computers in the 70s. Each reduced the amount of time spent on iterative processes. The promise was that the time thus released could be re-purposed for higher things, though that’s not quite how things turned out but that’s for another day/another column).

Full automation of trading promises this in spades, and it’s happening all over the place. But it’s not Prog. Granted, Prog requires an automated environment in which to work, but is itself a specific subset of automation.

I completely get how mass media can be traded and refined automatically, but nobody has yet managed to explain to me how they can realistically be traded to the point that Prog proselytises. I’ve asked and will continue to, but so far all I get is people running for cover, not answers.

More recent Prog pitches, particularly from independent specialist players which claim no media ownership or brokerage layer, argue that Prog will hound out the multiple layers that have grown up in the online media value chain, each of which takes its dip into the money as it passes through, reportedly leaving less than half of it for the working media the advertiser thinks they’re buying.

This argument plays extremely well to advertisers, be they those obsessed with their targeting or those concerned by the many well-documented issues emerging in the online space, not least transparency.

So my conclusion is that we should all use language more carefully in this area. The current obsession with Prog does not tell the whole story.

Automation is good too, and a much more relevant descriptor of a lot of what is going on, so let’s use each where it applies and not try and attach Prog to everything from your morning espresso to a truly granular media buy.

None of this is to say, of course, that the general direction of travel isn’t towards the more granular and targetable. Media buyers can leverage 4OD’s 12 million signed up users’ data and target them more accurately than ever before. But wherever it’s going, 4OD still contributes but a small fraction of Channel 4’s revenues.

Similarly, Sky’s AdSmart can now put targeted messages into 7 million of its 12 million subscriber homes. So far, it’s got down to postcode district and will be even more remarkable when it goes deeper, first to postcode sector. But folks – it still won’t be Prog. My and many postcodes embrace multiple buildings comprising more dwellings and yet more diverse individuals.

Bus shelters with recognition software or nascent interactive features support some basic elements of Prog, but roadside or precinct panels? Too many people pass them – which is a good thing!

Why is this of any consequence? Well, simply because every time you lob Prog into your presentation where it doesn’t fit in the mind of the listener, you lose your prospect’s comprehension and attention. Which is not good for business.

This article was updated on Wednesday 19 August at 17:00 – the original said Sky’s AdSmart can now put targeted messages into only 500,000 of its 12 million subscriber homes rather than 7 million.

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