The first time I heard the word “programmatic” referring to advertising was in an all-hands meeting with the head of sales for my former employer, Blip.tv. I managed the team responsible for building custom creative VPAID pre-roll units. We were actually doing some really cool stuff — media planners would use us as part of their client’s campaigns, giving us assets provided by their creative agency or whoever, and we would make custom versions of those ads. That meant adding games, store locators, video carousels, car customizers, content based on the category of video you were watching – lots of interactive and often dynamic functionality. They were built specifically for our own video player and website, VPAID was a standard, but it was still early in terms of its adoption. It was kind of the Wild West of custom video pre-rolls.
So, it felt odd when the sales guy said, “I hope you all know what programmatic is, as we’re going to start doing it.” As soon as I got back to my desk I googled programmatic and started learning about it. This was around 2013. From what I could tell, programmatic was mostly about filling remnant back fill, like unsold inventory. It seemed a little weird that we would start doing this. It was also very hard to find a clear definition. The main takeaway I had was that programmatic allowed ads to be sold automatically without the involvement of a sales person.
Obviously, I didn’t know much about it at the time! Today it’s a no brainer, but back then the deals were sold directly by our sales team and it was all very custom. It didn’t seem to make any sense for us, as we had issues matching the demand our sales guys were already bringing in. Video advertising was (and still is) a hot commodity and finding premium content at scale was difficult. So why would we want to sell non-existent unsold inventory?
Long story short, Blip was acquired by Maker Studios, a MCN (Multi-channel-network) that basically got tens of thousands of YouTubers to give over their Ad Sense logins for the promise of production help, marketing and other community support. Maker Studios was completely reliant on YouTube and wanted Blip’s tech and own proprietary player to start building an audience off of YouTube. After all, Google took 40% of all ad revenue, so it was hard to build a profitable business. In the end it didn’t work out, the economics of it all were not good, and getting people to view content outside of YouTube was really hard.
But the memory of my original Google search around what the hell programmatic was stuck with me and despite not really knowing what it fully meant, excited me with the thought of what it could do. So, when MediaMath posted a position for a creative director early 2014, I jumped ship and embraced the world of ad-tech and programmatic advertising!
Today programmatic is much more than just remnant advertising. It’s a promise that all marketing can be addressable and therefore optimizable. And we can do incredible things with targeting users, with data and segmenting and machine learning to optimize campaigns and there’s an insane amount of value in all of this. But at the end of the day, all of this exists to serve, in one form or another, an image, animation or video. The amount of time, resources and money spent on optimizing the who, the where and the when is significant compared to the relatively small amount of time spent on the what – the creative itself. This is an underutilized opportunity. Thunder Technologies, for instance, estimates the industry wastes some $6 billion by not including the right marketing messages with the right placements.
In the last couple of years people have certainly been trying to address this topic. But the questions around creative in programmatic are very interesting and I feel as an industry we get caught up in this bubble of technological advances and minute details of capabilities, and often lose sight of the reason this all exists, which is to display an image, moving or still to someone that would benefit from seeing it. The creative itself really does the actual job of selling to the user and if we don’t keep that top of mind at all times, then we’re kind of missing the point.
This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring how creatives, in every sense of the word, can truly embrace programmatic advertising so that it lives up to its full potential. This journey is just beginning.