How Programmatic is Changing the World of Display Advertising

“I don’t even notice banner ads.”  

Over the past 12 years of my digital media career, clients, coworkers, friends, and family have all made this subtle dig at the fruits of my labor. The situation, and my mood, have determined my response. At best: “It’s true that display media isn’t the flashiest form of advertising, but it does have a role to play,” and at worst a snotty, “I have study after study to show that you do.”

I blame the digital media planners who came in the years before me (and there weren’t a lot of them – years, I mean) for setting display media up for the bad rep it has developed in the last few years. When this kind of advertising became a thing, planners said “Hey client! Look at this ad that people will click on! Look at the number of users it will send to your site!” And clients got REALLY excited about all those visitors. But now, we are faced with two problems; banners aren’t a novelty anymore, so lots of people don’t click – and those who do are generally older or younger, and of lower income – not necessarily a lot of advertisers’ target audience. I find myself continually explaining how the goal of our display campaigns is NOT a click on the ad – and still get the “WTH is the point then” look from clients from time to time.

“I don’t see them”. “People don’t click on them”. “They’re annoying”. People are just straight-up down on banner ads.

Then, a word was whispered down airplane aisles and in agency conference rooms, in marketing trades and over beers with 22-year-old planners…

Programmatic.

So what IS it? Programmatic is an automated approach to buying digital media placements, combining real-time-bidding, innumerable layers of targeting, and constant audience and creative optimization. Know who your most valuable audience is? Awesome – we’ll bid the most on them, and put your message in front of them for only one penny more than the next highest bidder. While we’re at it, lets build a new audience segment based on users who take the most valuable actions on your site. And retarget users who’ve visited but not converted. And also spread some impressions really broad, to introduce you to new potential customers and build some reach. We’ll also adjust which messages each of these segments is served, so that the ad units drive the most valuable conversions. All in the blink of an eye, with a programmatic media campaign. Conversions. Return on ad spend. FAST.

This ever so buzz-worthy word has drawn three different reactions out of me:

1. Wasn’t that already a thing?

I hope admitting this doesn’t make me seem stodgy and old, but it took me a long time to get what was so special about programmatic. Because programmatic, to me, sounded a lot like behavioral targeting. Or maybe look-alike targeting. Either way, something that we’ve been doing for years. The beauty of programmatic, I’ve determined, is the many facets of intricate data that it can stack on top of each other, and the automated/automatic way in which it can be done. What’s especially unique (and most exciting for businesses), is the combination of what is generally an awareness-driving channel with a ROI-focused optimization strategy.

2. YAY!

Oh boy oh boy, people care about banner ads again! And not because they hate them! First/third party data and targeting tactics and dynamic creative, oh my! Seriously, I’ve always been a proponent of display formats – direct response is great, but if you have no awareness, there is no one to do this responding. Finally, people are enthusiastic about display (again)!

And holy optimization! The bidding system is shifting impressions toward a larger cart size…eliminating underperforming creative…on the fly! I set the dials and my commands are instantly obeyed, muh-ha-ha-HA-HA!

3. This is still a means to an end.

I’m on team programmatic. I’ve done it for some clients, and recommended it for more. What grinds my gears a little bit though, is when I hear “we want to do a programmatic campaign” without starting at the beginning. The only way to approach a programmatic campaign is by determining what it is that you need to achieve, and if programmatic makes sense with that goal (which it almost certainly does), as well as how it works with the other pieces of your media mix. When a very wise colleague of mine, Brett Stone, was asked which targeting method was best, he answered “the most promising method is one that best leverages your existing data to meet business goals“. Preach on Brett.


What it comes down to is that applying the correct data programmatically for a display media campaign is like swimming a race with flippers. You’ve got your swimsuit and you’ve got your goggles. Without flippers, you can still compete and stay afloat. But in the race to the most valuable consumers, flippers make a big difference.

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