Does the programmatic sector need a detox?

It doesn’t take Gillian McKeith, the food and lifestyle guru, to figure that too much of a good thing can be bad for you. Subsiding on a diet of chocolate, cheese and red wine, while lavish, will add layers to your waist, probably causing complications a few years down the line. Players in the digital advertising industry have been seen to be guilty of just that, especially in the last 18 months. However, a coordinated effort between clients, agencies, suppliers and media owners are all coming together to resolve transparency and brand safety issues.

The Drum hosted a panel of experts to discuss, over breakfast, how exactly programmatic is setting itself up to resolve the issues of transparency and brand safety. It was a fruitful discussion. The only twist: our experts had to make their own (healthy) meal. Breakfast means breakfast. Which begs the question: How many digital advertising experts does it take to poach an egg?

Around ten, as it happens. Though, while enjoying the fruits (and eggs) of our labour, the conversation took a more serious tone. The programmatic sector is of course already going through a detox. No nasty, quick-fix health fads; just good old-fashioned clean eating with players in adtech promising an ethical eco system.

Helping clients to better understand what they are buying, and why they are buying it, topped the agenda. ‘Simplification’ was the word du jour. Gawain Owen, digital strategy director at Jellyfish, said that clients “just want to understand what is going on”. Why should there be a distinction between digital and physical supply chains? he asked.

“For example, the number one export for a coffee company is beans,” he said. “And if you take the rigour of their supply chain, they go and meet the person in the field. They know what day that bean was picked, by who, at what time, and how much that person was paid. Now, if media is a top three export, isn’t it perfectly natural that the business would want that same rigour that it has in its supply chain, for the raw commodities it’s buying?”

Steve Taylor, chief product officer at Hearts & Science, agreed, to an extent, but thinks the atomisation of transparency in the supply chain – knowing where every single penny goes – is driven by undue suspicion of the industry. “If I went to JWT and wanted a television ad made, I wouldn’t necessarily know how much money went on the coffees for production on the shoot,” he said. “But it seems we’ve got that with programmatic. I don’t think advertisers necessarily understand the direct relationship between the money they spend, and what they get out.”

This clearly needs to change for sector longevity. For many advertisers, programmatic can be problematic; a bewildering landscape polluted with jargon monoxide. It may have revolutionised efficient, targeted advertising in a blink, but that doesn’t mean those buying programmatically actually understand it.

Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that “innovation in this ecosystem has happened too far from the brand,” according to The Trade Desk general manager, Anna Forbes. “The terminology and the jargon that we’re using isn’t really in line with what brands really want, even though we’re building amazing products that will drive better ROI for their marketing budget.”

Michelle Patrick, head of digital display at Amplifi, thinks “the suspicion comes from the fact that we don’t tell clients enough what we’re doing, and if we do, we do it in such a complex way that they get frustrated by it.”

This, all agreed, is diametric to the perceived simplicity of television. Owen pointed out that most brands still award a pitch to the agency which gives them the best TV pricing. TV is “efficient, dynamic, and works”. It offers something Pritchard’s now infamous “crap” digital ads presently do not.

“They [advertisers] pay their money and they get given a certificate that says where they sit in the ecosystem,” said Owen. “That’s great for the head of TV and the brand, and for the procurement team. It’s so simple to wave that round for the next three years. Unfortunately, in all forms of digital, it’s not that simplistic. But it’s so easy for brands to bring in Ebiquity or Accenture to get those three ticks on their TV pricing. But not every single brand can have the best TV pricing in that pool.”

Programmatic is clearly more complex than television, and should be treated as such. There is little doubt that most media will be programmatically purchased in the future, and as such, a reciprocity from brands is welcome, said Sam Lin, head of programmatic at Zenith.

“Programmatic has seemed like such a daunting intellectual thing that if you don’t know anything about it, you don’t want to be in the forefront speaking. It would be great if brands had at least one leader or spokesperson within the programmatic field to continue to challenge agencies, to keep us on our toes. To have fruitful conversations. We can simplify things, but if there isn't someone on the other end of the phone or table to really digest and understand what’s being done, it doesn’t seem to be as fruitful long-term.”

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