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The gap between the potential and the promise of data: The Drum Programmatic Punch 2019

By Tim Hussain, global managing principal


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December 9, 2019 | 5 min read

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Last week it was my pleasure to be part of the ‘Data, Data, Data’ panel at The Drum’s Programmatic Punch event in London. Despite our different perspectives from different corners of the industry, it struck me that there was a remarkable level of agreement on our panel about the challenges facing this part of the marketing industry. For the issues facing advertisers about collecting and using audience data to improve marketing performance all boil down to one thing: the gap between the hypothetical potential of data and the rather different, practical reality.


The potential of being able to target individual consumers at scale and with pinpoint accuracy sounds hugely attractive, as all grand visions do. And yet the day-to-day reality is that so much of the data being used isn’t nearly as accurate as is claimed, and very often it’s not being implemented properly. As we discussed on the panel, it’s like the big vision of “£350m a week to the NHS” painted in white on the side of Boris’ big red bus during the EU Referendum. In principle it sounded great, and doubtless proved to be a vote-winner. The reality more than three years on is rather nuanced; there’s a lot more devil in the detail.

On the panel I didn’t raise my observations from some theoretical consultant’s viewpoint. I’ve been building large scale digital advertising capabilities for companies such as Sky and AOL for the last twenty years. And at Ebiquity, the work we undertake for advertisers is all done by ex-trading desk, DMP, and adtech professionals. It’s from this first-hand, practical experience that we base our observations.

In programmatic media trading, companies big and small talk routinely about the transformational benefits of data. But in our experience of working with some of the world’s biggest and most progressive advertisers, data rarely gets anywhere near the promise. One of the very real challenges for advertisers is that the companies selling services and solutions are far too focused on a theoretical upside or never mention any of the risks, downsides, and limitations. This is similar to the way politicians frame arguments to support their desired outcome of voter ballots. It’s why, over the past few years, fact checking services have grown significantly on both sides of the Atlantic.

The unspoken risks and downsides in programmatic include the increasing decline of the cookie and the fact that the dominant walled-garden platforms refuse to allow independent validation of their data accuracy. Regulatory pressure – GDPR in action, the imminent arrival of the California Consumer Protection Act, and the new EU Privacy directive – are all hastening the demise of the cookie. So, too, are changes in privacy settings in most major browsers; Safari, Chrome, and Firefox. Yet many leading companies continue to sell audience data products and services as if nothing had changed in the ecosystem over the past five years, and we are seeing a push to increase audience-led buying for 2020 without the necessary strategies to mitigate these risks.

From the work we’ve been recently doing with clients, it’s clear that the dream of using audience data isn’t translating into efficient increases in sales. In many cases, it’s delivering lower return on investment than other, more traditional options available. If it carries on like this, it’ll only increase the number and intensity of difficult questions from the chief finance officer.

Don’t get me wrong. Not everything about programmatic is doom and gloom, and we were by no means totally gloomy on the ‘Data, Data, Data’ panel at Programmatic Punch. But what we want is a much more realistic discussion – and one that balances potential and upsides with risks and downsides, in much the same way that consumer investment products must be said to offer opportunities that “can go up as well as down”.

At the end of the session, I was asked whether self-regulation was required in programmatic. I answered by asking the audience if they believed the energy industry should be regulated on issues of climate change or whether they should be allowed to regulate themselves. Like all rhetorical questions, it didn’t need answering. And so, for me, programmatic also needs independent oversight and for exactly the same reasons as the energy, banking, and political sectors do: to ensure that commercial pressures to grow revenues and profits do not drive behaviour which could have negative impacts for the customer.

Tim Hussain, global managing principal, Ebiquity Tech

Ebiquity Tech were a partner of Programmatic Punch UK 2019. Register here for 2020.

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