Digital Transformation Programmatic Digital Advertising

Turn back time: what can programmatic learn from its past mistakes?

By Cadi Jones |

August 26, 2021 | 8 min read

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues along the relentless passage of time, Beeswax commercial director Cadi Jones considers whether programmatic can learn from its history.

Why programmatic DOOH is now a must

Beeswax commercial director Cadi Jones considers whether programmatic can learn from its history

Talking with some of my brilliant Beeswax colleagues last week, reminiscing about unexpectedly good gigs we had been to in pre-Covid times, I shared I’d been to see Tina Turner at the O2 Arena. As conversations go in these times, we got into a great hypothetical discussion – if we could turn back time on the programmatic industry, what would we find a way to change?

So much has changed over the last decade or so that programmatic advertising has been in the mainstream. But every now and again there is a feeling of history repeating itself, and somehow us struggling to learn from mistakes we should have corrected first time around. So why have some things taken us so long to get right, when they are key to success for both media owners and advertisers?

The only way is up?

In the early days, publishers were slow to release their premium inventory for sale via programmatic channels. This in turn meant that advertisers that really cared about quality inventory were slow to adopt programmatic. This is the reason why everything started with open marketplace. As both premium publishers and quality advertisers increasingly came to programmatic transaction methods for their efficiency, scale and addressability, it turns out that other transaction methods had to be bolted on to the protocols. This has meant that older platforms that were not designed for premium can struggle with premium trading mechanics, such as programmatic guaranteed, and trouble-shooting private marketplaces (PMPs) remains the bane of programmatic traders’ lives on legacy DSPs.

Turn back time: start with the needs of premium publishers and premium advertisers – and allow the technology to start from their needs.

Push it

Initially programmatic trading covered banners and buttons, and that was it. Again, this has led to problems when the legacy platforms used by both the buy and sell side are not necessarily set up for success from the outset for all formats and all devices. If, from the beginning, advertisers and publishers had pushed for mobile and video to be core components of the technology, a lot of energy pushing ‘newer’ programmatic channels and formats into existing boxes could have been avoided.

Now we often find programmatic advertisers asking the right questions – can I run the types of campaigns I care about on Connected TV (CTV) devices or on mobile, and what are the limitations, if any?

Turn back time: start with thinking about all digital media, and the types of campaigns you want to run, and make sure the technology is set up from the outset to match your needs.

Every breath you take

Yes, the initial excitement around digital advertising and specifically programmatic advertising was focused on 1:1 marketing, being able to reach the right user, at the right time, with the right message, and optimizing based on the actions they took from your campaign. However, no one really sold the general public on the value exchange. Now with the welcome increase in privacy legislation, advertisers and their agencies are having to rethink their approach to digital marketing to ensure they can deliver the required results. How could we have done better here? Advertisers and publishers could have aligned to ensure the value exchange was clearer, and refrained from some of the lower-funnel cookie-bombing that gives digital media a bad reputation.

Turn back time: from the outset, focus on value for the end-user online – and avoid undue reliance on third-party cookie-based targeting. As an example, we see many programmatic buyers seeing exceptionally strong results from contextual targeting, but this approach was ignored for many years.

Hello – is it me you’re looking for?

As outlined above, with programmatic advertising dominated initially by ad networks, the growth of behavioral targeting gave rise to a huge reliance on third-party cookies. These promised to provide advertisers with scaled audience data so they could reduce wastage and tailor their campaigns more effectively. They were also easy. So advertisers (and media-owners too, in some cases) neglected developing their first-party data, and forming partnerships with publishers to activate against qualified second-party data. If we were turning back 10 years or so, a priority would be to encourage more brands to have the foresight to invest heavily in building their own audience data, and building partnerships with publishers who could help to extend their addressable audience further.

Turn back time: the sooner advertisers develop their first-party data strategy, and partner with media owners to increase scale, the better.


Speaking of trust, faith and trust are not the same thing. Picking the right partners to work with should perhaps have been placed further up this list. With repeated ‘reveals’ on the supply chain, from the ANAs in 2016 to the PWC/ISBA study last summer, this is one that just keeps recurring. Working with partners that you trust, on a contract with a level of transparency that aligns with your needs, would have seemed like an obvious first step. But it’s not easy – it can be very hard to know which questions to ask, and to take a significant amount of time and energy to audit, given the high number of bid requests processed every second.

Turn back time: think ahead of time about your priorities on two axes – desire for transparency and time/inclination/ability to audit this. It’s OK to care solely about performance outcomes of your media spend, just as it’s okay to want to know where every cent is spent. Not everyone wants both.

Talking Italian

Finally, we came to the realization that so much of the pain of programmatic advertising’s early years may have stemmed from an adoption of buzzwords and acronyms. With so much M&A activity through the initial burst, it was easy to find the whole industry overly complex, and just switch off. Now that many senior marketers have grown up with programmatic advertising and have the language to question their partners correctly, we’re seeing a much greater drive toward collaboration.

Turn back time: speak plainly upfront about all elements of the programmatic transaction, keeping everyone in the know of what is going on for quicker adoption, collaboration and success.

The best

Reading through these top five recommendations, we had the realization that these would make great questions for inclusion within a DSP RFP:

  • What features and functionality do you have to facilitate premium transactions?

  • What are your limitations with regard to in-app campaigns, for mobile devices and for CTV?

  • How should we be thinking about the ‘cookiepocalypse’?

  • Can you help us develop our first-party data strategy? And how would we put in place effective second-party data partnerships?

  • What is your approach to transparency?

  • And then you can assess – are the answers in plain language that everyone involved in the RFP process can understand?

Digital Transformation Programmatic Digital Advertising

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