Why automation can make agencies more human

The media landscape continues to expand on many fronts, causing chaos for those of us who want to make the most of the opportunities to engage and delight consumers on social TV screens, in the now media-rich outdoors, and on the smartphones and tablets found in so many pockets and purses.

The explosion of data being generated from each give and take in these new relationships is leading to an infinite number of ways to find better consumer insights and to optimize campaigns. And I haven't even begun to touch on the growing number of tools consumers have at their disposal to selectively pick their favorite content -- and screen out noise.

At no point in the history of advertising have agencies had so much opportunity to create unique brand-building consumer experiences for their clients. At the same time, the media landscape has never been so large and complex, making it more difficult to strategically design the right building blocks for a successful campaign.

The trick for agencies in the new dawn of advertising is not to let the complex minutiae of digital execution get in the way of funding valuable resources for strategic thinking, an agency's ultimate value add.

Agencies are invaluable partners for their clients because they know how to find the best consumer insights and create effective brand building ideas. But if they let themselves get distracted by the growing complexity of digital stewardship, then they'll risk having to shift more and more resources to operations -- and jeopardize their value by underinvesting in strategy tools and clients.

Unfortunately, the squeaky wheel always gets the grease. In advertising, the squeaky wheel is the day-to-day execution of campaigns.

This concern is even more worrisome when you consider that in the not-too-distant future all media will become digital. That means more and more spending will be moving into the digital side of the business where, surprisingly, the least amount of automation exists for media stewardship.

Leveraging technology partnerships

The solution to this dilemma lies in technology partnerships that will enable agencies to delegate those stewardship functions, which currently take up thousands of man hours, to experts in automating ad campaign operations. 

When you consider the tedious process of digital media planning and buying, you see how technology can offer solutions for any one of a number of pain points:

Narrowing the consideration set
Increase the ability to rapidly identify the select group of publishers to work with from a potential pool of thousands of contenders, all of whom claim to be a good fit for your client's brands.

Negotiating price and inventory
Given the large number of potential sites that could be purchased, the RFP practice of negotiating the deal needs to happen quickly and accurately.

Optimizing campaigns
Real time learning has changed the definition of optimization forever. Now there is no time for human touch in the process. It needs to happen instantaneously.

Bill and pay stewardship
This is probably the number one pain point for most agencies. Reconciliation of digital buys must be a smooth and transparent process.

Automation of these tasks is important to agencies so they can spend less time and resources on operations and more on upfront strategic planning. In an ideal world, agencies could do both, but the financial pressures of today's advertising industry is forcing them to make choices and prioritize investments. To what degree they can, agencies should put strategy first and find ways to minimize investments on the backend operations.

Augmentation versus transformation

An important decision facing agencies in the expanding digital media landscape is whether to augment the business with technology -- or completely transform it.

Today, agencies have the opportunity to reinvent their business model by using technology in areas that represent nothing more than many hours of human labor. In truth, some of the advancements in digital media actually make it impossible for human solutions. For instance, automation is the only reasonable solution for tasks such as real time bidding, search retargeting, and data management.

Agencies can also augment their operations with technology solutions for tasks that are growing more complex such as sending RFPs to hundreds of publishers at a time and analyzing responses. The same goes for the stewardship of a campaign and the billing reconciliation process. In both examples, the agency gains more time for the strategic tasks of campaign building.

At the other end of the spectrum, technology represents an opportunity for agencies to completely transform their business by using automation across the entire process of media buying and stewardship.

This is a significant step that most agencies have trouble taking because the buying functions are inherent within the company -- and the industry's -- DNA. But this kind of transformation will be necessary to embrace a digital future where a brand's success will be determined by the agency's ability to quickly and accurately curate audiences from thousands of publisher properties.

We shouldn't be afraid of losing the human touch in a part of our media process. Operators are no longer necessary to connect phone calls and travel agents are no longer the only way to buy plane tickets or hotel rooms. When technology can offer greater quality control, faster results, and time for higher-level activities, then it is the better choice.

The same is true with media buying and stewardship: When technology and automation offer a better way of working, then the transition -- or transformation -- will come with ease to the agencies that are looking toward the future. 

Scott Neslund is executive vice president of media services for Centro.

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