The war between programmatic buying and creativity

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Harry Crane might promise you the world with your media buy. But one thing he'd probably never guarantee, with the certitude of today's media buyers, is the idea that your media spend would always deliver the right message to the right person at the right time without any waste. Instead, the fictional media buyer from AMC's "Mad Men" would most likely try to convince you that a media buy on a popular daytime soap opera would put your brand in front of housewives, whereas buying time on a network news show would bring you an audience of thoughtful adult males. There would be waste, sure, but the media plan would move the needle because it would be aimed -- though maybe not targeted -- at an audience that is most likely to be receptive.

The war between programmatic buying and creativity

Of course, Harry Crane and his gender-biased assumptions are long gone. (Incidentally, soap operas are reportedly on their way out, too.) The media buy today is so data-driven that increasingly media buyers are being taken out of the loop, especially as the concept of targeting takes on an air of computational precision never before seen in media.

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Real-time bidding, or what some refer to as programmatic buying, is becoming increasingly popular with brand advertisers. According to eMarketer, automated media buys will account for 13 percent of all display buys this year. That's a significant number, but what's even more staggering is that automated buys have more than tripled since 2010. But if you think the direct response crowd -- which has always been about the right person, right message, right time trifecta -- is driving the shift to automated media buys, you're wrong.

A few months ago, AdWeek asked Rubicon Project to take a snapshot of the shift. Turns out, Rubicon Project, which handles 6 billion ad impressions and 350 billion bids placed among comScore's top 500 publishers each day, found that name brands are leading the way toward programmatic media buying. AT&T, Verizon, Southwest Airlines, Chrysler, and Unilever were the top five Rubicon buyers in October of 2012.

But it's not just happening at Rubicon Project. Federated Media's decision to shutter its direct sales business and gear up for programmatic has been well documented. On the publisher side, there have been reports that the glad-handing sales teams of old -- sorry, Harry Crane -- are being replaced by quantitative specialists because today's media buys increasingly require a sales force that is technically fluent in ad serving technology and well-versed in auction theory, game theory, and numerous other disciplines that you probably would have expected to see on a stock trader's resume. 

Of course, the shift to programmatic isn't just about retooling the skill set of today's media buyer. As Brian Lesser, CEO of the Xaxis, explained with a little help from the PBS show "Downton Abbey," the idea is to deliver on one of advertising's oldest promises, albeit with a modern, digital toolset.

"The ad worked because it reached the right person (Mr. Bates), with the right message (we can fix your limp), at the right time (if you don't do something about your limp, you're going to get fired)," Lesser wrote in Ad Age. "Getting these factors to align is far more important now than it was in 1912; ours is a world where media are extremely disaggregated and consumers are surrounded by more marketing messages each day than Mr. Bates could see in a lifetime."

The example Lesser cites in an interesting one. A century ago, that media buy was inextricably linked to the ad's creative. The advertiser whipped up the art and copy and then contacted the publisher to see about the cost and timing of the ad placement. Today, that's not necessarily the case.

With a greater emphasis on programmatic buying, some creative directors say that the creative process is increasingly disconnected from the buying process. That reality presents a number of issues, not the least of which is this question: Is creative a limiting factor in the right person, right time, right message promise? Or, put another way: Can an agency really make that promise if it means generating dozens of creative options for each audience segment?