All Grown Up: Brands' Journey to Programmatic Maturity

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Programmatic advertising has come a long way. In a few short years, it’s evolved from a murky world of remnant inventory and ill-understood acronyms, to the preeminent way in which brands or their agencies buy display - and it’s still growing. A large part of this growth is attributable to the positive results marketers have seen from programmatic. The step-change really occurred with the realisation that it can work just as well for brand marketing as for direct response. Subsequently, the volumes being traded programmatically increased substantially, and publishers are working hard to expose more and more inventory. This caused an exponential evolution, which was not without it’s problems, yet the overall advantages of using machines to make purchasing decisions on advertising impressions are undeniable.

Those problems however, still lurk in the shadows. In the beginning, agencies were quick to offer solutions for those marketers who saw the potential of programmatic, but didn’t feel they had the skills or resources to get started. Brands were all too happy to be swept up in the new jargon and the seemingly endless possibilities of the discipline, but as they migrated spend into it, budget holders began to ask more questions, and the discipline has come under much closer scrutiny.

In recent months, things have been changing - brands are now much more conversant with programmatic, and are looking for answers. Many are becoming uneasy with their agency partners, needing greater transparency to find efficiency savings and improve their ROI. Although agencies are responding to these requirements, many brands are taking the bull by the horns and bringing programmatic in-house.

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Getting the hang of it

Right now, several things are happening. Whether with agencies or in-house, as programmatic reaches maturity, marketers are working hard to integrate it with their other channels. This has seen brands upskilling their workforce, through both hiring and training. Helped by an explosion of programmatic vendors, these newly skilled marketers are pushing the discipline even faster. This, in turn, is placing new demands on their organisations, and (especially for those who’ve taken programmatic in-house), it’s raising new questions:

Creative & Personalisation

In this new world of personalisation, how can brands develop creative which is multifaceted and sufficiently flexible to appeal to every consumer? Also, what data do they need to power these creative ideas? perhaps most importantly, how can they actually deploy this personalised creative in real time?


As more premium inventory moves to programmatic, advertisers are trying to create an ecosystem in which they are able to connect their own data with vendors, in order to target very specific audiences. In years gone by, it was acceptable to say “if we buy X impressions from Y publisher, we’ll be hitting the right kind of people” - today, that would be almost laughable. But having the technical capability, the integrated systems and the actual data points needed to find the people you want in real time can be very difficult.

Overall Control

While marketers scrambled to implement policy, train staff, find partners, choose software and more - they were learning on the job. Inevitably, this lead to inefficiencies and sprawl, both in terms of people and resources. How do marketers overcome this and take back control?

Simply by beginning to ask these questions, marketing leaders are demonstrating how far they’ve come. They are considering the issues and looking to solve them by firming up infrastructure, demanding more from their partners and, perhaps most importantly; by developing flexible, long-term strategies.


Fraud has been a problem since the very beginning of online advertising - possibly never more so than with the advent of programmatic. It stands to reason that when personal relationships in buying and selling are reduced or eliminated, and more intermediaries are introduced, there is inevitably less visibility and less accountability.

Consequently, ad fraud has become more than a 7 billion dollar issue. One of the key drivers behind the growing problem is brand marketers. As they turned to programmatic, the industry became less focused on the conversions and response metrics favoured by direct marketers, and more focused on those metrics easier for fraudsters to produce (such as simple impressions). Audits and spot checks do reveal an issue with fraud, but the typical marketer’s response (often coached by their agencies or ad networks) is “we should expect a level of fraud”- many are willing to accept known fraud rates as high as 10%, because compared to what they used to buy, the perceived ROI is so much higher.

As a consequence, ad networks aren’t doing enough to weed out fraudulent impressions - partly because advertisers aren’t demanding it and partly because it costs money in detection, auditing, and lost ad revenue. In fact, until recently, the pervasive metrics by which brands have been measuring agencies and ad-networks almost encourage cheap, poor quality inventory for brand campaigns.

As brands begin to seek efficiencies in programmatic, and commit more budget, the fraud - whether 1% or 10% - becomes more significant. As brands have become increasingly familiar with programmatic and the levels of exposure increase, they are beginning to challenge their partners and look for metrics that offer better insights and data that can give a better picture of whether ads are actually getting seen, levels of brand safety and how realistic click data is

The Immediate Challenges


All impressions are not created equal. One of the key challenges facing marketers right now is simply that a portion of what they buy (programmatically or otherwise) isn’t getting seen. As we’ve already covered, an element of that is fraud, but that’s not the only issue. Publishers and media platforms’ placement of ad sites or inclusion of advertising within content can also be a contributor to poor viewability, or worse, reporting can be misleading. Even Facebook was forced to report that it had been misleading it’s advertisers, by inflating the average time users spent watching videos. Marketers must make viewability a key metric of their campaigns, and they must find a way to audit.

Price & Safety

Brand safety is a topic worthy of it’s own paper, so it necessarily gets a light touch here, but it is currently a major issue for advertisers and ad networks alike. In order to lower overall costs, many networks (some eminently reputable) have mixed subprime and prime media together, hoping advertisers either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care that their ads were sometimes being served in less-than-ideal situations. Further, platforms that rely on user-generated content, including Facebook and YouTube, haven’t been quick to address the issue of content that is far from advertiser-friendly. Whilst the majority of platforms and networks are (at least ostensibly) working to address these issues, there is certainly no failsafe solution. Brands must invest in audit and demand transparency from all their partners.

As programmatic emerged, publishers themselves had been wary, concerned that it would have an impact on prices. Even now, large brands such as the Guardian have reported dissatisfaction with yields, often caused by multiple intermediaries taking commissions or levying other charges. Technologies such as header bidding are having a positive impact on the market, and publishers’ growing experience is allowing them to expose more inventory and deploy more profitable programmatic operations. However, the market as a whole isn’t entirely stable. As issues such as fraud, measurement, inventory fluctuations, and more are slowly sorted out by market forces, pricing may be unpredictable, particularly for niche or highly targeted impressions.


Sophisticated targeting is a major challenge for many brands - whilst it’s easy enough to target broad groups using the demographics collected by platforms such as Facebook and Google, for brands to match their own datasets (and those of their suppliers) to the actual users generating impressions, particularly in real time, is no mean feat. Taking that one step further, and also deliver relevant creative - doubly so. In fact, identity resolution and targeting will require significant investment in integration and a real focus on data compliance

Systems and Data Integration

To overcome many of the challenges of programmatic, certainly in a scalable way, it’s imperative that brands seek to integrate systems - it’s not feasible for marketers themselves to remain as the link between a myriad of systems. The future will see the end of importing and exporting, creating manual reports and forcing campaigns to wait for input from marketers. Whether using custom integrations or unified systems, trading, measurement, cross-channel data feeds and optimisation will be the norm.


Modern agencies can be your friend! Agencies have had two key motivations to reinvent themselves - firstly, if they want to be handling a significant portion of a brand’s ad spend, and that brand (or even the media that it typically buys) is moving toward programmatic, agencies have had no choice but to get in the game. Secondly, as brands have become conversant with programmatic, they are no longer willing to accept a “trust us, we know what we’re doing” attitude or defer to agencies superior knowledge. They are demanding transparency and insight, meaning agencies are having to smarten up and open the doors to their customers.,

As such, agencies have been transforming themselves at speed, and savvy client-side marketers can take advantage of that. Their newly acquired skills, people, technology and their relationships can be put to work, normally without significant upfront investment and without drastic increases in overheads. In fact, for some brands, there might now be significant advantages to partnering with an agency: After all, they can provide the operational support as you build out your own capabilities, saving you from having to make risky decisions - you might even learn a thing or two by osmosis.

Looking to the Future

The future of programmatic is undoubtedly bright and vibrant - but also complex. As the stakeholders (particularly the brands) mature, they’ve become less willing to accept compromises in brand safety, fraud and simple measurability. To truly step away from these compromises however, they’re having to work hard - building skills, deploying technology and reassessing their partners.

In the short term, this will mean a number of things. Firstly, it means that the availability of inventory which brands are actually prepared to buy is reduced, forcing media owners and sellers to re-categorise subprime content and ad positions. In turn, this will undoubtedly drive up the price of what’s left - premium inventory. YouTube’s recent issues in this field have already led to their de-monetising huge swathes of content and completely overhauling the targeting tools available to brands.

To see the knock-on effects of this, YouTube is an excellent microcosm: As we’re already seeing on the platform, subprime and non-mainstream content producers are experiencing drastic decreases in ad revenue, as YouTube finds it more difficult to place ads alongside their content. This is leading increasing numbers of creators to leave the platform, or to begin producing more brand safe, homogenous content. This may well have a long term impact on consumer engagement and the amount of impressions YouTube can generate - only time will tell.


And it’s not only content that’s evolving. Over the years, brands have come to learn that the more they can personalise creative, the better the response rates. At the same time, consumer expectations have grown to the point where they expect relevant and timely ads. Historically, creatives and media planners haven’t tended to cross paths, but that is necessarily changing - if a campaign requires many creative iterations to be successful in the modern landscape, creatives and planners will have to work side-by-side. The new paradigm may also have a revolutionary effect on what actually constitutes creative. Certainly, as more channels are traded programmatically, there has already been a proliferation of media types and a drive towards appropriate, contextual ads. As consumer expectations continue to develop, the lines between creative and content will continue to blur. Native advertising, content marketing and truly personal creative will become standard.


Perhaps the biggest trends shaping programmatic now, that will certainly become more important in future, are AI and automation. It stands to reason that the more data organisations are dealing with programmatically - everything from the actual bid transaction to click data, attribution, targeting and much more - the less feasible it is to have human bottlenecks and the propensity for human error or inefficiency. The marketing organisations of the future will be much more integrated and much less operationally reliant on human intervention - even now, the aspiration is fully connected, fully automated. When marketing departments have retooled, it will be second nature for organisations to deploy technology underpinned by AI, (such as Machine Learning) to drive results. Already present in many an off-the-shelf system, ML allows testing and fine-tuning, across massive data sets, in real time. In the future, it’s inconceivable that AI won’t be omnipresent across the programmatic operation and far beyond.

So Here We Are

The truth is that the dream of lean teams, completely automated buying, perfect control and unparalleled insight hasn’t yet materialised. Right now in programmatic, we’re untangling the mess and sorting things out. As the new industry emerges, we’re already seeing a picture of better creative, better technology, skilled workers, reinvented agencies, a thriving ecosystem of vendors, and publishers getting a fairer share - it’s looking promising. Of course, all that’s an oversimplification, but so too is the word “programmatic” to describe an industry that’s so reliant on people. There is certainly a bright future for programmatic, but there are plenty of hurdles to overcome - chief among them is the need for it to be more... programmatic

How data holds the key to ensuring the progression of All programmatic maturity

Modern marketing is all about personalisation - and good personalisation is underpinned by data. For many organisations however, a fundamental disconnect between channels - particularly offline marketing - is preventing marketers from joining the dots.

In order to have a personal relationship with a consumer, brands need to break down barriers, de-silo their data, and identify their customers - a seemingly herculean task. Programmatic, and the data it uses and generates is, in many ways, exacerbating the problem. How can marketers ensure that offline data is onboarded, connected with online data and put to use effectively? How can they connect a postal address with a Facebook account, or an in-store purchase with an email address or a cookie? Increasingly important is the ability to recognise a single customer whether they interact on a mobile, a laptop, or a tablet. If a business can’t do this, it could be counting a far larger customer base than it actually has – and failing to understand that a customer is a single person may also undermine their faith in that business.

Data is the lynchpin at the heart of successful marketing strategies. It has the power to define and shape the way brands interact with their customers. Not only does it provide valuable insight on their individual preferences and behaviours, it enables marketing messages to be executed with a far greater level of personalisation and precision. In fact the effectiveness of any cross-channel campaign largely lives and breathes by the quality of the data sitting behind it.

In the recent past, the quest for Big Data dominated the marketing agenda of brands the world over. However, with vast amounts of data now being generated on a daily basis - four million posts are created on Facebook alone every minute – brands are increasingly adapting their approach to make sure they are capitalising on the key data within the burgeoning assets they have available.

One of the major obstacles to success in this regard is data alignment. As brands have increased the number of applications they use to engage with customers, they have naturally created more data and indeed data silos than they had before. As a result, brands have found themselves stuck with disparate data sets in different formats and locations across the business. This can create a complex environment for marketers to navigate and potentially leads to customers having a disjointed experience when they interact.

Strategic technology partnerships can provide the data backbone to help marketing leaders solve these challenges and get back to marketing. In fact, if carefully selected, the right technology can not only reduce complexity and overheads, but can dramatically increase ROI by activating previously untapped data and consumer potential. These partnerships can provide the tools to improve relevancy and enable brands to connect with consumers on a truly personal level.

Brands need to focus on how they can connect their 1st party data assets with other data sources online to establish a single rich data source and a more defined view of their customers. With rich, 1st party data available, telling us so much about our customers, why wouldn’t marketers want to connect and consolidate it with other data.

To do this requires an understanding of the importance of data onboarding. Data onboarding is a service which brings offline data such as CRM databases into an online environment so that it can be activated and used to transform marketing campaigns. For that to work, this offline data needs to be matched with existing online and digital data sets to create a full, uniquely rounded picture of the customer; which, in turn, relies on identity resolution – recognising the same person both online and off.

Businesses that have databases full of customer records have the power to transform that information into a valuable and rich business asset through onboarding. Through self-service dashboards billions of records can be uploaded in any format each month, meaning that the approach is easily scalable.

Once this data has been on-boarded, it can then be matched with existing data in a secure and anonymised environment where each record is assigned a unique identity. This ensures that consumers’ privacy is fully protected and within the letter of privacy laws. During this process all personally identifiable information is removed. Then the clever bit happens. These anonymised records are then matched to existing online and digital IDs held by partners like Facebook and media networks or platforms, to activate an additional layer of insight which can be used to improve the precision of brands targeting capabilities.

As a marketer, you’re now in a position to deliver better targeting, personalisation and measurement. To give the same message online and off, to recognise people for who they are and all their worth and to measure the impact; who wouldn’t want to be able to measure the real world purchases driven by digital advertising! Finally, think of that classic tale of woe from the web. You know the one, where you search for something, perhaps even buy it, and you’re subsequently retargeted with ads for that very same product or service again and again and probably again. With data onboarding, the CRM data, that knows the prospect is now your customer and has already bought the LED TV, is able to influence the digital ad world. This ensures that this same customer will remain anonymous in the digital space but can be categorised as someone who has a specific LED TV, allowing the advertiser to either decline to bid for the ad, or perhaps serve up a complimentary ad, say for a sound bar or Bluray player. Personalised marketing implies relevance and relevance determines how successful marketing is. Today, it’s more likely we have too much data than too little, but the data is fragmented, siloed and unable to be connected to real people to drive real relevance. With onboarding, that changes and with it, the ability for marketers to do their jobs well.

The rapid rise of programmatic media buying, not just in the UK but across the globe, has had a phenomenal impact and to a large extent provided a catalyst for change in the way brands build their campaigns. We may only be at the beginning of that journey but over the next year we will see data onboarding increasingly help brands bridge the gap between on and offline and how it can transform the impact, accuracy and relevance of their customer-centric campaign materials - Richard Foster, Managing Director, Live Ramp UK

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