What the heck does “programmatic” mean?

By Eric Picard (originally published on iMediaConnection.com 1/10/13)

This article is about programmatic media buying and selling, which I would define as any method of buying or selling media that enables a buyer to complete a media buy and have it go live, all without human intervention from a seller.

Programmatic is a superset of exchange, RTB, auction, and other types of automated media buying and selling that have mainly been proven out for remnant ad inventory clearing mechanisms up until today. So while an auction might or might not be involved in programmatic buying and selling, the roots and infrastructure behind the new programmatic world is based on the same infrastructure that the ad exchanges, DSPs, SSPs, and ad servers have been plumbing and re-plumbing over the last five years.

Let’s talk first about so-called “programmatic premium” inventory, as this is what I’m seeing as the most confusing thing in the market today. Many people still think of programmatic media as remnant inventory sold using real-time bidding. But that’s far from the whole truth today. All display media could (mechanically) be bought and sold programmatically today — whether via RTB or not, whether it’s guaranteed or not, and whether it’s “premium” or not. Eventually all advertising across all media will be bought and sold programmatically. Sometimes it will be bought with a guarantee, sometimes it won’t.

What we’re talking about is how the campaigns get flighted and how ad inventory is allocated against a specific advertiser’s campaign. In premium display advertising, this is done today by humans using tools, mostly on the publisher side of the market. In the programmatic world, all buys — even the up-front buys — will be executed programmatically. So when I say that all ads will be bought and sold programmatically, I mean that literally. If Coke spends $50 million with Disney at an upfront event, that $50 million will still be executed programmatically throughout the life of that buy. The insertion order and RFP process goes away (as we know it) and is replaced by a much more efficient set of processes.

In this new world, sales teams don’t go away. They become more focused on the value that they can add most effectively. That’s in the relationship and evangelism of their properties and the unique content and brand-safe environment that they bring to the table. Sales teams will also engage in broader, more valuable negotiations with buyers — doing more business development and no “order taking.”

In a programmatic world, prices and a whole slew of terms can be negotiated in advance. Essentially what’s happening is that the order-taking process, the RFP, and the inventory avail “look up” that have been intensely manual for the past 20 years are being automated. And APIs between systems have opened up that allow all these various tools to communicate directly and to drive through the existing roadblocks.

Here are five things everyone in our industry should know about programmatic media buying and selling.

It’s inevitable

Programmatic buying and selling is coming, is coming big, and will change the way people buy and sell nearly all media — across all media types — over the next five to 10 years. This will be the case in online display over the next two to three years.

It’s comprehensive

Programmatic is not just RTB, is not just “bidding,” and is not one channel of sales. It’s comprehensive, it’s everything that will be bought and sold, and it’s all forms of media across all sales channels. That’s why I’m hedging by saying five to 10 years, as it will take more than five years to do all these things across all media. But certainly fewer than 10. And a lot is transitioning over the next two years, especially online.

Prices will still vary

In non-programmatic buying and selling (old-fashioned traditional relationship sales), different customers are charged different prices all the time for exactly the same product. That doesn’t go away. Different advertisers get different prices for all sorts of reasons. In the worst case, the buyers might be worse negotiators. But it could be that the advertisers spend more than $1 million monthly with that publisher and therefore get a huge discount on CPM. There are all sorts of reasons that this happens. The same exact thing will happen programmatically. Various advertisers will have hard-coded discounts that are negotiated by humans in advance. Price will drop as thresholds on overall spend are hit. Prestigious brands will get preferences that crappy or unknown brands don’t get. This can all be accommodated right now — this very minute — in almost every major system out there. It’s here. Now.

Complexities will remain

All the various “ad platforms” of the past and the new true ad platforms of today have opened up APIs and can communicate with each other programmatically. This is the way the infrastructure is powering programmatic buying and selling. I can’t stress to all of you how fundamental this change is. It’s not about bidding, auctions, futures, hedges, etc. — although those things will certainly exist and proliferate. It’s about automating the buying and selling process, removing friction from the market, and providing immense increases in value across the board. People talk about how complex the LUMAscape map of ad tech vendors is, but what they miss is that there’s plenty of room for lots of players when they can all easily connect and interact. I do believe we’ll see consolidation — mainly because there’s too little differentiation in the space (lots of copycat companies trying to compete with each other). But I do believe that the ecosystem can afford to be complex.

TV comparisons do not apply

People keep using the television upfronts as the analog to online premium inventory, and the television scatter market as the analog of remnant inventory. That’s not the right metaphor; they’re not equivalent. And even TV will move to programmatic buying and selling in the next decade. But let me lay this old saw to rest once and for all:

  • In television, the up-front is a discount mechanism. Buyers commit to certain spend in order to get a discount. Publishers use the upfront as a hedge in order to mitigate later-term risk by the seller that they will not sell out their inventories.
  • The scatter market is still the equivalent of guaranteed inventory online (although it’s more “reserved” than guaranteed). It’s just sold closer to the date of the inventory going live. I’d argue that with the exception of the random “upfronts” run by some publishers online today, all online premium ad sales is the equivalent of the television scatter market.
  • Remnant is a wholly other thing in television — and isn’t part of the scatter market. TV limits remnant significantly (in healthy economies to about 10 percent of total inventory). We’ve mucked that all up online by selling every impression at any price, which has lowered overall yield and flooded the market with cheap inventory — most of which is worthless.

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