The Second Coming of Programmatic: Time Waits for No Ad

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What struck me the most at this year’s Cannes Lions festival wasn’t that, after all these years, schmoozing in the south of France is still alive and well (it is)—but how next generation of programmatic is here and it’s going to change everything.

When I talked with brands and agencies about this future at Cannes, most agreed it was coming. A few are ready, while others are banking on it taking a while.

If the first generation of programmatic was built on the realization that technology can buy media faster and more efficiently than a human, the second generation will be about the optimization of cross-platform media budgets, the flexibility of the creative served and the achievement of measurable outcomes.The path is obvious—computers are capable of managing more data faster than humans. The only unknown is how quickly the advertising landscape will change and what new roles this future will hold for brands and their agencies.

The advertising ecosystem has always been complicated.

Like building ads, finding an audience is a specialty. Buying the most media for the least amount is the province of skilled professionals with great connections. Every new channel requires a new expert, budget, vender, creative, ad type, metric and vocabulary. Thus, brands have been reduced to merely check writers, who feel they are the only ones on the hook for their business’s growth—yet dare not question the next new thing, regardless of performance, for fear of missing out. Agencies are all too happy to simplify it for a price.

I’m not saying media agencies are bad. In fact, each successful technical advancement requires early adopters willing to bridge the usability gaps to make nascent advancements accessible to the less sophisticated by wrapping them in accommodating service. I’m not even saying it’s unreasonable for these companies to charge a healthy margin to deliver these services.

But, history tells us that as soon as an end-user can cut out the service layer, they will. Chauffeurs, travel agents, stock brokers and secretaries line the path that the digital media buyer will eventually walk. Like the others, those individuals will find new roles and new ways to deliver value.

The programmatic promise to brands of tomorrow is both audacious and simple.

Essentially, at the click of a button, you can effectively and efficiently advertise for yourself (and by yourself), across every digital option with a single tool and a single budget.

In this new automated, optimized and outcome-based world, a system will learn to predict trends in pricing and performance, for particular types of advertisers, ad formats, ad sizes or the content and style of creative executions with incredible accuracy. The system would know when to run the funny alternative of an ad as a video on social media, instead of a static on mobile, because it knows what will best meet the brand’s objectives between 11:30 and 11:35 a.m. on a Tuesday.

Creative remains the last amorphous, subjective variable.

While neither automated nor human media buyers give much credence to the creative side of the equation, everyone knows the crucial role that the right creative can play in performance. Because it is so complex and specialized, creative is rare and expensive. This is especially true as video becomes the language of the day.

Most media plans employ a few ad concepts executed in a handful of common sizes. Even when dynamic technology is employed to assure better message and market fit, the assortment of ad executions produced is usually limited. There may be media opportunities that are right for the brand, but the buyer simply can’t activate because they don’t have the right size ad for the space.

To take full advantage of the programmatic media buffet, a buyer must be armed with the whole range of ad configurations for every single ad. Again, this isn’t possible when thirty ad sizes and two ad formats, designed to fit all digital channels, have to be built by hand.

However, tomorrow’s technology will automatically create fully responsive ads in every size and format from a brand’s best creative concepts. That way, the ad buying platform can always buy whatever delivers the best results to reach the right consumer. Rather than a human looking at multiple dashboards and moving money around as a delayed reaction to what they’re seeing.

So, where does the agency of tomorrow fit?

I’d argue in the many places where people will always be better than computers: Telling a brand’s story with compelling, engaging creative ad concepts and driving strategy based on experience and their understanding of human behavior. What computers can do better and much faster is collect, analyze and push data through a rule-set, make multiple simultaneous decisions and measure the results. And we should let them.

The biggest impact will be on the brands. For the first time, if you have a product to sell and a story to tell, you will be able to create and deliver your own advertising. This shift toward brands bringing advertising in-house is already in motion, started by performance brands more than a decade ago. Now it makes sense for virtually any brand.

Advertising will come down to just defining your message and setting your goal. The upside will be that brands can learn what their audience is most responsive to, so they can use that learning elsewhere in their business.

The next generation of programmatic is here today—and time waits for no one.

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