'It won't look anything like digital': Confessions of a TV sales exec on programmatic TV

If programmatic TV becomes a reality, it’s not going to happen in the way that current digital programmatic players want it to. In fact, it might not even resemble digital programmatic at all, with its focus on transactions above advanced data. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, we spoke with a senior TV sales executive about the future of programmatic TV and how it will differ from programmatic on digital. As always, we granted anonymity in exchange for candor.

Here are the excerpts, edited for clarity.

What’s the biggest thing stopping programmatic from coming to TV?
There’s a massive issue between legacy TV people and digital people. It’s like a scene from “Braveheart” where you have both sides screaming at each other across the battlefield. And the fight is that digital people are adamant that TV is going to be all-digital and is going to be transacted in the same way that digital is, with all of the decisioning existing outside of the walls of publishers and media companies. Then you have legacy TV people going, “Absolutely not, fuck you, you don’t know this business. This is not how TV works, and it will never change.” The problem is: They’re both wrong. To make it a reality, we’re going to need something new, which lends itself to taking pieces from both buckets.

How so?
Fundamentally, the future of TV and video needs to be about data- and analytics-driven execution. In linear, the programmatic players — the DSPs and SSPs — they’ll knock on our door every day and say they can help us simplify the transactional process. My response is always the same: TV does not have a transactional problem. This is an industry that sells 70 billion dollars in ads every year. When you’re buying on a simple Nielsen C3 currency, it’s easy. And the people whose job it is to buy and sell TV inventory are experts on that transaction. We’ve boiled it down to two numbers: rate of change and volume. We can do a $500 million upfront deal on those two numbers alone. It’s the most efficient process there is today. So when legacy programmatic companies tell us they can make the transaction easy, we laugh. How can it possibly be easier? We can sell $1.8 billion in 72 hours — shit, it would take me longer to count it.

If money’s not the problem, what is?
What we can’t do is sell inventory using advanced data sets in 72 hours, while also offering real-time optimization. It’s too complicated. That’s why we need the tech to step up.

The only reason this does not exist is because it’s not what the traditional programmatic players are focused on. Again, they’re leading with the wrong problem — that we need programmatic to make transactions easier. Anytime these DSPs or SSPs come in here, one of the first things I ask them is: “Now that you have these audience analytics and their dashboards, how are you building audience estimates?” They look at me like I’m crazy. TV is a futures market. The second you want to talk about advanced data sets, you have to be able to estimate what “Seinfeld” is going to deliver next Tuesday at 2 p.m. But that’s completely lost on them.

If they’re so lost, why even bother meeting with them?
Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. So far, they’ve all got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean at some point someone won’t get it right.

How much of that has to do with the fact that some of the major media companies — Turner, Viacom — are building their own ad and data products? These programmatic vendors would be competitors, then, no?
The ecosystem has to be built on the promise of data and better decisioning — and the publishers have to be the ones doing that. We need to have a hand in it. And we need to keep the inventory intact. The idea of giving a little to this guy, and this guy, and this guy, and having it be transacted on eight different platforms — it’s not going to work. Programmatic TV doesn’t exist because you don’t have media owners building it in a big, viable way. Most are still circling around it. Over the next two years, I think programmatic TV becomes a reality, but it won’t look anything like digital programmatic.