It has become easier to buy ads programmatically for digital billboards and other out-of-home ads over the past year, thanks to more widely available programmatically enabled digital screens.

Both demand-side and supply-side platforms are recognizing the potential of the technology, and the influx of digital OOH placements over the last decade has buoyed this shift, as media owners like Lamar, Clear Channel and others have made significant investments to transition media placements from static to digital.

Now, as those digital placements are more widely available, the movement to make that inventory available across SSPs has ramped up. With the recent breadth of digital screens available, nimble programmatic capabilities are needed to make sure content across them is new and fresh. Still, even as the opportunity to use programmatic buying for digital OOH has grown, media buyers worry about fragmentation, brand safety and attribution issues. They also caution against using digital billboards as a typical digital placement, as billboards are a specific medium that needs to be used in a specific way.

The chance to buy OOH placements more quickly and easily than traditional OOH and use the algorithms and mechanisms of other biddable channels, such as social and display, as well as the possibility of better attribution is attractive, according to media agency sources who say that interest in digital OOH has increased in the last six months. In 2018, digital represented 29% of the total OOH revenue, up from 24% in 2017, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. (The company does not yet break out what programmatic represents in terms of digital OOH revenue.) In the first quarter of 2019, OOH advertising revenue rose by 6%, totaling $1.78 billion, per the OAAA.

“It’s dramatically different now than it was a year ago,” said Megan Halscheid, vp of media tech strategies at Publicis Media. “We’ve seen it in the interest from our clients and advertisers in terms of a shift. DSPs and SSPs are recognizing the new potential demand for buying this channel. The media owners are making that digital investment anyway. They see the advantages of buying that programmatically.”

As demand has grown for programmatic buying for digital OOH agencies have had to figure out how teams will manage that. For some agencies, like Publicis Media, Digitas and 360i, it’s the programmatic team who takes but makes sure to partner with the OOH team. For other smaller agencies, like Fallon’s media practice, the traditional outdoor team will manage it. While it’s standard for agencies to use teams across the agency to figure out new practices, the push into programmatic buying for digital OOH comes as media agencies are making more investments in their programmatic practices in general.

“We’re hiring significantly and investing significantly in programmatic overall, be it video, programmatic out of home display, etc.,” said 360i Chief Media Officer Doug Rozen. “Our investment in the programmatic space is significant and continues to grow because more and more [media is] becoming biddable or automated in general.”

The rapid growth of digital screens coupled with major contracts for digital billboards — like the MTA’s 50,000 screen deal with Outfront — has pushed the need for programmatic and automation, said Stephen Freitas, chief marketing officer, OAAA.

We’re seeing a lot of platforms being developed and deployed, both in terms of SSP and DSPs,” said Freitas. “The out-of-home media companies, certainly the big ones in the digital space, are all developing or their own proprietary SSPs or tapping into existing platforms. On the DSP side, there are lots and lots of platforms that are being developed and deployed in the marketplace, from agencies directly and out-home-home specialist groups to third-party platforms that are being deployed and used.”

The rise in solutions for programmatic buying in digital OOH has led to fragmentation in the space, said Halschied, adding that it’s similar to when programmatic buying, in general, was introduced and that consolidation and integration is happening. It’s a little bit of the wild West in terms of integrations right now,” she said. “It’s a good thing that it’s happening because it provides more access and more options for advertisers in the long run. Otherwise you’d be limited to few buying platforms and a few supply sources. Now that there are multiple integrations it, opens up the market.”

As for the bid structure, while last fall the offerings were closer to automated guaranteed-buy type, now if media agencies work with major DSPs it can be part of an auction-based system.

Other potential challenges include brand safety, tracking and attribution, wrote Emily Smith, associate director of programmatic and social at Digitas, in an email.

Attribution, in particular, is evolving as heat mapping and location data give marketers a better picture into who the ad will be served to. Still, even with that they may not know for sure if a person has seen the ad but just that they were near it. “It’s better than where it was 10 or 20 years ago,” said 360i’s Rozen. “It’s not perfect — and there are not many channels where attribution is perfect — but it’s better than before, and it’s improving remarkably.”

But even as media buyers are excited about the growth and opportunity programmatic digital OOH presents, some caution against treating digital billboards like just another digital placement. “Outdoor serves a purpose,” said Andy Rhode, media director at Fallon. “If we use programmatic to just throw a message at someone and layer frequency instead of thinking about the medium that’s a problem. It shouldn’t be treated like a banner ad.”

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