Op-ed: Time to retire the term ‘programmatic’

Kolin Kleveno is vp, programmatic advertising at 360i

I have a confession: I hate the term “programmatic.” It’s not only overused, but often misused. Industry trades, ad tech vendors, publishers, and agencies alike all use the term in whichever fashion that best suits their own needs.  We need to agree to one uniform definition and start using it correctly.

Programmatic advertising has evolved significantly over the past 13-plus years, going from the ability to buy and sell banner ads via real-time bidding to transacting on other media like TV, radio and out-of-home. Herein lies the problem: Because programmatic capabilities are ever-evolving, everyone has taken the liberty to adapt the definition of programmatic, making the term oversaturated with meaning.

At its core, programmatic stands for the buying and selling of data-driven media through automated tools. It’s the mutually inclusive combination of data-driven and automated that makes programmatic fundamentally different from other types of media buying. But agencies and ad tech vendors alike have divided these two qualifiers and label a thing programmatic as long as it includes at least one of them even if in the simplest of manners. Just ask any marketer who has tried to figure out what’s truly possible with programmatic TV.

Exacerbating the issue, the use of programmatic soared in practice – growing from its roots in real-time bidding, to private marketplaces, to guaranteed buys — creating a new industry buzzword. In 2014, programmatic was voted as the Marketing Word of the Year by the Association of National Advertisers ushering in the term’s point of maximum saturation. It started making regular appearances at panel discussions, on client briefs and in industry think pieces (like this one). With each use and delivery, its meaning was warped further leaving us with the vague yet convoluted definition of what programmatic is. Programmatic now stands for too many things, and so therefore it stands for nothing.

Until industry pundits can fix the mess we helped create, my advice to marketers is this: don’t let the buzz around programmatic cloud your objective. Finding and reaching your target audience with the ultimate goal of inciting action is still the aim of advertising. How that is achieved and whether or not programmatic is used in its execution should not change that goal. Programmatic isn’t a thing you do; it’s simply a way of buying media.

When making programmatic part of your media plan, it should be integrated and transparent. Continue to educate yourself and don’t assume that what others lay claim to regarding programmatic aligns with your definition of the term.

It’s clear that many who work in programmatic buying agree the current use of “programmatic” is murky at best, so I’m advocating for a change. As I stated above, “programmatic” is the combination of data-driven and automation. Make sure that when anyone is speaking to you about “programmatic” you ensure it meets these two basic requirements.

Five years down the road the vast majority of media (linear TV remains an outlier) will be planned, bought, and sold programmatically. Consequently, taking back “programmatic” now and agreeing on the definition of term is a requirement for the progression of the industry.


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