Top publishers are wary of programmatic ad buying. They know a few things. One is that many advertisers are enthusiastic about buying this way, particularly when they can target specific audiences and leave the rest. The other is that this often leads to lower overall CPMs as the wheat is separated from the chaff.

For most, that’s meant a grudging acceptance of data-fueled ad buying, machine to machine. The middle ground has mostly been through private exchanges and direct pipes to agency trading desks, complete with safeguards to protect the publisher from getting taken to the cleaners. But is this possible?

Walker Jacobs, evp of digital ad sales at Turner and a regular scourge of programmatic buying evangelists, thinks this is a fool’s errand. He makes a persuasive case in Adexchanger that “no media company … is exceptional at selling both context and brands and selling audience … because those two strategies are at odds with each other. “

That comes back to the identity crisis Internet advertising has long faced. It talks the game of brand advertising, which is premised on high-quality content and spotless environments, but it has set up a system of cherry-picked impressions and click counting ready-made for direct marketing. Premium publishers regularly lament the commoditization of their advertising placements. And yet, at the same time, the No. 1 desire for RTB buyers is for more quality inventory. Turner has made the decision to just say no:

It’s a very funny thing, because to the untrained eye, we might seem like an unsophisticated old media company that is scared to embrace technology. The opposite couldn’t be much closer to the truth. We’ve invested a tremendous amount in technology and understanding our audiences, and being able to develop analytics and insights to marketing partners, leveraging the same and similar technologies that audience-based targeting harnesses. We believe the downside of RTB and private exchanges is that it fragments audiences.

Turner, with high-end content like the NCAA basketball championships and, now, Funny or Die, can get away with this absolutist approach. The question is whether other premium content publishers could — and should — follow suit.

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