The programmatic forecast: Curation takes hold

In the first article of this series, the state of programmatic, we asked representatives from brands, agencies and technology providers about the early days of programmatic technology, as well as its original intention vs. where it is today. For our second and final article, we asked these same representatives, what’s next?

Tomorrow’s forecast: curation takes hold

Programmatic sustained a black eye in 2018. Brand marketers across the industry wrung their hands, fretting that they had exerted too little influence over whether or not their buys were hitting their ideal audience targets, meeting basic KPIs or generating ROI at all. As a result, a slew of companies decided to take back control. They hired specialists and, in some cases, attempted to in-house their entire programmatic apparatus, from technology to dedicated personnel.

But agencies, tech providers and even publishers have questioned the wisdom of this approach, championing the years worth of programmatic experience, expertise and infrastructure that they’ve built within their walls. Indeed, many of the brands that lurched toward a fully in-house approach came to the same conclusion last year and reluctantly reversed course.

Even as the in-house trend has met headwinds, brands still covet control, and they’re working to bring more curation to their programmatic efforts. Specifically, they’re taking more steps than ever to directly manage which data they feed into their programmatic buys, optimize their supply paths, utilize sophisticated data science, and to gain more transparency into where their buys are placed — and at what cost.

So as we head deeper into 2019, we now face a new question: How will brands achieve curation? What will they handle on their own? And to what extent will they rely on their external partners?

Let’s take a look.

Brands empower data scientists

Programmatic practitioners look certain to rely more and more heavily on the power of data scientists. Rather than leaning on these professionals solely for after-the-fact analysis, organizations will ask them to become more intimately involved in executing overall strategic goals, taking a hands-on approach to crafting audience segments and melding first-party and third-party data.

“It’s about directing platforms to buy [based on] the data and science rather than using the platforms to figure out what it is they should be buying,” said Joe Meehan, GM of North America at IPONWEB. In other words, DSPs and SSPs will no longer be asked to handle everything on their own.

Teaming with the mercenaries

Within the past 6 months, major brands like Intel and Vodafone have backtracked on in-housing, determining that they didn’t possess the resources or expertise to make the shift a functional reality. Yes, specialists are vital — but that doesn’t mean they all need to be under your own roof.

“I think a lot of where in-housing stalled was on the hiring front,” said Ryan Pauley, chief revenue officer at Vox Media. “Some marketers found that it’s difficult to find as much talent as they need to bring a lot of these pieces in-house. But if you work with partners in the ecosystem who have been doing this for five-plus years, then you just learn a lot more.”

There’s no question that many of the marketing pros who are most knowledgeable about the programmatic space continue to work for agencies and, to some extent, publishers; cutting those partners out of the picture can create a huge expertise deficit.

“You have a lot of people who are losing education right as things are becoming more complex in programmatic,” said Oscar Garza, evp of media activation at the digital agency Essence.

“I think in the next year or so there will be some horror stories about in-housing in the market,” he added.

The publisher’s role will grow

For curation to work, it’s critical that both brands and publishers forge closer programmatic relationships with one another. This will require a more consultative approach, especially on the publisher’s side. Some publishers are already devoting resources to becoming a dependable partner, as opposed to a provider. Like any good partner, that means not only taking the time to listen, but to understand and respond accordingly. “You need a team to be able to sit with a programmatic buyer to understand what their KPIs are,” said Vox Media’s Pauley. “Then [you] look at where [you] see the best performance across [your] portfolio, and work together to achieve those desired outcomes.”

Brands also want partners that broaden their horizons. That means publishers need to consistently bring unique, advanced ad products and formats to the table. A wider, more innovative selection of ad products is conducive to better curation and creates competitive advantages – not only for the brands using them, but for the publishers creating them. “Programmatic buyers have been subjected to standard sizes, standard boxes and banners,” said Pauley. “If you can introduce creative ad products, you’re differentiated.”

Turning on the television

Every year, prognosticators struggle to predict where programmatic buying will find new footing. It’s a crucial question — curation, after all, is more feasible (and lucrative) when there are more options to choose from. Despite years of hyperbole and speculation, one trend does look fairly likely: TV will be an increasingly prominent programmatic playground.

That’s been said many times before, of course. What’s different this year is that the definition of TV is changing. If we’re counting OTT platforms, the pipes that fuel programmatic TV already exist.

In years past, the biggest obstacle to ramping up programmatic TV spending may simply have been unrealistic expectations among marketers. “I think the illusion that programmatic TV would largely be traded at remnant and at small dollar prices is what we’re waking up from,” said IPONWEB’s Meehan. “But if you can get access to the inventory, and you can layer in your own data, you should be willing to pay more, because now you can be more selective about what you buy.”

What brands are only now starting to realize is that the extra cost may be worth it. The ability to layer in one’s own data could wind up being the key incentive that finally makes programmatic TV — at least in the OTT space — a reality.

This same ability might also be the key to curation becoming a cross-platform industry standard.

What comes next?

The future of programmatic is always hard to forecast, in large part because industry players themselves are constantly struggling to determine the wisest course of action. But amidst the fog and rain, some things are finally starting to crystallize.

As the year progresses, we’re highly likely to see closer, more trusting relationships between brands, agencies and publishers; a wider variety of unique, programmatic-enabled ad products; a test of the OTT waters; and perhaps most importantly, a heavy emphasis on brands empowering their tech experts to leverage data and data science to curate audience segments and overall supply, in partnership with their agency and publishing brethren – transparently and constructively.

Programmatic technology entered the marketplace as a minor tropical storm of sorts — then rapidly evolved into a category five hurricane, permanently upending the way digital advertisers do business. But the industry is still learning how to harness those winds in its favor.

You can’t predict the weather, but with this forecast in mind, the future of programmatic is looking a little less hazy.

More from Digiday

Inside X’s latest, desperate attempt to beguile advertisers

If X has its way, 2024 will be the year it hits the long, twisted trail back to advertiser land, according to the platform’s pitch deck.

The Guardian US is starting its pursuit of political ad dollars

The Guardian US is entering the race for political ad dollars.

Media Buying Briefing: Can agencies help brands expand gaming and esports as women’s sports shine?

As women’s sports continue to capture audiences through March Madness and soccer, will agencies and brands be able to channel some of that momentum in the growing esports and gaming spaces?