Why programmatic is only as limited as your imagination

Posted by Dax Hamman on May 16th, 2014 at 7:00 am

If you go to enough ad tech conferences, you’ve probably heard people grumbling about the limits of programmatic. Sure, programmatic is great, they say, but there’s only so much you can do with a limited number of standardized banners. If you want to get creative or get serious about brand marketing, the argument goes, you’ve got to think beyond programmatic.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these types of arguments, and every time I do I can almost feel my blood pressure rising. Because, sure, there are always going to be some standards in place when you’re focused on scaling. But, that said, there is enormous room for creativity and new approaches within programmatic. And, frankly, if you’re not seeing that, then you’re misunderstanding what programmatic is all about.

Programmatic, after all, isn’t merely a way of buying display units in real time. It’s a concept, a vision of how marketers can use data to deliver messages to the exact right people at the exact right times. In the last few years we’ve already seen a rapid evolution of programmatic-driven techniques. If you don’t believe me, just check out the latest IAB guidelines. Or think about the Facebook Exchange (FBX) or the rise of pre-rolls, or the emergence of flow advertising.

Or, better yet, think about the latest evolution of programmatic, Twitter’s Tailored Audiences. Launched late last year, Tailored Audiences makes it possible to deliver targeted tweets in much the same way we now deliver targeted banners. And, sure, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with Tailored Audiences if you don’t want to.  Plenty of marketers will use Tailored Audiences as a form of Site Retargeting, sending sponsored tweets only to those users who have visited their sites but failed to perform an action.

But let’s remember that you can also use your CRM data for programmatic targeting. Couple this fact with the ability to craft a distinct voice or personality on Twitter and programmatic targeting suddenly begins to seem a whole lot different. Why not retarget customers who bought something through your site with a sincere or witty  “thank you” tweet?  Why not send targeted tweets with engaging questions to users who put items in their carts but never made a purchase?

The possibilities are almost endless. And we’re still in early days when it comes to programmatic. This is a long evolutionary process that is only just beginning.

Take the analogy of a car. For many years, a car meant a motorized vehicle running on gasoline that could take you from point A to point B. Today, a car still means a motorized vehicle that takes you from point A to point B, but the motors don’t need to run on gasoline. Likewise, programmatic is built around data, algorithms, client goals, and, most importantly, user engagement and value. And just as a car will always have some type of motor, those elements will always be a part of programmatic. But the specifics of how we use data and how we engage users will almost certainly be as different as gasoline and electric motors.

If it helps, imagine if someone like Steve Jobs had devoted his career to programmatic. Does anybody doubt that Jobs would have not only revolutionized the look and feel of our ad units but also the technology that supports the industry? Of course he would have. And the Steve Jobs of programmatic is most likely out there right now, working quietly at a small startup or in his or her garage. I, for one, can’t wait to see how that person causes me to rethink everything I currently take for granted about how we use data in advertising.

In other words, the next time you hear people grumbling about the limits of programmatic, you might want to kindly tell them to use their imaginations. Then you might want to run out and grab some blood pressure medication.

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