Saving Programmatic.

Last week in this space I suggested that one unintended outcome of our decade-long dance with programmatic buying was the dark, dangerous alternative world we’d brought into being.  Borrowing an analogy from the Netflix series Stranger Things, call it “The Programmatic Upside Down,” rife with fraud, bots, hate speech, fake news and every other means of foul beastie.

In a speech last week in Los Angeles, I suggested that while an uncritical devotion to “tech for the sake of tech” had opened the breach to this world, it was people who would help close it.  Here, then, are the four types of people we should endeavor to find, groom, hire and deploy in the programmatic world of the next five years.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

The Activator.  Ironically, those who plan and build programmatic stacks and strategies can be too closed in their thinking and too slow to act on new insights and improvements.  The Activator is the executive who can not only explain why, but why now.  He or she can create urgency around meaningful change and development from the outside – who can lay waste to the kind of group think and inertia that assure many a programmatic strategy will bear poisoned fruit.

The Fixer.  The role of The Fixer is also to disrupt the destructively myopic processes and decision making of the group.  Except he or she works from the inside out.  The Fixer is willing to call out the bad outcome the group might not be considering…to ask the hard question.  Blessed with a good strategic mind and highly-evolved pattern recognition, The Fixer can help the group abandon the path that leads into The Programmatic Upside Down.

The White Hat.   A few years ago, Chief Privacy Officers were all the rage.  Perhaps the next five years we’ll see the emergence of the Chief Hygienist….The White Hat.  An unwavering advocate of transparency and quality, The White Hat invites scrutiny from meaningful third parties and holds the organization to the highest standards.

The Integrator.  For most of its existence, programmatic has run along its own parallel track alongside creative solutions and direct sales.  Clearly those tracks are starting to cross now, which leads us to the need for The Integrator.  He or she will be the one who plans and sells programmatic solutions as part of a larger marketing, creative and business mix.  The question will no longer be “how much should we spend programmatically?” but rather “how will programmatic solutions help us scale and deliver all of our unique benefits to marketers?”

Your organizations – publisher, agency, marketer, tech provider – will call these archetypes by scores of different titles.  But know that you need them…now and for the rest of your existence.  They are what stand between you and technology run amok.

Read my original article on 212NYC’s new thought leadership newsletter, The Scryer.

The Programmatic Upside Down.

There are no serious spoilers in this post, so if you’re not yet finished with season two of “Stranger Things” – or if you’ve not seen the Netflix show at all – you’re safe.  I’m giving nothing critical away by telling you that the core of the story revolves around a dark, frightening dimension that’s a reverse-mirror image of our world; a place that’s slimy, cold and gray and full of dark corners and scary things.  It’s called “The Upside Down.”

Over the past decade we’ve all been part of the invention and growth of programmatic advertising.  While there’s no question that data-fueled automation and process reform are hard trends that will continue to grow and develop, it’s also true that – just like the scientists on “Stranger Things” – our blind devotion to technology may have blown open a passage to a dark version of the internet.  Let’s call it “The Programmatic Upside Down.”

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

The internet we describe and sell to advertisers is filled with great articles and creative videos, all being eagerly consumed by attentive customers.  It’s a well-lit world with laws and crosswalks and predictable ROI.  But along with the rest of us, marketers are now seeing that our sometimes-myopic devotion to technology for its own sake has meant that their brands and messages sometimes end up in The Programmatic Upside Down.

The Programmatic Upside Down is a cold gray place of fraud and bots, of risque content, hate speech and fake news mills.  It mimics the shape and structure of the internet we describe, but it’s in no way the one that marketers would willingly buy into.

The good news?  It’s that 2017 brought its existence into focus with unmistakable clarity. We can see it and we can understand why it’s happening and what’s feeding it.  Collectively we all now have a mission:  we must now devote our business models, our technology and – most importantly – our people to shutting off access to The Programmatic Upside Down.  Devotion to purity of supply and quality of data are a good start.  Embracing the oversight of qualified third-parties to police us is also critical.

And perhaps most important is that we fully realize that there is no longer a convenient, situational middle ground:  you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.  There’s no time to waste:  The Demo-Dogs are already on the run.

Local Food.

Leave it to Mike Shields of Business Insider for taking a position and calling out marketers and agencies for the faux shock they are expressing on issues of fraud and supply chain corruption.  Not since Tom Phillips of Dstillery famously evoked HBO’s “The Wire” has culpability been served in such substantial portions.

I’m sure that many in our industry will have nits to pick with Mike – honest people can disagree.  But come on people!  At very least, the optics are terrible.  Marketers publicly crying foul, agencies and tech companies pointing fingers at one another… it’s enough to give one the vapors!

As my small contribution to the debate, I’m offering a new way to look at the issues of quality, transparency, viewabilty, etc.  Set aside all the tech speak and financial-bubble metaphors:  the discussion is really about the quality of the internet food supply.  Welcome to the concept of local food!

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by Digital Remedy, a digital marketing and technology solutions partner to publishers, advertisers, and influencers. Digital Remedy delivers performance-based and cross-channel solutions to increase monetization and operations potential of any organization while exceeding standard KPIs. Visit Digital Remedy to learn more.

Rather than continually backpedaling on issues like the percentage of viewable impressions and acceptable fraud levels, might we instead start to compete on the basis of quality – on how much we do know about the inventory we serve?  Might we now start talking about the exact source of inventory – where it was born – and exactly what hands its passed through on its way to market?  No shady rail depots or slaughterhouses.  No grain silos tainted by GMOs or banned pesticides.  I know the where all of my impressions came from and you are getting the cleanest shipment imaginable – USDA prime!

Think this is all a bit much?  Or perhaps that I’ve gotten soft in the head from living in a farm state – Vermont – all these years?  Maybe you’re right.  But consider for a minute the plight of the small publisher who’s struggling to get fair compensation for high quality inventory?  Is she really all that different from the organic farmer who’s now able to charge a premium for a purer, cleaner product?  Or think about the volume publisher or platform operating in a bottomless pool of inventory:  Isn’t he a bit like the big packaged goods company trying to drive up the price of commodity staples by appending organic, gluten-free or non-GMO to every possible product?

Maybe it’s not as simple as asking the advertiser do you know exactly how that got on your plate?  But maybe it’s not such a bad way to start the conversation.

The Scourge of Abundance.

The Scourge of AbundanceThis week I’d like to double down on a theme I raised last month: ad blocking. (“Another Pox on Our House!”) It’s not that it’s a particularly new topic, or that I get some perverse kick out of piling on. It’s just the latest symptom of an affliction that’s plagued online marketing for years: the Scourge of Abundance.

Who remembers brand safety? It seems we were talking about that particular ailment just a few months ago. But since then we’ve seen outbreaks of non-viewability, fraud and now – like the comeback of a retro disease like scurvy or consumption – the resurgence of ad blocking software.

This week’s Drift is underwritten by Krux, which helps marketers and publishers worldwide deliver more personal, more valuable advertising, content, and commerce experiences, improving revenue performance and deepening engagement across all consumer touchpoints. Clients include companies like Kellogg, Time Warner, Meredith, BBC and Ticketmaster, with enterprises achieving 10x return or higher on their investment. Visit to learn more. 

What these all have in common is that they stem from a business that’s been built on a set of faulty premises: the proposition that more ads are always better; the idea that we should be maximizing the fill rate of all available ‘inventory;’ and that somehow our fortunes are to be mined from a future where our already-unimaginable supply of ads gets even bigger. Even McDonald’s has stopped focusing on the “billions and billions” of hamburgers served over the years, talking instead about the unique experience you may have with one of their products or restaurants.

We digerati love to carp about how television is getting more than its ‘fair share’ of ad spending (as though ‘fairness’ were even relevant, but that’s another post). But one thing TV has been really good at is establishing and managing scarcity. On one level – available inventory – it’s a much smaller business than ours; on another – advertiser investment – it’s still a behemoth.

I think even the dead-enders among us realize now that “more ads” is not the answer. Instead, we need to identify those things in that are scarce – a ridiculously valuable audience segment, a unique brand experience, a smart integration – and work backward from those points of value.   We’ve had 20 years of doing less and less with more and more:   It might be time to start doing more with less.

Programmatic: All Grown Up Now?

Programmatic All Grown Up NowIf it’s all the same to you, I suggest we agree to write off the first five years of the programmatic era.   I mean, let’s face it:  these first few years haven’t been all that flattering.  It’s been a half-decade of adolescent excess, exaggerated fame, reckless experimentation and more than a little danger.  Who knew the B in RTB stood for “Bieber?”

Before all my Prog friends start hating, let me say what I’ve said all along:  Programmatic is not a phase and it’s not optional; it’s absolutely a hard trend that will reshape the entire business of marketing.  That it’s so fundamental and serious is all the more reason we’ll look back on these early years the way we look back at 80s haircuts and the contents of our old mixtapes.

This week’s Drift is proudly underwritten by Bionic Advertising Systems, an advertising technology company focused on delivering innovative software that streamlines and automates media workflow for marketers, their advertising agencies, and publishers.

When Programmatic first came on the scene, we went through a period of wild, unmitigated excitement… even though most of us couldn’t fully understand what we were so excited about.  All we knew was that anybody who could spell “RTB” got a spot on the LUMAscape and a pot of gold at the end of the journey. Call this period “RTBieberFever.”

After elation there is always backlash.  And so there was.   The technology and business was harder than we’d been led to believe, the revenues more sluggish and unpredictable.  We all learned to say “Programmatic is about more than RTB” but most of us weren’t really sure what to say next….beyond blurting out song titles like “private exchange” and “programmatic direct.”

Finally, of course, there was trouble with the law.  The exchanges became our own version of Dade County, filled with non-viewable and fraudulent impressions and – no doubt –sketchy guys on broadband houseboats jobbing the system.  Suddenly Programmatic was on trial in the media.

But I’m happy to say the story has a happy, if decidedly more boring, ending.  While technically complex, Programmatic was always a very simple idea at heart:  If you just agree that (1) two terminals will ultimately make an electronic trade of inventory for dollars and that (2) the decision to buy (and/or which creative to place) will be influenced by first or third party data, then congratulations…you’ve just defined Programmatic.  Everything else was about specific strategies, tactics and channels.  And that’s where the grownups come in.

Last week’s announcement that Group M will no longer buy on open exchanges — choosing instead to pursue private exchange relationships with publishers – is just the latest sign that Programmatic is settling in and becoming part of the background music.  In the three to five years ahead, I predict that Programmatic specialists on both sides of the table will fade away; that more than 90% of all online ad transactions will be executed programmatically;  that programmatic trading and buying will become vastly de-centralized; and that the word Programmatic itself will fall out of use.

It won’t be as exciting as RTBieberFever, but it will end up being a whole lot more important.