Hype Meets Reality: Why Programmatic is Not Ready for Prime Time

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Our resident rock star Ted Rubin on the slew of pitfalls presented by programmatic media buying – and why you should go old school and place your own ads.

Programmatic media buying, marketing and advertising is the “algorithmic purchase and sale of advertising space in real time”, and it has been around a couple of years. Software is used to automate buying, placement, and optimization of media inventory by way of a bidding system. As with everything new and shiny, it was supposed to save the media buying world, I think. Given all the hype that we had heard, it was hard for many marketers to expect much less. But even when it was first launched it was easy to see that there were always going to be major drawbacks. Automation is never as smooth as it's made to sound in marketing materials, and it's no surprise that a real-time, automated online marketplace has become fertile ground for fraud and destructive business practices. Now that programmatic has “grown up” a bit, the only thing steadier than the continuing hype is the apparent, and most often ignored, unfulfilled expectations.

Remember traditional banner ads placements?

They show up so often, in such predictable places, that most of us just ignore that part of the page and move on to the good stuff. A brand may pay to place a banner ad on one of your favorite websites specifically to reach the demographic that you're a part of... but you're probably not going to click it anyway, if you notice it at all. So much for the results that were once foretold.

Which brings us back to programmatic. There were always some pretty obvious problems with banner ads, so why would you believe placing them programmatically will be any better? A cheap, targeted ad purchased in real-time may have upsides, but the risk of getting no return – or worse – is just too much.

Automation is never as smooth as it’s made to sound in marketing materials, and it’s no surprise that a real-time, automated online marketplace has become fertile ground for fraud and destructive business practices.
— Ted Rubin

Risky business

Fraud is one of the biggest problems with programmatic, and one of the least surprising. An online marketplace that works in real time, with buyers, sellers, and brokers in between, tends to be a risky place to do business. You might get exactly what you pay for, or your target may turn out to be a bot specifically created to game the system. You might wind up on a credible, high-quality website with a good reputation, or your ad could be sent to one of the dark corners of the internet that you definitely don't want associated with your brand… Breitbart and Infowars anyone?

In a perfect world, where you knew exactly where your ad was going, who would see it, and whether the intended recipient was a real person, programmatic might run more smoothly. Leave out the risk of fraud, though, and you're still left with a fundamental marketing problem. Will the website where your ad is placed be worth the time of your target audience, and will they even notice the ad in the first place?

If a programmatic network were entirely supported by reputable websites, with great content and strong traffic, the answers might be more positive. For the most part, though, programmatic is a mixed bag at best. It's made to sound like you'll get the right ad to the right person at the right time, but you're largely left to hope that an automated process will accomplish those goals for you. Programmatic may sound like a nice idea in theory, but good luck navigating all the potential pitfalls in practice.

So unless/until those pitfalls change, or a better way is found to produce predictable results on both the up AND downside… do the work and place your own ads. Because, how much money are you wasting on advertisements that aren't being seen by anyone, and worse yet, how much destruction are you doing to your brand equity with the ads being placed?

Your brand is what your business does. Your reputation is what people remember and share.


Ted Rubin is a leading social marketing strategist, keynote speaker, Photofy CMO/advisor, MC/host for Brand Innovators Summits… Speaker, Author, Provocateur Ted is our resident rock star.

Read more from Ted or connect with him on Twitter @TedRubin.


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Ted Rubin

Ted is a leading Social Marketing Strategist, Keynote Speaker, Brand Evangelist,
Acting CMO of Brand Innovators and Co-Founder of Prevailing Path