Programmatic Ad Platforms Do More Harm Than Good

Let me get this out of the way first: I think programmatic advertising is complete garbage.

I was meeting with a client last week, and they were telling me about a campaign they’ve got in-market currently. The core of the campaign hinges on digital advertising powered via a programatic ad platform. Immediately I was concerned about the efficacy of the program, and started asking some pretty simple questions, like:

  • What is being done to protect the brand’s integrity?
  • What sort of black-listing/white-listing strategy is in place?
  • What is the CTR compared to other ad platforms they’ve used, and are they happy with what they’re seeing?
  • What filters are in place to ensure optimal on-page placement?
  • How are they using real-time data to optimizing the audience and engagement?

Not surprisingly, they didn’t have the answer to these questions — and the existing media partner wasn’t proactively providing this leadership.

It’s my experience that programmatic advertising sacrifices quality at the expense of quantity. The concept is pretty powerful, but in execution results leave much to be desired. And most agency teams aren’t paying enough attention to the details to protect the brands they steward in this environment (I once heard an agency exec claim they needed to “install a trade desk” in their office.. that’s now how this works at all).

Which leads us to the problem. It’s easy to see why the idea behind real-time bidding (RTB) and automation via ad exchanges gained so much attention, and subsequently so much traction among agencies and brands. After all, what isn’t to like about being able to create scale of impressions and engagement in an automated way? And with the added ability to do that via data signals from all across the consumer ecosystem? Everyone bought in almost without question, despite not knowing enough about how the systems work, and where the blindspots might be.

For example, you may very well find data that gets you to the right people on the other end, but if you’re appearing on sites where they are in a completely different headspace, your chances of engaging with them and having your message heard, decreases dramatically — contributing to lower engagement rates. Or perhaps you’re on the right sites targeting the right people, but you’re at the very bottom of the page. You still get charged for the view, despite never actually getting the view.

I’m a big believer in testing and learning when it comes to ad buying. But time and again we see the greatest returns for our clients seeking demand / lead generation via social (LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) and ROS (run-of-site) with strategically selected trade organizations or consumer media outlets.

If you’ve got a campaign in market currently, I’d recommend you go pull the latest report, analyze your performance, and compare programmatic ads to each of your other media vehicles to ensure you’re getting what you pay for. I’m willing to bet you a bottle of your favorite wine you’ll find that it represents the bulk of your spend, while carrying a CTR of half of your next lowest performing platform.