Programmatic buying is definitely here to stay. My expectation: in 2025 eighty percent of all global ad spend, including TV, radio, print, cinema and outdoor advertising will be fully digital and served through programmatic buying systems (automated digital trading systems). We can argue about the timing and the definition of programmatic and the final number may be lower than 80%, however I think everyone agrees the majority of all ad spend will become digital and automated in some way. This is a logical consequence of two developments: 1. digital advertising is going programmatic 2. all media are growing digital. PwC predicts in their Global Entertainment & Media Outlook that 2018 will be the first year where global digital advertising spend will be larger than global TV spend. People often say everything becomes data driven if media grow digital. I believe however that creativity will grow at least as much in importance as data. Here’s why.   

What is programmatic?

Programmatic buying is currently most used for automated trading of display ads (banners), however it is much more than that. I believe two key characteristics define what programmatic really is: automation and integration.

  • Automation: Programmatic is about automation of the process that fuels advertising and marketing, which includes buying, selling and serving of ads and it also includes automated management of content and data. That means no manual labor is needed anymore to get the right message to the right person: no phone calls, no e-mails, no negotiations between people. This is a broad definition: for instance search advertising booked through Adwords is generally not considered as programmatic advertising, however it is fully automated so I consider it to be part of the programmatic trend.
  • Integration: The way we manage marketing and advertising is very fragmented. We plan TV in one tool, use a different one for search advertising and again a different one for our video ads. We also store data in fragmented ways: we track real-time interactions in tools we use to serve ads with and that manage site analytics while we store CRM data in different (closed) systems that are mostly not capable of communicating with real-time ads and content. Programmatic will change that: systems are rapidly evolving allowing companies to manage all ads and content in one and the same system that also stores real-time data together with what used to be your CRM data. As a result the CRM data gets an open connection to all real-time data sources and becomes suitable to fuel real-time campaigns and content across all channels. Every interaction with your ads, content or products can then be used to serve a more meaningful message the next time your brand interacts with the same person.

Multiple systems communicate with each other to provide full automation and integration. The illustration below shows the basic modules of the programmatic ecosystem.


Basic elements of the programmatic landscape as illustrated by IAB

 The system includes technology to manage your database, your bidding strategy, tagging and serving of ads and content and more. I do not want to focus on the technical details here though. I’d like to focus on the implications of automation for your advertising strategy.  

Communication at scale, but still personal

In the old manual world of advertising targeting and reach are conflicting concepts. If you want to target a very specific audience, your audience naturally becomes smaller. If you want to increase the number of people reached you either have to go for broad targeting (while becoming less relevant for consumers) or you have to manually create multiple audience segments with tailored messages resulting in way too much work. This is why we tend to broadcast one size fits all messaging in campaigns that are planned manually. It is the only way to achieve scale in a manual process. In an automated advertising world however, there is no longer a conflict between targeting and scale, because it literally takes milliseconds to reach an individual with a personalized message. For every individual ad placement you can cross reference with existing data you have to make both bid and message as tailored as they can be so communication feels more personal than a one size fits all campaign and you can do so without losing scale.

What about creativity?

Data is obviously important in a programmatic system, but what about creativity? Very important, but massively overlooked! Programmatic advertising so far has mainly been used for performance objectives, focusing on short term sales with cheap looking ads. This automated system is however also very powerful for branding. Brand advertisers have started to embrace programmatic, but unfortunately they still often use programmatic to make bulk deals and serve one size fits all messaging. That is how we ran brand campaigns in offline media, so that is how we tend to do it in programmatic as well. We fail to use the data available to us to serve tailored messages in branding, but at some point we’ll have to turn this around. Consumers have an abundance of choice online, hence they’ll avoid brand advertising if we fail to be meaningful to them. Mass media have given us shortcuts for many years: even if our ads weren’t that interesting we could force people to watch them by spending more money. People won’t accept that in a digital world and you can already see that by looking at the popularity of ad blockers. We need to earn voluntary attention from people through meaningful and creative brand messages. What good is a system that allows you to find people one-on-one at scale if you have nothing compelling to say to them other than “buy now” or a one size fits all brand message?

Making best use of the digital creative canvas

Branding in the digital space is much more than a thirty second video or a few “buy now” banners. Digital has become a full mediamix with a creative canvas that is much bigger and more flexible than what we had in traditional media. We have a large range of content and ad formats at our disposal and there are no restrictions to how long your video’s can be or how many brand messages you create. You can build shopping elements in video’s and many other types of interactivity. Hot Wheels created a full racing game by linking videos to each other.

Mobile devices offer new sensors that brands can use to build engaging experiences like KIA’s 3D racer that uses the motion sensor to create awesome brand engagement. Check the KIA GT ride case in the video below. You can only create brand experiences like this if you understand what the digital creative canvas can do for you.

We can even build ads that automatically adapt themselves to the person they are served to (dynamic ads). Unfortunately most dynamic ads still look like the ones below. Not exactly engaging and primarily focused on short term sales. I am pretty sure we can do a lot better! I hope to see a lot better and more engaging dynamic branding ads in 2016.


Dynamic ads automatically adapt themselves based on data signals

You can find more digital branding cases on the site here.

Merging technology and creativity

I believe we’ve seen only a very small fraction of the creative potential of dynamic ads or even of the digital creative possibilities in general. Nowadays there are very few limitations to what technology can do for brand building. The biggest limitation lies in the fact that the ones that understand digital technology are mostly the ones focused on performance advertising and those often lack knowledge of brand building while the ones focused on branding lack advanced digital knowledge. The book “Online Brand Identity” presents a framework for digital brand building that unites the knowledge of brand building with digital knowledge. The framework is illustrated with forty cases of brands that ran successful digital branding campaigns. My call to action is to bring those that understand digital technology together with creatives that understand brands and give them budget to experiment with, so we get to see many more branding cases that are meaningful to consumers and make us proud of the work we do. If you end up creating an awesome dynamic ad that is better than anything we have seen before, please do let me know!  

This blog is based on the book “Online Brand Identity”. The book covers various topics related to this article, including:

  • Digital 1st branding
  • 4D brand building
  • Making most out of mobile for branding
  • The future of media
  • Past and future in a digital 1st brand framework
  • Making most out of automated marketing technology

You can find a free sample of the book here.