Lately, I have been working on a whitepaper about the “programmatic direct” phenomenon. Part of the research involved surveying a bunch of influential people in the space, and asking them where they thought this new buying methodology was in terms of adoption. Their answers kind of surprised me.
If “programmatic direct” was a baseball game, we are in the top of the second inning.
The game has basically just started, and a few balls have been put into play, but the action is just getting started—and the big sluggers have yet to step up to the plate. If you are a regular AdExchanger reader, you would be justified in thinking that programmatic direct was quickly gaining steam by progressive agencies and publishers. After all, there has been a good deal of hype surrounding the idea of enabling programmatic access to higher classes of inventory, and it seems like almost every ad technology player in the display space is getting into the game.
Sure, some real innovations are happening in programmatic RTB that are enabling private marketplace transactions. Initiation-only auctions and fixed rate deals inside of exchanges are only the tip of the iceberg, though. New web-based technology and advanced ad server APIs are starting to provide real process automation—the tools that will make it easier to buy and sell the 70% of inventory currently procured through the “transactional RFP” process.
However, there are a few major things that need to happen before “programmatic direct” can really take hold:
A Directory: It may sound strange, but one of the biggest failings of digital media has been the lack of a directory for buyers. In direct mail, you can look up how many people get the L.L. Bean mailing list, add all kinds of criteria (males of a certain age that have purchased with a credit card in the past three months), find out exactly what it costs, and who to buy it from. No such thing exists in digital media. Hence, the RFP process, where buyers have to go through hoops just to get a sense of pricing and availability. This simple act of discovery adds time and complexity to every transaction. Today’s programmatic direct systems are being built from the ground up—starting with good information, and also with dynamic pricing and availability information thanks to API connections to DFP and other publisher ad servers.
Standards for Electronic Ordering: Another obvious thing that needs to happen before real process automation can happen in digital is that a set of standards have to be agreed upon. The IAB has known this since 2008, but five years later the “eBusiness Task Force” (now called the “Digital Automation Task Force”) seems no closer to its original mandate. Its stated mission: Updating the XML schema and implementation testing for the electronic delivery of digital advertising business document.” Those documents include Requests for Proposals (RFPs), insertion orders (IOs), and invoices—documents that must be standardized in order for adoption of programmatic direct buying to occur at scale. However, there is urgency like never before to get such standards implemented, and a source close to the action says that “we will see more movement in the next nine months in standards and protocols than has happened in ten years.” Let’s hope so. The wide adoption of a common set of standards and protocols opens up the door to the electronic IO—the key to achieving scale in programmatic direct.
Culture Change: While a directory can be created and standards adopted with lots of hard work, those things are actually easier than the real key to programmatic direct adoption: culture change among agencies and publishers. Agencies must leverage technology to empower the “23-year-old media planner” and give them a reason beyond sneaker parties to go to work. Technology will unleash their creativity and get them focused on solving real problems for clients. Likewise, publishers need to escape the “$200,000 a year salesman,” with his accompanying high T&E and schmoozy selling style. Publishers need data-driven sellers that understand how to drive programmatic adoption and can sell based on the new “media investment” paradigm happening at agencies—understanding tactically how to spread digital dollars across a broad portfolio of channels. Agencies now they cannot remain stuck with the current cheap labor model. Publishers understand that they cannot keep their higher classes of inventory outside of programmatic channels. Change is hard, but it’s already here.
About a year ago, I said that 2013 would be the year of programmatic direct. It turns out that 2013 has been the year of programmatic direct hype, and a ton of valuable behind-the-scenes work on the technologies that will drive it in the future. But unlike the perennial “year of mobile” programmatic direct will become a reality quickly if some of the above building blocks come together.