Duncan Shand: Why we need to change the channel on the programmatic debate

Digital advertising’s been a hot topic of conversation lately. Specifically, the murky world of digital media buying and less than efficacious practices of programmatic display. Of course, these sorts of observations are nothing new, but whenever they re-emerge (as they have again recently), I often find myself fielding questions like, “Duncan, you’re the MD of a digital agency, doesn’t it bother you that people are saying this stuff?”

To which my response is always, absolutely not. And I’ll happily tell you why. We’ve been telling our clients the same things for years. On the face of it, that might seem like an odd position for me to adopt. But the issues that are being raised here stem from the same root cause – and that’s how people are choosing to view digital.

Thinking of digital only in terms of programmatic or display is much like thinking that your smartphone is only good for making phone calls. It effectively reduces the entire digital ecosystem to that of a virtual adshel. When you do that, it should hardly come as a surprise that you consequently reduce the effectiveness of digital overall.

Our experience with programmatic has us asking the same questions as the leading critics. Time and time again, we’ve seen it greatly under-perform against other digital media options. And yet, when strategy is absent, it tends to get the lion’s share of digital media budgets. People often try to justify this under-performance by quoting impressions and frequency objectives, which to be frank are rubbish. It’s traditionalist thinking anchored in the belief that advertising must use an interruption model to get its message across; the same strategy employed by mainstream TV, print and out-of-home. Digital, at its best, simply does not work like that.

Digital offers marketers so much more than an opportunity to just ‘place’ their ads. At its heart digital success is about creating interaction: a view, a click, a visit, a purchase. And depending on your goal, there are multiple ways to track the effectiveness of both digital campaigns and always-on activities rather than just CPC. On top of that, well managed social media platforms and communities afford brands a fantastic and unparalleled opportunity to engage with people, driving intent at a level much higher level than a ‘classic ad’ could ever hope to achieve.

So does this mean I think traditional advertising is dead? Again, absolutely not. For me, this has never been an ‘Us versus Them’ equation. Big corporates still need to operate in mainstream channels and build their brands as they’ve always done. But equally, anyone working in digital needs to stop trying to use it as they would a traditional media channel.

At the end of the day, it’s about knowing how to leverage the respective strengths that each type of activity affords you rather than trying to replicate one strategy across every channel. Today, the clients we work with and the one’s that do digital well are those that are choosing to think of digital less like a channel and more like an overarching strategy. Digital’s about engagement, not interruption. We believe in developing rich, interactive, immersive, and generous experiences. Experiences that add value and help people do more, achieve more, be more.

Duncan Shand is the co-founder and managing director of digital indie Young & Shand.

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