Rise of the machines: HAL 9000, programmatic buying and the perils of short-termism

David Thomason’s excellent article ‘Don’t Eat the Marshmallows’ in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing provided some sage advice to avoid the short-termism he believes is growing in the industry: simply block out the measures that reward and motivate this kind of thinking.

But how does this translate to the media industry, whose world is increasingly becoming programmatic; a world based on performance efficiency and optimisation of mostly short-term goals? 

In the last few months ‘programmatic buying’ has dominated conversation at events such as Ad:Tech in Sydney and The Festival of Media in Rome. And although the topic du jour, it has been around for a while and most will understand the concept applied to real-time or auction bidding on search terms. However, this is really just the beginning.

There are many definitions of programmatic buying and no doubt they will continue to evolve. Some simply describe it as a piece of technology or software; some behavioural and intent-based targeting; and others use the term as a catch-all for anything that uses both data and automation in a supply and demand market. In a 2013 interview, Allie Kline, chief marketing officer of AOL Networks, described it as “using an automated system to make media buying decisions instead of doing it manually”.

For those who know 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s a bit like having HAL 9000 buying your media for you, although with no morbid consequences. HAL was a programmatic system designed for quick decision-making. Basically, HAL makes targeting the right people at the right time with the right message (the fundamentals of media planning since year dot) more accurate and much easier to execute across the fragmented, long tail of media. HAL will handle a lot of paperwork, too. However, whereas HAL 9000 could gauge and interpret emotional behaviours (and even appreciate art), programmatic buying is a long way off this. 

Whatever the definition of programmatic buying, it is here and it is not going away. Interpublic Group’s Mediabrands expect to have automated 50 percent of all (not just digital) of its US media buying by 2015. By 2017, other key markets are expected to follow. Digital is leading, but TV and radio are quickly catching up and many believe every buying point, with the exception of deep integration or content partnerships, will be programmised. HAL will trade across screens and devices. It will decide what the message should be and whether it should be played out on a tablet, phone or a TV depending on the performance parameters set.

So back to the original question: will HAL eat the marshmallow? Can a real-time, programmised buying world be reconciled with a more strategic, long-term view of success? I believe the answer is yes. Just not quite yet. And certainly not without the industry taking responsibility for ensuring it doesn’t get sucked into using programmatic buying only for the instant results it can generate.

In New Zealand most programmised buying focuses on short-term goals: a view, a click or a sale. But this is because these are the typical goals set. There are many other goals we can set, some sophisticated, some simple. 

Thomason champions one of the basic elements of media, ‘frequency’, stating it has almost become a forgotten art. An advantage of programmatic buying is that it can sustain a level of frequency despite cookie and tag disablement. 

Another concept Thomason mentions is ‘social proofing’; the influence of knowing a lot of other people have seen a brand or product advertised. While programmatic buying is typically used to reduce ‘wastage’ (that lovely industry term) we can in fact set goals around ensuring social influencers or friends, family and neighbours are also exposed to the message.

Quite simply, HAL will eat the marshmallow if we tell it to. Programmatic buying is simply an executional tool and we must remember this. It will not define strategy, it will not unearth a ground-breaking emotional insight, but merely use automated tactics to deliver on the parameters we set. 

In his book Space Race, Jim Taylor prophesied that 2010-2015 would be the “dark days of data”, where planning is done backwards. I believe it’s up to us as communications and media practitioners to ensure those days aren’t so dark. 

  • ​Kate Thomas is strategy director at Dynamo. [email protected]
  • This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing. 

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