Programmatic Lunch

Why we must learn to separate programmatic and brand safety – MediaCom

Mobile Marketing

John-Paul Major, head of programmatic futures at MediaCom, talks about the common misunderstanding of programmatic's role in brand safety.


If you are of a certain age and grew up watching '80s teen movies like me, then you will be familiar with the words of that infamous school dodger Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.”

Bueller might have been advocating bunking off school, but I think his wise words ring true in this crazy, fastpaced media world we live in.

Fast forward 30 years and I think that there is a big danger that we in the media may fail to take full advantage of the biggest step change in advertising since 1955, when SR toothpaste gave us the first commercial TV advert.

I worry we will fail to realise the vast potential of digital advertising just because we are struggling to separate out how we think about two very distinct fundamental issues: programmatic technology and brand safety in digital display.

Protecting the brand in a digital world
On the surface, suggesting that two entwined entities like programmatic and digital display should be thought of separately might seem crazy. Programmatic tech itself was born out of the unique ecosystem that digital display created. An industry with low cost barriers to entry and the resulting unlimited supply. But take a step back, and it becomes apparent why the two should be separated out.

Brand safety is a massive issue for us as an industry, and one that needs to be tackled head on – of that there is no doubt. The danger here though is that in tackling this problem, we could destroy brand trust in programmatic technology in the process. That would be a mistake.

Programmatic is not solely to blame for misplaced ads. As a technology it has delivered massive leaps forward in targeting ability, dynamic pricing and attribution. We need to recognise that the issues we are facing in digital display are a product of the makeup of the industry itself.

Yes, programmatic tech and the ability to buy audiences wherever they are watching is helping to fuel ad misplacement, but at the heart of the problem is the supply itself. The challenge for the agencies and tech companies is to manage audience-led buying, with all the benefits that can bring, in a world of infinite supply where – like it or not – some of that supply is going to be created by nefarious players.

That battle will be won eventually, mainly through greater controls on supply, such as through GroupM’s GMSM, sourcing direct relationships with trusted media owners. And that cannot come soon enough. Because when you take that step back I talked about earlier and look at the programmatic tech in isolation, it becomes clear that its role in media has only just begun to take shape.

Programmatic in traditional media
Programmatic is about to explode, across every media we trade. While everyone has been talking about it as “the next big thing” for the past few years, this is no 3D TV-type fad. It’s here now, and here to stay. It’s going to revolutionise what we can offer clients in terms of data-driven planning, flexible joined-up buying across multiple channels and attribution by media. For me, that’s an incredibly exciting prospect.

Yes, we need to be learning from the issues that have arisen within digital display programmatic, but let’s take these learnings and use them to embrace the possibilities of the future, linking programmatic technology with the strong attributes of the traditional media.

We need to be talking about how amazing a programmatic digital out of home campaign will look, bringing together relevant, up-to-date data insights and flexible trading through programmatic, combined with the mass impact of a highly visible vivid 48 sheets in the city centres. Let’s talk about the mass reach of programmatically-bought, real-time linear TV in the future – or the ability, here and now, to target audiences across programmatically-bought audio through DAX, allowing data driven holistic campaign planning and frequency capping at scale.

I was asked the other day whether the issues around brand safety on digital display and the subsequent questioning of trust in programmatic will make my conversations with clients on cross media programmatic more difficult. My answer is a resounding no. Quite the opposite, in fact.

TV, audio, digital out of home and print, these are all media packed full of trusted brands in their own rights. Clients have been working with them for decades and there is a high level of trust ingrained. Add to that trust the fact that you can’t buy a below-the-fold ad on digital out of home, you don’t get bots watching TV ads and you can’t skip an audio ad, you start to see why the future of programmatic in these traditional media is so exciting.

Clients want to be excited about what the future holds. They want to know how they can mix together the best of the traditional media with the massive opportunities that data and technology can bring. We are right in the middle of one of the most exciting and revolutionary periods in media buying history.

Digital display programmatic will move through the current issues, there is no doubt about that. The danger is that by not separating out the benefits of programmatic tech and being too caught up in the current issues, we allow negativity to blind us to the possibilities ahead.


Life is indeed moving pretty fast, but while we are dealing with the issues of today, let’s stop once in a while and embrace the potential of the future.

John-Paul Major is head of programmatic futures at MediaCom

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