Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Roundtable recap: the growing pains of programmatic advertising

What stage of its development is the programmatic advertising industry at right now? Given its historic behaviour and current trajectory, should we be concerned or optimistic about how the industry is growing up? 

These were among the questions posed by New Digital Age (NDA) to a panel of experts in London recently. NDA’s editor Justin Pearse chaired the roundtable discussion and was joined by: Azad Ali, Head of Performance Insight at Spark Foundry;  Sophie Toth, programmatic and adtech expert and Co-founder of The Women in Programmatic Network; Lee Cutter, Vice President of Sales (UK and emerging markets) at Hivestack; Clare Ritchie, SVP Global Head of Programmatic & Inhousing, Omnicom Media Group (OMG); Stevie Antonioni, Director, Digital Sales & Innovation at The Telegraph; and Nikky Hudson, Head of Product – Data and Programmatic Services at Nano Interactive.

On the maturity of the programmatic industry, the majority of the panel compared it to a teenager: full of potential, nuanced in communication and collaboration, and often misunderstood.

Ali commented: “Programmatic in general has so much to offer, yet people tend to zone-in on its inadequacies and its flaws. The industry needs to get better at talking about all the things programmatic can bring to the table, including its omnichannel ability to target users in a way that can be both broad and granular at the same time.”

Hudson added: “Just like any teen hitting puberty, what the programmatic industry needs most is mentorship. We need to have trusted feedback loops that ensure the whole system works as it should. That means listening to concerns about transparency and environmental impact and taking the action required to continuously improve.” 

Cutter of Hivestack agreed that, within some channels, programmatic resembled an awkward teenager but argued that this only proves the potential for its growth and maturation. “There are instances where the programmatic industry is still learning, but just like any teenager, it is full of potential, laying the foundations for future growth and preparing for its next evolution.”  

Ritchie extended the metaphor even further, comparing the current state of programmatic to “a class full of children”, with different talents and levels of maturity. She said: “They’re all developing, fast, but focussed on different skills and not always aware of what everyone else is doing around them.”

A bright future?

Growing pains aside, the panel found numerous reasons to be optimistic about the future of programmatic advertising and its ability to deliver better results for advertisers, publishers and consumers alike.

Antonioni commented: “For me, the immediate opportunity is around brands and publishers working more closely to activate against first-party audience data. At The Telegraph, we have a wealth of subscriber data, which is fantastic. Last year, there were a lot of conversations happening around clean rooms, but those didn’t necessarily come to fruition. This year, more advertisers are looking to push forward those conversations. We see campaign effectiveness double when brands lean into our audience data for targeting, so that’s definitely going to be high on our agenda.”

Toth believes the looming shadow of third-party cookie deprecation will continue to promote innovation in programmatic. She said: “We need to be looking at new ways of targeting audiences, testing those ideas and assessing their performance, before cookies are deprecated fully. I agree that alliances between publishers and media buyers will be a key part of that, but we also need to build more trust with the end user. As it stands, I believe programmatic open marketplace will shrink because of ineffective transparency.” 

Ali argued that much of the conversation around cookies and data tends to miss the point: “Ultimately, the reason why all this is happening is because we forgot about the needs of the consumer. We are a marketing industry, and yet, we haven’t figured out how to demonstrate the value proposition of a free internet to consumers yet. That feels like a conversation that needs to happen.”

He added: “Personally, I’m excited by the potential of programmatic to make it easier to buy more ethically, whether that’s creating more environmentally friendly campaigns or buying across more diverse, inclusive media channels.”

Cutter pointed to the impact of programmatic (and the pandemic) on digital out of home (DOOH) advertising, saying: “It’s only relatively recently that the OOH marketplace has been able to open itself up to digital dollars. Due in part to the pandemic, programmatic DOOH has had a longer gestation period, which allowed us the opportunity to iron out many of the teething problems for buyers along the way. This year, we expect to see programmatic DOOH on many more omnichannel campaigns, based on the new ways we can now use data to target and trigger campaigns, and the renewed focus of advertisers on contextual relevance.”

Nano Interactive’s Nikky Hudson closed this portion of the conversation by reminding the panel that, in the digital advertising industry, change is one of the few constants: “As long as the world keeps turning, we’ll need to keep changing too. The consumer’s relationship with content and advertising is constantly shifting and evolving. Newer channels like CTV and digital audio are increasing in importance. Figuring out how to make it all work together is the exciting part.”

Read Part Two of this roundtable recap here.