Are Media Buyers Becoming Obsolete?

Anyone would have difficultly arguing that, thanks to the Internet, we live in an increasingly self-serve world. We conduct the majority of our banking online. We use on online retail sites, grocery delivery sites, and automotive research resources that save us from having to visit brick-and-mortar businesses. Technology has left us to our own devices. And we’re doing just fine.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that other industries have progressed toward the DIY option as well, and online advertising is one of them. It’s been almost nine years since Google introduced its AdWords program, with other search engines following closely behind. The tradition of self-serve display ads has also continued, with advertisers now running their banner campaigns using self-service platforms like AdBrite, Adroll, and Blogads.

In fact, the DIY option is cropping up all over the place. Through its myriad media partnerships, AdReady is now facilitating automated banner advertising on such sites as NYTimes.com, MSNBC, and Yahoo. In May 2008, Fox Interactive Media added self-serve video ads, and in October, blog search engine Technorati jumped on board by acquiring ad network AdEngage and introducing a DIY ad platform. (For a comprehensive list of self-serve ad tools, see my colleague Hollis Thomases’ invaluable column on the subject).

The latest publisher to launch a self-serve ad tool is Mashable, which this week introduced its platform for creating 300 x 250 banners, the Sociable Ad Creator. What makes its offering interesting is that advertisers can incorporate the social media profiles they maintain on sites like Facebook and YouTube, as well as pull updates from their Twitter accounts.

This DIY ad mania is, of course, fantastic for small businesses and advertisers who lack the resources to work with an interactive agency. Since resources are tight for many clients these days, one has to wonder whether media buyers should be concerned about this trend. Are these automated advertising platforms threatening to supplant agency planning and buying services?

Before we sound the alarm, let’s remember that these services have something valuable to offer media buyers as well. With their low minimums, they allow us to run small test campaigns on both niche and dominant sites prior to committing to larger budgets. These quick and easy platforms also prove useful when deadlines are bearing down on us or we’ve been hit with a last-minute campaign and don’t have the time to go through the traditional media sales channels to get it up and running.

While they are infinitely practical for certain advertisers, for many others DIY services can’t replace working with an agency media strategy team. Most self-service platforms offer limited creative ad design capabilities, so while advertisers can create text and display ads on the fly, they won’t likely be consistent with their existing banners. This can be an issue for major advertisers that place a great deal of importance on brand and campaign continuity.

Service and accountability can be additional concerns. An automated ad system can never deliver the level of support an advertiser receives from a team of agency experts. If a self-serve campaign goes awry, there’s no guarantee it can be righted. And though an automated system has its advantages, the removal of the human element from the equation can be disconcerting when the advertiser suddenly realizes he has no idea who to look to for help. It may seem inconsequential, but the marketer behind the self-serve campaign also has to assume some of the blame for any associated failures — something that, naturally, few client-side executives are eager to do.

Agencies are best suited for developing unassailable media strategies and memorable ad creative painstakingly custom-designed for each brand, optimizing them, and keeping the client informed about every aspect of the campaign from launch to completion. For all of their positive merits, self-serve ad platforms don’t diminish the importance of the agency buyer any more than they replace the ad sales reps that retain positions with publishers despite their automated media alternatives. These tools should be viewed as supplementary media partners by sites, clients, and agencies alike.

Happily, there’s a place for all of us in this business. Our best chance of success is by using technology and traditional methods in tandem.

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