Rise of the Machines

Ever since man tied a rope to an ox, there has been a relentless drive to automate work processes. Like primitive farming, digital media buying is a thankless, low-value task where results (and profits) do not often match the effort involved. Many companies are seeking to alleviate much of the process-heavy, detail-oriented tasks involved in finding, placing, serving, optimizing, tracking, and (most importantly) billing digital media campaigns with various degrees of success.

Let’s take the bleeding edge world of real-time audience buying. Trading desk managers are often working in multiple environments, on multiple screens. On a typical day, he may be logging in to his AppNexus account, bidding on AdBrite for inventory, bidding for BlueKai stamps in that UI, looking for segmentation data in AdAdvisor, buying guaranteed audience on Legolas, trafficking ads in Atlas, and probably looking at some deep analytics data as well. If he is smart, he is probably managing that through a master platform, where he can look at performance of guaranteed display and even other media types. How efficient does that sound?

To me, it sounds like six logins too many. Putting aside the obvious fact that an abundance of technology doesn’t lead to efficiency (how’s “multitasking” working out for your 12 year old, by the way?), I wonder we aren’t asking too much of digital as a whole. How many ads have you clicked on lately? If the answer is zero, then you are in a large club. Broken down to its most basic level, we are working in a business that believes a 0.1 percent “success” rate is reason to celebrate. But the “click is a dead metric” some say. Really? Isn’t the whole point of a banner ad to drive someone to your website? When did that change?

All of this is simply to illustrate the larger point that the display advertising industry, for all of its supposed efficiencies, is really still in its very nascent stages. Navigating the commoditized world of banner advertising is still very much a human task, and the many machines we have created to wrestle the immense Internet into delivering an advertiser the perfect user are still primitive. For a short while longer, digital media is still the game of the agency media buyer…but not for long.

Let’s look at the areas in which smart media people add value to digital campaigns: site discovery, pricing, analytics and optimization, and billing.

Site Discovery

In the past, half the battle was knowing where to go. Which travel sites sold the most airline tickets? Which sites indexed most highly against men of a certain age, looking for their next automobile? What publisher did you call to get to IT professionals who made purchasing decisions on corporate laptops? Agencies had (and still have) plenty of institutional knowledge to help their clients partner with the right media to reach audiences efficiently and – even with the abundance of measurement tools out there – a lot of human guidance was needed. Now, given the ability to purchase that audience exactly using widely available data segments, the trick is simply knowing where to log in. I just found the latter IT professional segment in Bizo in less than two minutes. So the question becomes: how are you leveraging data and placement to achieve the desired result, and how efficiently are you doing it?


It used to be that the big agencies could gain a huge pricing advantage through buying media in bulk. Holding company shops leveraged their power and muscled down publisher rate card by (sometimes) 80 percent or more with promised volume commitments, leaving smaller media agencies behind. Then, a funny thing happened: ad exchanges. All of a sudden, nearly all of the inventory in the world was available, and ready to be had in a second-price auction environment. Now, any Tom, Dick, or Harry with a network relationship could access relatively high-quality impressions at prices that were guaranteed never to be too high (in a second-price auction, the winning bid is placed at the second highest price, meaning runaway “ceiling” bids are collapsed). Whoops. With their pricing advantage eliminated, large agencies did the next best thing: eliminated the middleman by building their own exchanges, which we have been calling “DSPs.” So, you don’t need human intervention to ensure pricing advantages.

Analytics and Optimization

What about figuring out what all the data means? After all, spreadsheets don’t optimize media campaigns. Don’t you need really smart, analytical media people to draw down click- and view-based data, sift through conversion metrics, and build attribution models? Maybe not. Not only are incredible algorithms taking that data and using machine learning to automatically optimize against clicks or conversions, but programmatic buying is slowly coming to all digital media as well. In the future, smart technology will enable planners to create dynamic media mixes that span guaranteed and real time, and apply pricing across multiple methodologies (CPM, CPC, CPA). Much of that work is being done manually right now, but not for long.


Sadly, much of the digital media business comes down to billing at the end of the day. Media companies struggle tremendously with reconciling numbers across multiple systems, and agency ad servers don’t seem to speak the same language as publisher ones. The bulk of a media company’s time seems to be spent just trying to get paid, and an incredible amount of good salary gets burnt in the details of reconciliation and reporting. This is slowly changing, but the advent of good API development is starting to make the machines talk to each other more clearly. The platforms that can “plug in” ad serving and data APIs most easily have a lot to gain, and the industry as a whole will benefit from interoperability.

So, are people doomed in digital media? Not at all. There are going to be a lot less digital media buyers and planners needed – but what agencies are really going to need are smart media people. Right now, you need four people to manage 10 machines. In the near future, you will need one smart person to manage one platform – and the other three people can focus on something else. Maybe like talking to their clients.

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