There’s a Robot in My Media Buy

We’ve entered the age of the robots. We use them to clean our homes, communicate with family, and stop burglars in their tracks. Google’s investing in robotics, and so is Amazon. It likely won’t be long before we’re using driverless cars to get to work, and robot seals for animal therapy. If we don’t spend enough time with our robot toasters, they may revolt.

Addicted Products: The story of Brad the Toaster” from Simone Rebaudengo on Vimeo.

In the digital media game, intelligent automation systems in the form of marketing technology have been around for years. Ad exchanges rely on them, and so do media buyers. The average direct media buy can take several dozen steps to complete, and digital marketers no longer have the time to hand-manage countless transactions for numerous campaigns.

Marketing automation comes in many forms, from many sources. Companies like Eloqua, HubSpot, Marketo, and Salesforce offer systems designed to automate sales and marketing efforts in both the B2B and B2C space. VentureBeat reports that 50 percent of companies use more than one marketing automation solution already.

At the recent Programmatic I/O conference, Neal Mohan, vice president of display advertising products at Google, stressed the importance of automating digital marketing in his keynote speech. “Programmatic is going to be just as important to brand advertisers as it has been for direct advertisers,” he said, adding that more than half of the top brands will have programmatic specialists working in-house by the end of this year.

On the ad buying side, blog advertising network Federated Media this past January sold its content marketing business to LIN Media. Why? To concentrate on its programmatic media platform. “Our programmatic business has been growing so fast that it demands the focused attention of its executives, as well as more investment,” said the company’s founder and chief executive (CEO) John Battelle. “The opportunity is tremendous.”

Meanwhile, programmatic sales automation company iSocket has raised $5 million in funding led by Time Warner Investments and launched a new product called iSocket for Advertisers. The system streamlines the media buying process by affording agencies and brands the ability to find reserved inventory from premium publishers, send digital RFPs, and schedule campaigns.

The focus is on efficiency and speed, but the company also emphasizes that it can remove the possibility of human error. Fewer oversights and discrepancies mean a smoother campaign, and that benefits both the agency and the client. “We’re seeing the evolution of a landscape where we still have people planning and negotiating media deals, but a large chunk of the execution process is automated,” says Richard Jalichandra, CEO of iSocket. “It’s not all robots, but it’s not all manual either.”

As we read about these developments, it’s hard not to think of the books and films that feature robots in their traditional, Terminator-esque form. Robots will take our jobs, the media says. We must fight back. In its study on the effects of computerization on U.S. jobs, Oxford University found that 47 percent of employment is “at risk.” Can we assume it’s unavoidable that marketing automation, programmatic media buying, and artificial intelligence in general will push us out?

Are media buyers on the path to becoming obsolete?

I asked this same question five years ago, and it still hasn’t come to pass. That may be because humans bring to our industry (and most others) a level of experience that robots can’t hope to match. As useful as automation is to simplifying what’s most certainly a complex industry, it still requires a watchdog to keep things on track. Compare it to the robots that doctors are now using to perform minimally invasive surgeries. They aren’t an autopilot, “set it and forget it” solution, but one that augments the human operator’s existing skills.

Robots and all manner of automated technology have their strengths, but these typically lie in performing the menial, repetitive tasks humans don’t want to do. This frees us up to focus on more thought-provoking things. It gives buyers more control, less room for error, and plenty of time to work with publishers on the native ads and branded content that require a more customized approach.

That isn’t to say buyers aren’t endangered. Those who don’t embrace the trend are apt to observe a decrease in their perceived value. The media buyers of the future will be much like the newspaper groups of today: they must reinvent themselves as experts in technology in order to remain relevant. If they do, they’ll do more than just survive.

They’ll thrive, and robots will be right by their side.

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