Let’s talk programmatic


To some, this road looks vaguely familiar. A few may have even been down this path before, or passed by that company, or have even heard the same sounds. Despite the air being a little warmer, and the people lining the street a little different, we can all definitely agree that this is not the first traffic jam you’ve been in. What’s different this time is that the cars are flowing faster and continuing to accelerate, and I’m quietly optimistic that the jam ahead will clear well before dark. No, this is not a case of deja vu, nor remnants of last night’s dream. This is, in fact, a very accurate description of the digital media landscape in MENA. In particular, the often hushed, sometimes dismissively thrown around, or confusingly pronounced ‘p’ word… programmatic.

The root of this familiarity is that in a small selection of other markets, (the US, the UK, the Netherlands to name a few), programmatic advertising has been in use for a little while longer. This enables us in MENA the luxury of being able to learn from those regions and ultimately avoid making “their” mistakes. That being said, it is by no means a ‘cookie cutter’ approach, and we have to embrace our subtle differences and make them a strength, not a weakness or barrier. However, just as much as it was a learning curve in the markets before us, we in this part of the world are rapidly coming to terms with this relatively new and often confusing product. But herein lies one of the main complications and obstacles to its wider adoption and success: programmatic is not a product. 

We need to move away from this incorrect categorisation and embrace programmatic for what it is, simply an efficient process made possible through technology. Yes, by definition it comes with the added benefit of being able to utilise ‘big data’ to make better decisions, optimisations and increase yields or returns on investment. But ultimately, we are not re-inventing the wheel and the fundamentals of what we do are still the same. We are, however, embracing advancing technology to enable us to execute these goals at scale, yet ever more efficiently and effectively. Let’s take an example outside of our industry, with the migration from cash to credit cards. We are no longer fumbling for change or passing around dirty notes that have been in circulation for years. Additionally, more recent evolutions here, in the form of ‘paywave’, streamline this exchange further. You’re still paying for the goods or services, though. How about travelling along Sheikh Zayed Road at 120kmph and paying your Salik. No need to stop at the tollbooth and pass over those jingling coins that you’ve been saving in your centre console. Neither of these examples is a product. They’re transactional methodologies that work to streamline inefficiencies in the process. So too, then, is programmatic.

While we are at it, programmatic is also not merely a way to buy media cheaper. Utilising a credit card doesn’t miraculously bring the cost down. If anything, you pay for the convenience, so why do we expect this with programmatic? Similarly, programmatic activity does not exclusively equal performance. When campaigns ‘shift’ to programmatic they should carry the same metrics for success as they did originally, otherwise we are potentially placing irrelevant or unjustified expectations on the technology and process. Strategically, we need to ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve, what the ultimate outcome is, and the most appropriate measurement to be prescribed (ability to measure does not always equal relevancy). Throwing programmatic in, just because it’s perceived to be new and shiny, may not be the right answer, nor will it bring the best return on investment.

The creative also plays a crucial part in programmatic delivery, as the ability to select the appropriate consumer at the right time, context, frequency and platform can all be wasted if they are shown the same generic and potentially overused creative. Companies such as Cablato and Sizmek have tools that can empower us to unlock programmatic’s potential at the creative level. Combined with delivery, we can really begin to reap the benefits of programmatic. Unfortunately, creative build, functionality and optimisations are all too often left to the last minute or, terrifyingly enough, not even considered.

Programmatic, like everything else, is by no means perfect either. The pace of change and tech advancements, combined with our understandings and demands, are dictating a need for continually evolving setups and workflows. This means we cannot sit back and relax, but must invest time and effort in the right human capital, strategies and technologies to best cater to our needs today, ensuring that we can easily adapt or pivot in the future. What worked 12 months ago will change if it hasn’t already, and you don’t want to be left with a ‘Frankenstein operation’ with bits and pieces, both tech and people, randomly thrown together with little cohesion or common goals binding it all together.

To truly enable ourselves to reap the full benefits of programmatic executions, we need to come to the table with a collective candidness and an approach where the longer-term impact is clearly in focus, beyond just short-term success, or the bottom line. This enables future proofing of process, strengthening of relationships advancement of what is achievable and, ultimately, better results.  Publishers, agencies and trading desks need to make sure that everyone under their roof is confident in the art of ‘speaking programmatic’, hopefully shedding some light on the multitude of acronyms floating around and allowing for more advanced activity. Additionally, we need to better understand where each side is coming from to formulate the optimum strategy, delivery and measurements for maximum success. Furthermore, creative teams have to become a part of this conversation, period. Finally, advertisers must at least gain a basic understanding not only to increase creative freedom but in order to eliminate the need for conversations around ‘transparency’ or ad location and alleviate any fear of the unknown.

The delta between the early adopting markets and the MENA region is closing fast, but to reach the next phase we need to accept and leverage programmatic for what it is. We must utilise the learnings we have gained from other markets, and combine them with our capacity to be nimble, bold and innovative. This way the road ahead will lead to a destination of our choice, as we will quickly transition from being a catch-up market to becoming market leaders.

Daniel Young, Yield & programmatic director, DMS, a member of Choueiri Group