Don’t fear the rise of the algorithm – humans still rule media buying
THE RISE of programmatic and automated media buying has been as controversial as it’s been rapid. Take real-time bidding (RTB), where ad space is purchased through automated bidding programmes milliseconds before a web page loads. It’s expected to grow from 14 to 41 per cent of US digital spend between now and the end of 2017. In Western Europe, lagging slightly, RTB’s share of display advertising spend is forecast to increase from 5 to 23 per cent over the same period.
Yet programmatic buying has met numerous points of friction on its ascent. Fears that buyers will be displaced by lightening-fast algorithms, and an associated diminishing of control over brand image, have been rampant. “We’ve heard plenty of scare stories,”says Justin Taylor, MEC’s managing director for digital. “People talk of ads being automatically placed next to inappropriate content, or fraudulent platforms displaying as many as 20 different ads next to each other.” Ad tech firm AudienceScience, meanwhile, has produced research suggesting that a lack of transparency in the automated buying ecosystem can lead to between 50 and 80 per cent of ad spend being wasted on fees and inefficiencies.
But the debate may have become too polarised, and scare stories risk obscuring the enormous promise of this nascent field. “It’s sometimes forgotten that programmes need teams of humans setting the rules, and we’re seeing increasing amounts of premium ad spaces available through automated platforms,” says Taylor. Moreover, by minimising the leg work needed to complete transactions, algorithmic buying can free up time for strategic endeavours.
“It sounds like a paradox, but the technology can actually increase creative opportunities,” says Arun Kumar, who heads up Mediabrands’s specialist digital offering outside North America. If a campaign includes a pet, to use Kumar’s example, marketers can use tracking data to get an idea of which types of animals (which breeds, even) are likely to be more effective for certain demographics. Automated buying can then push the targeted content to the right audiences – “you could have thousands of variations on the same theme.”
Many in the industry draw parallels between the apparent ructions in media buying and the spread of automation across financial markets. Hiccups are inevitable, but a bit of cross-industry perspective might well prove comforting – after all, algorithms have hardly led to a hollowing out of the financial sector.
Liam Ward-Proud is business features writer at City A.M.