I remember before the internet, when ads were simple. You chose a publication because your audience read it. You laid out the ad in QuarkXPress, then sent off your EPS file to the printer. They biked over the test Iris print, you said it was fine and they sent back the CMYK separations. You then biked these over to the publication, they created a sample and biked it back. You rang to give them the thumbs up. Then, a month later, the publication ran and you marvelled at how the ad looked like it was supposed to. A complicated process, but it made sense. You could draw it on a napkin.
We then went through a digital revolution. We could cut out the bikes by sending artwork via ISDN. Even better, self-publishing platforms allowed you to design, upload, check and traffic the ad almost instantly. You added your tracking tags and could see them being reported in real time through some snazzy dashboard. It kinda made sense still.
Then, in recent years, "programmatic media" fired a party popper of fuzzy confetti over the whole lot. Very few of us who actually make ads really know what it means. "It’s when the ads bid for the cheapest spot" is fairly standard. Something to do with cheap ads, anyway.
That’s part of it, but not it. The P-bomb was often used to replace "dynamic" or even "rich". In short, there’s a huge swathe of the industry who are genuinely befuddled about what happens when an ad leaves the comfort of their Mac and, well, goes somewhere else, to someone, maybe. It may just end up pinging around the networks of ad exchanges, being resold and gazumped, destined to shine, briefly, in a small square at the bottom of a long scrolling page, furiously shouting at nobody.
If we don’t know what happens, we can’t craft truly effective ads. If you knew your ad was appearing next to an article about rainbows and your client made paint, you’d be daft not to riff off it. We seem to resign ourselves to the fact that this isn’t in our control, so best keep the endline relatively generic.
Cobblers. Flash is long gone but I used to treat every "rich media" ad as a chance to shine, to engage and to entertain. There are more opportunities to excel creatively in a banner now than there ever were with Flash. And when I say creative, I mean every facet, from concept to craft. There’s no reason a banner can’t be the cornerstone of your next amazing, award-winning campaign. Dig a little deeper and the opportunities become apparent.
New "creative programmatic" platforms such as Cablato and JCDecaux Dynamic allow you to serve what is effectively an empty ad. Except the ad contains code that springs into action, interrogating the site, the time, the location, the weather, history with previous ads and so on. They then ask for an ad based on what they now know. The interesting part is that the ad comes on your dashboard. You decide, in real time, what ads get displayed against any given set of criteria. You can change it on the fly to match the news, the cricket or what’s happening in EastEnders. Far from being distanced from creative agencies, it’s suddenly in their hands.
Other platforms such as Clearstream take it a step further. They buy the ad space like any other programmatic service but reserve the right to reject it if it doesn’t meet your strict criteria. That criteria may be as simple as "Is the sound on?", "Is the ad actually visible?" or even "Is there a Fitbit connected via Bluetooth?". Depending on the answer, you can serve the best version of your ad – all in less than 200 milliseconds. Again, you decide – but the key point is, if the ad space smells fishy, they reject it and no cash changes hands.
And a platform such as Pixoneye takes it even further. Its in-app ad system uses your photo library on your phone (with permission) to figure out what you really like. Family holidays, dogs rather than cats, cars or canoeing – your photos are a reflection of you. Pixoneye doesn’t tell anyone else but diligently rejects incoming ads that don’t match your interests. Like an ad concierge, protecting you from pointless ads about inflatable garden loungers. Your ads have to be super-relevant or they simply won’t be seen.
Programmatic is entering a new phase. I’m seeing fraud being recognised and challenged, creative control handed back to creative agencies and innovation potential expanding as more features are unlocked. They say the darkest hour is just before dawn. If you’re still befuddled, fear not, the programmatic sunrise is upon us. And the best bit is I can finally draw it on a napkin again.
Dino Burbidge is director of innovation and technology at WCRS