Automation Reality Check: How Innovation Will Strike a Balance

Everyone’s in love with RTB — even the branding folks. But while RTB is great for many sites like portals, it’s questionable whether premium buys can benefit from biddable sales.

Can a premium publisher realistically be an audience buy? I doubt it; their sites aren’t designed for direct response. But by the same token, audience buys may not be appropriate for brand marketers.

Premium publishers are well-suited to brand marketers, underscoring the fact that branding and direct response have such dramatically different needs in placement, pricing, creative, measurement and more. As a result of these vastly different types of marketers, we now have a bifurcated market. 

The positive result of this bifurcated market is innovation: In a medium that evolved to nurture direct marketing, branding must find a way to thrive. Direct response won’t build a brand, so brand marketers are forced to find creative ways to tell their stories in an online world that was built for text ads 150x300 banners.

But a branding medium is equally inhospitable to direct response, and isn’t built for quick-hit calls to action. Innovation will find a middle ground and address the overlap.

What makes branding special and different from a lot of direct response is the exclusivity, the beautiful narrative content and context. These elements are not easily secured in the bid/auction environment. When was the last time you saw a Cezanne for sale on eBay? Yes, there are some exclusive auctions for pre-qualified bidders, but this doesn’t serve all sites or all marketers. Innovation applies to both worlds.

Events are defined differently in direct response and branding — and leveraged differently, too. In the physical world, scheduled public events appeal more to brands. For example, take the Super Bowl, in which every big brand under the sun spends millions launching new campaigns featuring mischievous squirrels, Clydesdales and talking babies.

Similar activities occur online and off during Fashion Week, Advertising Week, close the Oscars and other pivotal points on the calendar. These are branding events – not focused on a particular sale or offer, but deliberately placed in juxtaposition to a highly anticipated, appropriate event.

In direct response, events aren’t calendar-based. They’re real-time, instant and opportunistic. For example, if a consumer buys a phone online, they’re immediately offered a new case or headset before or just after checkout. If the event is a shoe purchase, they’re offered socks.

So, could a premium publisher like Hearst or Condé Nast offer sites that go after an audience? Yes, but it’s probably not the best use of their site. And offering both premium branding and RTB might devalue their audience and make their site overall less appealing to premium buyers. Think about it: Can you image Vogue selling a full-page direct-response ad?

That brings up another key point here, which is paramount to any discussion of 100% automation: When advertisers are publishers, aren’t publishers also brands? If The New York Times had a direct response ad for a second-rate dating site on its homepage, wouldn’t it be jarring?  Perhaps several pages back or on the bottom of a page, it would feel more natural.

Traditionalists like me embrace innovation, but we won’t let it tarnish the brand. If 90% of all ads were purchased via RTB, and 10% were physically sold, a lot would be lost for the industry. Context, content and relevance can’t be curated by machines. Content integration creates one-of-a-kind experiences, the holy grail for brand advertisers.

Innovation will bring us to a place where both the brand and direct marketer can thrive online. Publishers like USA Today and The Atlantic are rolling the ball in that direction. But that innovation won’t rely solely on automation. There will always be a place for human intelligence and creativity in online advertising. Without it, the industry would crumble like a rusted robot.


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