Is Programmatic Ad Tech Becoming Too Powerful for Marketers?

Although the marketing community frequently touts programmatic as the next darling of digital advertising, there is ample evidence that marketers feel equally overwhelmed by its increasing technical power. In a recent study by Forrester Research and the Association of National Advertisers, 67% of marketers say they’re either unaware of automated buying technology, don’t understand it, or need to learn more about it to apply it to campaigns. With all the hype around programmatic, why is this the case?

Just scanning language on the technology pages of leading programmatic vendors’ sites such as Rubicon Project, Rocket Fuel or DataXu can provide us a clue. They proudly report statements along the lines of: "we utilize more than 50,000 algorithms in fractions of a second," "we make more than 500 million decisions every second with multi-variate analysis," or "our progressive optimization engine processes 6.4 billion impressions daily." That sounds like pretty impressive horsepower. But exactly what does this mean for brands marketers? Do they really need this much power on the back-end to make effective ad buys? And how does one continually harness the full scope of constantly advancing technology?



The increasing trend of programmatic vendors’ laser focus on product development, rather than user experience/adoption, reminds me of desktop computing’s evolution. In the late '90s and into the new millennium, desktop brands (IBM, Sony, HP) built computers with way more processing power than the average user required. As history naturally self-corrected, over time the market responded with computers that had less power, and more intimacy and customization options for the user (iPads, Netbooks), and better services (Amazon’s Mayday feature). Programmatic can learn from this desktop’s transformation: focus less on incremental technology, and more on enabling new participants to comfortably engage with programmatic solutions. 

So how can we drive widespread adoption of programmatic? To succeed, the entire programmatic ad tech ecosystem needs to change its go-to-market approach. Programmatic has layers of complexity, and as such requires different skill sets than traditional marketing channels to make sense of the nuanced jargon, use cases, and ubiquitous data. But this doesn’t mean the go-to-market messaging/positioning of programmatic also needs to be complex. In fact, the exact opposite approach is required. Companies should  focus heavily on stripping programmatic to its core and educating marketers on what they can achieve with a less complicated tech stack.

Again, programmatic isn’t the first to face this challenge. There are innumerable other industries that have risen above complexity with smart, creative channels. Marketing automation SaaS companies (Hubspot, Marketo, Eloqua), for instance, embraced content marketing early on to help evangelize the new category and educate the market on relevant lead/customer acquisition topics. As a result, content marketing quickly became a powerful conduit to building an informed community of marketers, widespread adoption, and long-term shareholder value (in the last four years alone, acquisitions have amounted to more than $5 billion).

Programmatic has promising potential for all players across the ecosystem, but unfortunately go-to-market strategy to date has undermined its true potential. Imagine a world where: marketers feel comfortable having programmatic conversations (with peers and tech partners), are equipped to make informed, actionable programmatic decisions, and can appropriately evaluate programmatic ROI versus other marketing channels. This world cannot exist unless the programmatic industry rallies together to create a simpler, more compelling message that focuses on the marketer, rather than the technology.

3 comments about "Is Programmatic Ad Tech Becoming Too Powerful for Marketers?".
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  1. Eric Porres from MeetingScience, June 17, 2014 at 11:16 a.m.

    Technology pages tend to be written for technology people. But we agree that results matter. We would encourage the author, Ben Maitland, to visit our success story page (, which profiles what programmatic really means for 45 marketers, among them, more effective advertising, better ROI, and insights that can be applied to other media.

    Eric Porres, CMO, Rocket Fuel

  2. Seth Ulinski from, June 17, 2014 at 2:26 p.m.

    Ben, nice write-up. I think a significant amount of the jargon/complexity in programmatic is due to the respective players trying to differentiate. In the past it was audience demographics or unique #'s that were critical (and still are factors) we add queries per second (QPS), multi-variate optimization, etc. I am OK with this this as it (typically) means a more educated/sophisticated buyer with less emphasis on which vendor's entertainment budget is the largest.

  3. Eric Janvier from Numsight, June 18, 2014 at 8 a.m.

    An emerging challenge of digital advertising : Is there too much technology for decision makers ?

    The buzz suggests that the combination of traditional Marketing and CRM practices with digital advertising is quickly emerging as the new marketing state of the art.

    I would guess that users do require a well defined frame of reference to make this new practice become a reality in marketing and communication budgets. This is not yet the case as technology is running faster than experience in organizations.

    Clearly a new challenge for the ad technology community !

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