Now that we are at the cusp of what may well be referred to in the distant future as Programmatic’s Age of Enlightenment, one thing that’s misunderstood is the role of agencies, which in some quarters still seem to be considered as impediments to programmatic success for marketers. There continues to be heated debate about whether brands should take more and more of their programmatic infrastructures and capabilities in-house. Cries for agency disintermediation have been loud.
So I would like to issue a challenge to the entire ecosystem for the remainder of 2015 and beyond — let’s all agree to acknowledge the sizable progress made by agencies in getting a firm grip and leadership position in the programmatic space. As someone who has had firsthand, intimate looks into agency operating systems, I can say with great confidence that by and large, agencies have indeed long since smelled the coffee in embracing best programmatic practices.
If anything, brand marketers themselves may in many cases provide the biggest challenges to achieving programmatic paradise. Yes, that’s right. I know that is provocative and will likely stir up some dust in Fortune 500 boardrooms and executive suites, but hear me out.
When I assert this claim, please know that it’s not meant as an indictment but instead as a rallying cry. I’m one of the first people who would acknowledge and credit many marketers for having championed a more analytical and thoughtful, data-driven approach to their brands. Case in point: Netflix. What a commendable job righting the ship from data-rich but data-blind CPA-based buying tactics to an in-house tech stack; a small but highly nimble staff; and use of non-RTB programmatic marketplaces to drive new programming launches. Those could not have been easy executive conversations over the long road to success.
There’s additional encouragement in a 2009 case study from Beltone, a global leader in hearing health care products, which used data-driven marketing solutions from Datran Media (now PulsePoint) to differentiate core offline customers — Seniors 65+ — from online prospects. In doing so, Beltone discovered a plentiful new target audience — the caretaker children of seniors over 65. Beltone was able to generate higher performance and long-term customer value through this new audience channel. The powerful insight unearthed was that children of seniors tended to be highly engaged in the discovery phase of Beltone’s product messaging and probably had a keener sense of whether or not hearing health was a concern in the household. “Ma, hey, ma, the meatloaf!”
Today’s agency media planners are employing advanced analytics to generate fresh and innovative insights, which in the case of Beltone can have a transformative effect by impacting both product planning and R&D as well as media planning and target audience definition. These two shining examples notwithstanding, brands often actually don’t act on these powerful insights. Unfortunately, often brands reject the advice of their agency counterparts. There’s plenty of evidence of brand reticence to take action on new learnings facilitated by data-driven best practices.
While executive research firm Spencer Stuart’s annual CMO study recently showed increased tenure and influence, there’s still the overriding sense that CMOs feel pressured to prove themselves quickly in today’s fast-paced marketing world. And certainly for those reporting to the CMO, who brings freshly minted MBA education to the table, taking risks to champion leading-edge, audience-centric, data-driven methodologies over antiquated legacy methods has got to be tough when you’re trying to cover the rent and pay down school loans.
The ability to deeply understand risk versus reward and swim in the deep data-driven end of the pool needs to be embraced at the very top of Fortune 500 boardrooms, and driven throughout the company’s corporate culture. That is our big collective challenge to continued success and growth. Front-line business decision makers need to be empowered to test, fail, learn, improve, scale. After all, without risk, there really is no great opportunity.