Mobile Programmatic -- The Big Question Nobody Is Asking

A year or so ago and every other survey was centred on the mismatch between marketers adopting programmatic and their understanding of the new technology. Now that we're most definitely in a mobile-first world we're getting the same type of research -- only for mobile. This time it's the IAB UK pointing out that although half of marketers are using mobile programmatic less than half of those adopters claim to have an understanding of the technology. This "disconnect" is made all the more alarming by 80% of marketers claiming to have an interest in adopting mobile programmatic before the end of the year.

I'm always left a little cold by such statistics. There's the mundane level of questioning whether they make a point and then the bigger issue of whether, in this case, we're asking the wrong question of whether you understand it rather than whether you think it's the way forward in the first place.

First, on the mundane level, studies like this often draw flawed conclusions. In this research there's a near-even split between marketers who claim some knowledge and those who do not, so you pick which half you want to hold up as being the headline. You can either go for the idea that nearly half of marketers get the latest technology or just over half don't, depending on the point you want to make. I can't count the amount of times that PR people have tried to sell in a shocking story of one in four people not doing x or y, to which I always reply that must mean three in four must be doing the opposite, surely that means you're making a story out of a minority? Honestly, scan the headlines and see how many of these stories get through, holding up a minority as an example of some wider development.

If we accept that it's always good for marketers to have a grounding in the tech they're using, then we must accept that it's not a bad thing to put it to the test every now and then get a feeling for how well the latest tools are understood. However, I'm not too sure what the point is. I'd estimate that 99% of truck drivers have no idea how their engine works and 99% of city slickers probably don't understand how platforms reconcile trades, they just kind of accept that the tech is there and it works.

That's one point, but there's an even more crucial question with mobile programmatic. Questioning how well the tech is understood and then highlighting those who don't have a full grasp of it is effectively saying that the technology is here, it's good and it should be understood. OK -- so that's a point of view, and here's another. For me, the real question is whether display will make the transition to mobile. The fundamental issue that marketers need to look at is whether people will accept the countless ad units flashing at them on a tiny screen that they are mostly prepared to live with on the big screen. Are those tiny spots actually worth buying? Or will the simply annoy the very people they're supposed to appeal to? If so, is that where you want your brand?

Put another way, is mobile display a pain for consumers -- and if so, do you want to be a part of it? If you do, would you rather plan that yourself or are you OK with programmed computers bidding for spots and placing your campaign where your bids are accepted? Effectively it's as simple as this -- do you want to be involved in mobile display, and if so, do you want to do this yourself or are you OK with machines doing it for you?

Given the huge issues of click fraud and viewability that affect digital display I'm always staggered by how well the channel has continued to thrive. As we move into a mobile-first world I have serious question marks over whether it will continue to do so. First of all, there must be a lot less supply per page because the small screen simply cannot support so many units. Secondly, the technology is built to make ad blocking simpler than ever -- it's just a browser extension or app download away.

Sure, there's in-app, but hardly anyone is making any money from the ad-supported model. The apps you just can't get by without are often paid for to strip out ads at very low cost and those you occasionally look at or where you go to ignore invites to download some other freemium app or another. 

So don't get me wrong -- there's nothing wrong necessarily in seeing how well marketers understand mobile programmatic. The problem comes when you begin to believe it is the big question that needs answering. For me, the issue is whether marketers truly need to understand the tech, rather than just accept that it works, like their fridge or freezer does.

Getting bogged down means you can miss the huge, overriding questions. Will display transition smoothly into a mobile first-world or will it simply be ignored and blocked? Will what worked on desktop work on mobile? I'm not so sure, so I'm not drawing too many conclusions from marketers leaving the details of platforms to the ad tech guys while they presumably figure out how to engage audiences in a mobile first world. 

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