Is Programmatic Self-Serve REALLY Self Service?

As digital ad buyers look for more control and transparency, we’re seeing increasing demand for “self-service” models, where advertisers (or their agency) handle all programmatic ad buying in-house. With many players in the programmatic space, and an increasing level of sophistication on the buy side, it’s realistic to assume self-service will continue to grow.

But speak to anyone providing self-serve access to platforms, and there are some definite issues. Namely, many buyers rely heavily on vendors for services, despite their contractual agreements and intentions to bring everything in-house. This is a problem on several levels, because it stretches vendor teams very thin while ensuring advertisers remain almost fully dependent.

It’s safe to say most ad buyers aren’t doing this with clear malicious intent, but low margins and consistent support needs do burden vendors. To avoid damaging relationships, buyers and vendors need to work together to address the root causes of this ongoing problem.



There are few people who can claim to be experts in programmatic, as the technology is less than 10 years old. As a result, legitimate authorities are in high demand. In addition, the allure of new and potentially better job opportunities leads to constant workforce fluctuation. The notion of employee loyalty is quickly vanishing, and skilled staff move between positions at vendors, agencies and brands for more senior titles. As a result, brands bringing everything in-house might suddenly find themselves without a programmatic expert – forcing them to train a new team moments after signing a contract.

Dedicated training
Although many platforms have similar features and functionality, each one is unique. It’s an unfortunate reality that the willingness to allocate the necessary hours to prepare teams isn’t always there. The best solution is for vendors to include training services within the contract. Even with the best of intentions to follow training requirements and conditions, some buyers will get bogged down with too many campaigns and/or not enough staff. It’s a constant issue of time versus people power.

Sales & services disconnect
Sales teams are the lifeblood of every vendor. But when pushed to meet their numbers, it’s common for them to set unrealistic expectations. In turn, the responsibility is pushed to client service and support teams. It’s important to understand sales teams aren’t fully to blame – buyers looking at self-service options shouldn’t be constantly asking for support.

Communication at the onset is an absolute necessity: What does the advertiser consider to be self-sufficient? What support do they need to get there? How can the vendor team help reach this goal in an appropriate timeframe?

Lack of knowledge
Sometimes issues stem from buyers thinking they’re well-versed, only to learn their campaign isn’t running as planned. There are lots of nuances to programmatic, and few people have the necessary experience to activate campaigns independently across platforms. A lack of knowledge forces buyers to ask for additional services from vendors.

Looking at these factors, it’s clear education is critical. It’s also evident ad buyers still need consultants, even when they aim to bring programmatic in-house. Through the lower margins associated with licensing software for self-service usage, vendors need to build in a structure that ensures they’re paid for educational and consultative services. While vendors will no longer run campaigns, they can still offer additional services so clients feels at ease and better informed.

Ultimately, contract talks need to be about the relationship as much as the price. Both sides must agree to key factors including needed time and training. As long as both parties maintain consistent and respective communication, they can profit from the growing trend of programmatic self-serve.

3 comments about "Is Programmatic Self-Serve REALLY Self Service?".
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  1. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, April 11, 2017 at 11:30 a.m.

    This is nothing new to anhone who has spent en ough time in the software srvives business. Professional services from training and onboarding to ongoing support plus special consulting assignments is inevitable, and it is a cost that should be accounted for, or the service provider will wind up in trouble. Either a perdiem rate for the services must be established and agreed to by all parties, or the cost of staffing must be covered in the fees for the software, however it is licensed. In my experienc, it has been best to use the first method., straightforward, no surprises. Other industries adopting automation went through this years ago. Now it is the turn of advertisers and marketers, and agencies. It isn't really unknown to agencies, either. They've paid DDS and now MediaOcean to cover this cost center for decades.

  2. Myles Younger from Canned Banners, April 11, 2017 at 12:04 p.m.

    Good piece. Refreshingly frank. Programmatic advertising was born out of VC-backed companies, many (most?) of which not only launched but matured with unprofitable (or perhaps thinly profitable) business models. If they had all been boot-strapped from the get-go (i.e., reliant on positive cash flow and profitability), they would have figured out fairly quickly that they needed to either build services into their pricing or negotiate separate services contracts with customers (think Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, etc). Instead, because the players were all VC-backed and in a simple race for market share (versus other VC-backed co's with war chests), they subsidized their customers and juiced their MRR and new bookings by building bloated account management teams for what was marketed and priced as "self-serve" software. These de facto subsidies (essentially taking VC cash and putting it in customers' pockets) created the illusion and myth of a MUCH higher degree of self-service and automation than was really being achieved. But the simple truth is that beyond simple AdWords/Facebook campaigns, most programmatic advertising use cases are not suitable for a self-serve model.

  3. Seth Ulinski from, April 12, 2017 at 9:47 a.m.

    I think we'll see less reliance on managed services as platforms mature and vendors ramp certification programs. TubeMogul (Adobe), MediaMath and DataXu have each made investments to increase education and promote "power users." The agency piece is interesting- do they teach clients the ways of programmatic and risk losing that client to an in-house model? Enterprise IT services firms like Accenture and PwC are comfortable enabling clients on platforms as it is part of larger digital transformation projects- which may or may not include managed services. Traditional media agencies will likely prefer to keep programmatic know-how closer to the vest.

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