If you look at most leading indicators for programmatic digital advertising, the trends point steadily upwards. The latest forecast from eMarketer projects that marketers will spend more dollars on programmatic ($133B), that it will account for a greater share of the media mix (91%), and that a growing and increasingly premium share of available inventory will be transacted programmatically.
These stats paint a picture of consistent, linear growth, but programmatic adoption has been asymmetric. If you subtract search and social, one finds that open web programmatic inventory is still primarily the province of large brands and agencies. The access to programmatic buying technology for premium open web inventory – and the talent and skill to use it – remains concentrated in relatively few hands.
It’s time for that to change.
It’s Only Middlemen for The Middle Market
Major brands and agencies have long mastered the ins and outs of programmatic tech. Reading the industry trades, one could easily assume that the vast majority of advertisers have followed suit.
But the majority of advertisers are not large – they come from the middle market, encompassing the largest swath of the US economy, and these companies have had comparatively less exposure to data-driven advertising than their big-brand counterparts.
The simple reason is that they don’t spend enough money on their own to meet the minimums for leading DSPs like MediaMath and The Trade Desk. These arbitrary minimums have excluded the majority of advertisers from the programmatic technology.
It’s a lost opportunity for everyone. These budget minimums have limited the middle market’s autonomy and curtailed its ability to bring advertising operations under their own control. They have disincentivized these companies from developing the talent and budgeting the resources necessary to master this technology and get the most value from it. And they have kept the major DSPs from accessing the largest, most diversified, and therefore most durable segment of advertisers.
Instead, middle market companies rely on media agencies (like my company, AudienceX) to manage their digital budgets, essentially acting as surrogate operators of this DSP technology. On the surface, that would seem to benefit digital agencies like us, but in the long run I’m not sure it benefits anyone.
Everyone Wins When All Options Are On the Table
Middle market brands deserve access to the same technology used by the bigger spenders, and have just as much to benefit from its adoption. Brands of every size can realize real performance gains through better audience targeting and access to more comprehensive and diversified supply. And rather than be forced into agency relationships for lack of options, brands should be able to decide exactly what balance of self-service and managed service best suits their needs.
Agencies should embrace and encourage the availability of self-service options for their clients.
There is still tremendous value for agencies to add on top of DSP technology, opportunities to find an edge in strategy, planning, buying, measurement, creative, and in thoughtful approaches to all of the above.
Digital agencies should aim at that market need, rather than exploiting the gap between middle-market brands and media buying technology. Agencies should be the brand’s partner in orchestrating the best possible balance between automation and human control, empowering internal teams as well as providing critical strategic guidance, creative development, and execution.
This is exactly what the biggest agencies have done for their big-brand clients. Fortune 50 brands can easily meet the minimum requirements for operating directly on the major exchanges, so agencies have responded by making deep investments in proprietary data and technology to carve out a competitive edge.
Middle-market agencies like ours have lacked that market pressure, and have been insulated from competing against the best-of-breed in DIY alternatives. We’ve witnessed first-hand that, when our brand clients have equal access to the best technology, it doesn’t erode our collaboration – it strengthens it.
There is huge unmet demand in the middle market for access to DSPs and the data and audience intelligence they facilitate. Opening access to these brands will benefit every stakeholder, including the exchanges themselves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brittany Wray, Vice President, Product at AUDIENCEX
Brittany has been with AUDIENCEX since 2018, and her platform experience and data analytics expertise has made her a deeply valued member of the organization. With a focus on new product development around both SaaS and data infrastructure, her leadership will guide the company’s growth as a provider of proprietary solutions that empower mid-market performance brands and agencies to access enterprise-level solutions, helping to equalize the digital advertising landscape across all channels and platforms.