Can You Build a Brand in Programmatic Media?

The ad industry has moved well past the experimental phase of audience buying. But where programmatic media has proven most effective are still primarily around direct response objectives. Many in the space agree it’s only a matter of time before brand marketers get serious. But is that true?

To answer that, we asked three senior agency executives this question:

“Can you build a brand using programmatic ad buying channels?”

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Ben Winkler, Chief Digital Officer, OMD

“Programmatic buying is a combination of two things:  the ability to discover and assign a value to media; and the mechanism to buy it with insights-based rules. Can it build a brand by itself?  Of course not. And certainly not the way many folks see programmatic buying; as a race to remnant. Or a replacement for ‘strategy.’ You don’t build a brand by finding a better CPM.

But if you’re trying to build a plan using only custom buys; well, good luck.  Yes, you need this foundation of rich, immersive elements in tentpole media. Content is king and all that. But the fact is, programmatic buying is now essential to building a brand – or really delivering on any measurable objective – in digital media.

Here’s three ways how:

Prime Your Campaign:  Run some exchange media before the big launch to create a custom pool of users who you know will want to engage with your brand. And use those insights to adjust your site list or creative executions.

Find the Diamonds:  Reach your target in all those quality nooks and crannies that are impossible to buy direct.

Top it Off:  Building takes bricks, and bricks mean frequency.  Use programmatic buying to invert the deadly “U-curve” of digital frequency distribution, ensuring that the majority of your audience – not just the mathematical average – gets effective exposure.

No one tactic can build your brand. But no branding strategy is complete if you can’t evaluate and activate the same way your customers do: in real time.”

Gaston Legorburu, Worldwide Chief Creative Officer at Sapient

“The short answer is: yes, but it’s not ideal. It’s like asking, ‘Can a one-arm man win a boxing match?’ Yes, if the one-arm dude is amazing, and the other guy is not. But that’s not a bet I’d like to take.

On one hand, optimization mechanisms can yield tremendous competitive advantages but, on the flip side, it can create too much parity for a brand marketer.

For example, the first credit card marketer who leveraged automated, multivariate creative optimization and programmatic ad buying smiled all the way to the bank. He killed the competition.  That was until all of his competitors did the same. Now, every ad looks the same, and they buy the same media.  That’s not a great way to differentiate your brand.

I always tell my teams to care about message, medium, and audience as an ecosystem. The insightful and smart use of each of those elements – or the relationship between them – can help a brand break though the clutter and connect with consumers. A great story, an engaging experience, or an innovative use of media can work independently, but it’s more likely that some combination of those will work best.

I truly believe you can’t build a brand though a spreadsheet alone… you need to be creative… but, man, those spreadsheets are handy. Don’t be outfoxed by the marketer who has one. I vote for a healthy mix of marketing magic and marketing science.”

Michael Winter, Managing Director Digital Strategy, PHD Media

“The killer application of programmatic buying is going to be in developing brands. What has made it such a powerful response tactic will be what helps it for brand advertisers.  Branding at a ‘one-to-one’ level at scale based on consumer insights — by leveraging their affinity for a product or a competitive product, tapping into a consumer’s motivations and interests, and then programming that into the media and creative to deliver a powerful and personalized communication platform — will help marketers as they continue to pivot towards storytelling.

Brands that look to build themselves not on reach and by delivering mass amounts of impressions but by cultivating audiences and developing relationships through leveraging data to help sequence creative or pulling in insights on a previous impression that then informs the next message will help create a relevance and connection between brands and consumers that will naturally lead to higher persuasion and brand metrics.”

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  1. Excellent insight. Programmatic shouldn’t be seen as a means to the end but rather a strategic tool in delivering higher ROI on more custom engagements as Ben noted. Humans will always be driven by great creative so building a model only on spreadsheet and sophisticated algorithms will never fully capture the hearts and minds of the audience. This is one of the reasons, I believe the floor trading pits of the futures markets continue to exist despite the growth of programmatic, high-frequency trading. Algorithm-based models can never fully understand the mood of the market. The same can be said about display.

  2. An interesting thought and at first the idea of brand-building through programmatic seems counter-intuitive. After all, brand relations are about the quasi-human touch of people and communities relating to branded products.

    What could be farther than that from RTB?

    That would be a mistake, however. Consider that all programmatic buying really represents is the amalgamation and automation of buying *decisions*—the nature of the medium hasn’t changed, and even though the buying-decision process itself might be homogenized, the inventory being bought remains diverse, engaging, and differently valuable.

    So, while programmatic might at first glance seem to be bad for brand-building; on second thoughts it’s no different at all. Especially with all the scale, the more valuable solutions seem to be the custom contextual targeting ability offered by Grapeshot (disclosure: where I work) and others(?).

  3. This question isn’t really about trading technology, what’s more important is the quality of inventory that trading technology has access to.
    Brand preference can be associated to some degree with the stature of the media environments in which brands are advertised. In other words, a brand advertised in the classified section of your local free newspaper may not be viewed as positively as a brand advertised in the Super Bowl. Stature matters when you are building and differentiating brands.
    So, as long as programmatic trading is a way of maximizing the yield value of low quality, below the fold, low visibility, poor quality, unsold digital media inventory, it will not provide the same brand stature as premium media positions which are not traded using programmatic.
    However, if more, higher quality media is traded using programmatic technology, then the possibility of building brands in media environments traded using programmatic will increase