Three Pre-Reqs to Capture the Hearts, Minds And Budgets Of Brand Managers

At my company, we’ve been active in the programmatic buying space for brand marketing and we’ve seen some very positive business results to date.  I truly believe it’s the future of all media buying (not just digital, but I’ll save that discussion for another day).

Yet, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg of programmatic buying’s potential for brand marketers.  The deck is stacked against brand marketers to be successful; this is an opaque space with ad tech companies often promising us the world. Call us marketers cynical, but we’ve heard that story before.  For me, just to understand, navigate and be successful in this space was a huge, time-consuming task full of fits and starts.

Programmatic buying has already established itself as a winning solution for direct response (DR) marketers and yet awareness, let alone adoption, is much slower among brand marketers. Why? Ironically some of the tactics and thinking that has pushed the industry forward for DR are now holding it back for brand marketing. So, I’d like to offer three themes that are inhibiting programmatic buying for brand marketers. While this is certainly not all encompassing, I’m hoping this will provide some insight and impetus to prioritize the needs of the brand marketer even higher.

In order for programmatic buying to truly catch on with brand marketers, the following things must be true:

  1. The ecosystem must be demystified
  2. Real-time signals are needed to measure brand-building success
  3. More ad tech companies are required to focus on the needs of brand marketers

1)     The ecosystem must be demystified for brand marketers

This space is crowded and complex, and while it’s understandable that each player is out to further themselves, the unfortunate result is that the space has deteriorated into a huge hairball of complexity.

The reality is that media plans are just a piece of the brand manager’s responsibilities that include developing campaign ideas, individual creative pieces, PR, in-store… the list goes on.   Of all those responsibilities, creative development receives the lion’s share of attention – as it should – since it is the most visible piece to the consumer.  Most importantly, the creative idea is what drives the business, and we know that media simply amplifies the creative.  If the creative doesn’t have the right to succeed, the campaign will fail regardless of the brilliance in the media plan.

So, if you are trying to sell your customer something in which she has no interest and you are not taking steps to make things easier to understand, you are dead in the water.  Clearly it is the responsibility of brand managers to engage (and they will), but the industry needs to take the first step and make things cleaner and simpler, while cutting out promises that can’t be fulfilled.

2)     Real-time signals are needed to measure brand-building success

Incremental funding for programmatic buying has to come from somewhere.  Ultimately, it competes with other types of marketing for funding — search, print, PR, TV, etc. From a marketer’s perspective, “TV has worked very well in the past and continues to do well (yes, TV’s death has been greatly exaggerated), so why should we stop doing it?”

The answer is simple: done properly, digital programmatic buying has the potential to produce stronger ROI. But shifting spending from something that is working well to something completely new is inherently risky. Enabling brands to quickly understand if their media buys are working helps reduce risk, because if they aren’t working they can quickly shut it off and move funds into better-suited places.  A real-time signal of success could go a long way in helping brands feel comfortable in this display ecosystem.

However, the need for real-time feedback from programmatic buying goes beyond risk management, because the nature of programmatic buying enables us to have so many levers and opportunities to optimize our buys – many of the levers are useless without an immediate signal of success.

One thing I hear a lot from various vendors is that a banner “click” is the proper real-time signal. I wish it was that easy. When running a branding campaign (i.e. no direct response objective like ecommerce sales, email signups, etc), informed brand marketers don’t care about clicks.  The click-through rate (CTR) of a banner ad has been proven time and time again not to correlate back to incremental brand awareness, equity or sales for branding campaigns.  This makes sense as less and less people click banners today vs. historical.  Clicks are now at the point where CTRs average less than 0.1%. Optimizing against such a small population could actually lead to false positives.

The lack of a real-time signal creates a domino effect minimizing the true potential of programmatic buying.  If a real-time signal doesn’t exist, then it is difficult to leverage programmatic’s optimization features to test and learn what is driving value in a buy (is it demo, geo, banner size, etc., targeting?).  Thus as branding marketers we can’t optimize in real-time, and the potential of programmatic buying is left untapped.

3)     More ad tech companies must focus on the needs of brand marketers

Perhaps the lack of a real-time signal for branding is why ad tech has almost solely focused on the click and, therefore, direct response marketers.  While it is understandable to go after the low hanging fruit, if we want the space to grow (and we all do) there needs to be more attention on the brand marketer.

The opportunity to transfer some TV dollars to the programmatic space exists in spades.  The vast majority of brand marketers who can’t afford TV are still buying digital like it’s 1999 (through inefficient means), so there is a great opportunity here, too.

While the space has started to make strides to meet the needs of brand marketers, we need more brilliant minds to take it to the next level.

Follow Bob Arnold (@bobbyarnold) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Bob –

    Couldn’t agree more. Exchange world, like the rest of the ad ecosystem before it, were built for DR goals using targeting coming from DR mindset.

    We built Resonate to solve this exact problem, allowing Brands to target audiences on more intelligent brand characteristics (consumers’ values, product characteristics important to them, etc.) that go beyond demo’s, and measure performance to brand-based measures not CTR. Due to our proprietary research, we can share rich insights about consumers before ever running a campaign, and then tell you what the values profile is of those who are driving brand lift.

    Let’s chat.

    Andy Hunn – cofounder, resonate

  2. Bob,

    Regarding Points 1 and 3 – Aren’t these two fundamentally contradictory?

    Hard to simplify while urging more entrants to join the all-out scrum that is ad technology today.

    I think perhaps we should encourage investors to be a little less profligate about investing in every me-too company and entrepreneurs to build for long-term viability rather than a short-term acquisition possibility. I’m not saying that would change all behaviors but it might catalyze some of the changes you reference above.

    Regarding point 1- I agree with you on the lack of focus on the creative. Technology is not good at being creative and I don’t see that radically changing anytime soon. I would advance that agencies (the marketer proxy) need to become much better behaved about being able to work with publishers/platforms on delivering creative ON TIME for even standard placements before the ecosystem is going to dive into massively custom native formats or creative techs. The supply chain needs fixing there before innovation can occur.

    Regarding point 2 – I would submit that (as you seem to indicate in 3) a lot of TV buying is premised around operational and buying ease, the ease of reaching scale and the TV industry’s abject lack of interest in embracing digital for both personal and professional reasons.

    It’s hard to look at TV brand measurement techniques today and think of them as the deciding factor behind the ongoing growth of TV just as it seems unlikely that finding a mystical online brand measurement technique will allow online to rip into TV budgets in a hurry. So why focus on that? Fix the supply chain (recurring theme).

    Glad you’re able to raise these issues, they’re important and need as much discussion as necessary to help us get out of the quicksand.

    • Bob Arnold


      Great post and really appreciate your provocative thoughts as usual.

      Understand your point that at a some levels innovation and complexity can be contradictory- my point is that we need innovation in the space to focus on reducing complexity for brand marketers. They are the ones that will need to sign off on the plans and if they don’t understand it they won’t sign off.

      I 100% agree with you that the supply chain has a ton of opportunity for improvement and from personal experience when you see those issues nine times out of ten it’s on the client for not having set up a reasonable process, i.e. you need better clients 🙂

      Regarding your point on the “mythical” online branding metric a couple points-
      1) You are right the growth of TV isn’t based on current measurement processes (although we do measure it extensively)- it’s because TV has worked very well for decades and continues to do so, senior leaders do not question it. There is a saying in CPG circles- a brand manager has never been fired for recommending TV.
      2) Programmatic buying works best when something is optimizable in real-time- right now there is no signal to optimize against from a branding perspective. If one did exist it should increase the ROI (even further) for advertisers
      3) In my experience the most effective systemic way to pull money from traditional to digital media is to demonstrate superior ROIs- at the end of the day no one argues with that logic. Hence the need for a branding metric, if we can continue to drive higher ROIs we’ll invest more into the digital space.


  3. Sara Livingston

    Hi Bob,

    As a marketer (yes, I know, we’re few and far between here), I find it interesting to see you look this much towards ad tech cos to develop the products needed to leverage programmatic buying for branding initiatives on their own.

    I’ve learned first hand (way too many times), marketers can’t expect ad tech cos to simply build products to meet our needs on their own. Instead marketers need to work closely with ad tech cos to guide them and ensure the products will ultimately solve a micro-level marketing problem that will ultimately work to meet a macro-level business goal. However the reality is, the people at ad tech cos aren’t experts in brand marketing, and nor should they be, they’re experts at developing technology that can be leveraged for marketing/advertising. (One can argue the reverse should then be true, that brand marketers shouldn’t need to understand ad tech, but we all know that isn’t true. Marketers need to know everything.) We’re already seeing this throughout the industry ecosystem, both publicly with agency holding cos investing in startups and privately with advertisers partnering & working closely with ad tech cos to alpha/beta test products, helping inform product roadmap and dev.

    Yes, in an ideal world those building the ad tech will understand the macro level goals of marketers just as ideally all marketers will understand and appreciate the intricacies of ad tech. And actually it’s very likely as the industry progresses on both sides of the ecosystem, more people will migrate to and from the marketer and ad tech co side, causing a greater transfer of knowledge and inherent understand of the macro-level view from the other side of the fence. But the reality is we aren’t here yet and instead are very much in education mode, on both sides.

    This directly ties into Vikram’s point above, that the responsibility to innovate through creative solely lies with the agency and then also the marketer. As we’ve well seen with DCO (which yes is DR, but still can be applied to branding via RM units), limitless creative automation cannot speed up the time it takes to establish a concept and build the core creative version/unit.

    At the end of the day, it’s in our (the marketer’s) toolbox that all of these ad tech cos exist. And in order to ensure we are leveraging the best built tools to run the most successful marketing initiatives, we should work to have as much input as possible (& our partner ad tech cos will allow) into how these products are created.
    (If Bill Parcels had worked in digital marketing…)


  4. Sara Livingston

    And just as a follow up– yes, if the ad tech cos don’t listen/ignore marketers’ suggestions, and continue developing “me too” products that don’t solve real problems, then yes, it’s their own fault.

    No question if the above occurs ad tech cos will continue to be their own biggest obstacle and hinder the flow of spend into all digital channels (and across all devices).


    • Bob Arnold


      Thanks for your post.

      I think we are actually saying the same thing.

      I agree with your point creative falls into the domain of marketers/agency- one of the points I made is that marketers are primarily focused on creative (“Of all those responsibilities, creative development receives the lion’s share of attention”).

      Also agree with your point that we cannot expect tech companies to understand marketers vice versa. The whole objective of the column is that it’s my best attempt at bridging the gap between the supplier (ad tech companies) and customer (marketers) to help move this whole ecosystem along.


      • Sara Livingston

        Yes- and certainly the more marketers there are in these forums the better. However we all know, there’s a tremendous gap between what gets talked about in trade pubs and then what actually goes on in meetings and receives budget across marketing plans.

        As a result it becomes less about shouting out loud that there’s a problem for other people to fix, and more about reaching out to the people/companies with the tech to solve the problems and helping them from a strategic (guidance) standpoint build the solutions. This of course helps mitigate against the all-too-common issue of ad tech cos developing features and products that simply to not solve the current problems (be it brand lift, true ROI or otherwise) facing marketers..

        Ad tech cos–> To acknowledge the other side of the argument, yes, many ad tech cos frequently complain that most marketers simply do not understand the solutions they are trying to build. Then in order to work with the marketer they have to greatly dumb-down/simplify their products to the point that the differencing-factors are muted and the marketer’s feedback becomes meaningless. Ad tech cos, if this is the case, then simply you’re working with the wrong marketers.

        And of course, it’s worth acknowledging that all of these issues are certainly not unique to programmatic buying (which eventually will extend beyond digital), but rather endemic to digital media overall.


  5. Bob,
    This is great stuff with one glaring exception here:

    “The click-through rate (CTR) of a banner ad has been proven time and time again not to correlate back to incremental brand awareness, equity or sales for branding campaigns. This makes sense as less and less people click banners today vs. historical. Clicks are now at the point where CTRs average less than 0.1%. Optimizing against such a small population could actually lead to false positives.”

    Here’s what I see on these points –
    1) There are as many studies, especially from search and retargeting that clicks lift brand metrics. In fact all measurable events based targeting increases brand awareness because we know frequency and interaction are key for measuring brand. The studies I’m aware of that make your point are outdated – if you have some something from the last 9 months I’d love to see it.
    2) There are also many of companies getting WAY higher CTR than .1. Criteo has publicly slated CTR of .7. I believe it because we routinely see CTR north of 1%. Because there’s just sooooo much inventory now and science has progressed the volumes of clicks in fact can be optimized with confidence and impact.

    Display is undeniably moving towards keywords, shouldn’t brands be buying their own keyword? Wouldn’t another brand if they could? Wouldn’t clicks on it or vs a competitor be a measure of brand? Yes, yes, yes – so clicks matter.

    The Real Issue: The larger issue is that “Brand” buying – meaning buying NOT based on a performance metric – is dying. The evidence on that from the IAB is clear.

    As we start to see ever more evidence of the impact online marketing has on purchase decisions (we can all agree ads exist to sell things) it’s undeniable that branding moves to its own measures of performance and these will be optimized against. Call them actions, shares, events, views, or even call them by what they also are, clicks, they are the most important consumer insight and the root for everything that happens both on the web and off of it.

  6. Bob Arnold


    Thanks for your post. Agree that online marketing does drive sales. Also agree we need a metric for all buying, including buys with a branding objective.

    From what I’ve seen campaigns with a branding objective have not shown that clicks by themselves are not a proxy for success. On the other hand for a direct response objective clicks are very important.

    There are several studies from a branding objective standpoint- here is one from comScore:

    Another from Nielsen (it’s more than 9months old, but comes to similar conclusions as comScore):

    We also have internal studies across the board that back this up.


    • Bob,

      That’s actually not a comScore study, it’s from a vendor, and the stats in there have been refuted by more than one source including comScore I believe.

      It is not about reaching audiences anymore, that poor measurement – it’s about driving audiences to marketer controlled experiences. That means a click and real marketing measurability.



      • Wayne Blodwell

        I’m with Bob on this. I don’t understand how we can really expect digital display marketing to grow by hanging on to the click. It just ends up being compared against click based channels – which it will never succeed against (because not ALL interested users click on the ad, unlike search/affiliates – these are intent based channels).

        There are arguments for and against the click (the ones for are by the companies who buy media on a CPM and sell on a CPC basis – go figure) but this isn’t really the point.

        The point is we have tried to use click as a way to bring big brands online historically and they are fed up with this as a measurement (thanks Bob for being a champion of this by the way) as it has no relevance to their business objective. They have tested this. They don’t want it.

        I actually find it extremely frustrating when you get vendors pulling at it from all angles thus making it a very confusing ecosystem for advertisers.

        Lets find the metrics that are actually important for a brand (awareness and preference are just as important as proxys for brands) and can improve the programmatic ecosystem.

  7. Gian Fulgoni

    I wanted to set the record straight on the comScore experience with clicks on display ads. First, the study to which Bob refers, while not conducted by comScore, used data supplied by comScore. The finding that clicks don’t correlate with the effectiveness of online display ad campaigns in generating conversions is consistent with comScore’s extensive experience analyzing online display ad campaigns.

    Our original research in 2008 found that there was no correlation between the click on an online display ad and the effectiveness of the campaign in lifting either online or offline sales:

    Since that time we have conducted thousands of brand-lift studies for clients, many of which evaluated both click-through and view-through effects that reached the same conclusion: clicks on display ads are not a reliable indication of the effectiveness of the campaign. The evidence is irrefutable. Nonetheless, we find that that click is still used by some within the industry to evaluate display campaigns. In my opinion, the reason for this is that the click is fast, easy and inexpensive to compute. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases it’s also the wrong metric. Doubleclick data show that only 1 in 1,000 people exposed to a display campaign click on a display ad, so optimizing against the click means ignoring the other 999 people. How can any brand manager worth his or her salt accept that?

    I do want to distinguish my comments, which refer to display campaigns, from the relevance of a click on a search ad. There, the click rates are upwards of 30 times higher and do have relevance. That said, our research indicates that a prior non-clicked exposure to display ads is often a key driver of the click on a search ad. In other words, display campaigns are important in establishing the value and appeal of a brand in the consumer’s mind. And that helps generate the click that can occur closer to the actual purchase – whether via a search ad or a retargeted ad.

    Nonetheless, it’s still important to analyze whether the click represents an incremental purchase of the brand or whether it’s simply an indication of a purchase that would have occurred anyway. This is not dissimilar to the challenge that CPG brand managers face using cents-off coupons effectively. There, research has shown that much of the redemption often comes from consumers who would have brought the brand anyway (it’s called wasted redemption). So, if I draw an analogy with a click, one needs to know not just whether the click occurred but also if the paid click and subsequent conversion really does represent incremental buying. If it does, then all ends well. Otherwise, it’s simply a wasted click.

    p.s. even Google acknowledges that one needs to look beyond the click when evaluating the effectiveness of ads running on the Google ad network:

    Measure the impact of your display campaigns with Campaign Insights
    Campaign Insights is a unique measurement tool that delivers reliable data about how a display campaign raised brand awareness, or activated user interest in a particular product or service. It looks beyond traditional measures of clicks and conversions to calculate the incremental lift in both online search activity and website visits that results from a display ad campaign. It is currently available only for larger display ad campaigns across the U.S. and U.K.
    Calculate the full value of conversions with View-Through Conversion Reports
    A View-Through Conversion Report shows you the number of online conversions that resulted after a user saw, but did not click, your display ad on one of the sites on the Google Display Network. This information can help you measure the true effectiveness of your campaign and find the best ad placements for overall conversions.


    • Hi Gian,

      We’ve been down this road before together and you know I love travelling it with you.

      As I mentioned at the outset the ‘Whither the Click’ study is four years old, a lifetime in web technology. In that time targeting technology and data intelligence has advanced rapidly across many vectors. More importantly marketers have advanced and the fastest growing strategy in display is performance – a channel that is built on the ability to drive traffic (clicks) to marketer controlled experiences.

      At the same time a smaller percentage of display dollars are being allocated to “brand-lift” campaigns purchased on a CPM basis. This is irrefutable. A thousand marketers are not wrong. Clicks are driving incremental value to their businesses.

      That said, by no means does any intelligent marketer believe there is no value outside the click. As you said, we’ve known for some time on the ability for display impressions to drive increased Search impressions. In fact, I presented a SONY case study at SES 2005 about this.

      Marketers are smart enough to incorporate all the variables into performance driven by clicks and it extends far beyond the ad click. For example, I just spoke to a marketer that is not hitting her initial direct CPA goal on from one display traffic source but that traffic was turning 4 page views over average and once activated her retargeting conversion volume increased substantially so she keeps buying. The value of those page views and the ability to reconnect with that visitor goes well beyond any “impression” based metrics.

      Bottom line. The digital marketers have spoken. Traffic matters. Always has. Always will. With the attention of people online becoming more and more difficult to capture the value of capturing it and sending it to your marketing only continues to increase – in every channel.



  8. Thank you Bob for this article. It is so true!
    Having proved that the duration of ad-exposure correlates perfectly with brand recall, Alenty provides the real-time signal that you mention.
    If you drive a campaign on “efficient impressions” (impressions seen longer than the duration of the message, 10 seconds for instance), you use this metrics as a proxy for brand effectiveness.
    With the existing tools, you can control both real exposure and frequency. Each individual can be now see the full message completely and the right number of times, in order to maximize branding attributes.
    Programmatic buying is a great opportunity for brand advertisers.