Pulling Back the Transparency Curtain on Programmatic

joannaoconnelrevised“Marketer’s Note” is a weekly column informing marketers about the rapidly evolving, digital marketing technology ecosystem. It is written by Joanna O’Connell, Director of Research, AdExchanger Research.  

I recently spent the morning with a group of senior level marketers who normally spend their time thinking about media – the pricing of it, the technologies required to buy it, and the relationships (with agencies and others) needed to provide the necessary strategic guidance and day to day operational manpower to manage it. Our goal was to talk through programmatic in real terms – what does it really mean (today versus tomorrow), who are the relevant players, where and how does the money flow, and the like.

My ongoing experience in the space continues to remind me that one of the biggest issues continuing to hamper whole-hearted adoption of programmatic is transparency – both the perceived and real lack of it. And while this may be a topic no one feels like talking about anymore, the reality is that when talking about programmatic with the highest-level media decision-makers within marketing organizations, it’s not adequate to say, “trust us, we’re experts”, price on a flat CPM and provide a pretty monthly report. (As an ex-agency person, I do not say this flippantly.  I understand that this model of media management is well developed  — some might say hard-wired — within agencies for some very defensible reasons).

Here are some questions I threw out to that group that I think can help pull back the transparency curtain a bit. What kinds of answers individual marketers will be satisfied with will be highly situational – depending on company culture, health and wellness of existing agency relationship(s), depth of comfort with technology, etc. But I do think having conversations with current and future partners on topics like these will help shape how organizations approach “programmatic” as a concept going forward.

  • Pricing
    • What is your pricing model? Flat margin? Flat CPM with variable margin?
    • What level of pricing transparency do you provide?
    • What pricing is in place with your technology partner(s)?
  • Technology and Service
    • Which technologies do you use and why?
    • Can I see how the tools work?
    • What consideration was given to your agency/holding company’s trading desk, and how did you approach the decision-making process?
  • Campaign Transparency and Ongoing Management
    • What degree of campaign transparency do you provide?
    • Can I see site, segment or strategy-level performance?
    • What is your optimization cadence, and what’s that process like?
    • How do you manage frequency?
    • How do you manage overlap?
    • How do you manage quality control?

This is not an exhaustive list; rather it is intended to get the juices flowing on considerations that will support a better understanding the inner workings of programmatic media management.

I’d love your thoughts, everyone!


Follow Joanna O’Connell (@joannaoconnell ) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter. 

Enjoying this content?

Sign up to be an AdExchanger Member today and get unlimited access to articles like this, plus proprietary data and research, conference discounts, on-demand access to event content, and more!

Join Today!


  1. Joanna…

    This is important stuff. I wish every client was trained to ask this of their agencies and of the programmatic partners their agencies bring to the table…including their in house trading desks. Programmatic marketing will grow much faster when clients have the perspectives and insights to choose the right partners.

    I would add an important one to your list… “what costs extra?” Beware of the hidden fees buried in a seemingly transparent model!

    • Great point, John. Totally agree. I’d want to understand all the costs – included or extra – in order to make an informed decision. It may be that the additional costs are deemed worth it. It may not. But you have to have the info to make that judgment!

  2. This is a great list. Now as a follow-up, it would be very useful to have some guidance on how to evaluate the answers. As you correctly noted, everyone will differ on what is acceptable to them, but it would be useful to have some insight into the range, especially for questions that might have quantified responses.

    • Fair question Bill – my experience has taught me that it depends a great deal on the marketer, truly. That said, some are more obvious than others. For example:
      – The answers to the “can I see it?” questions (whether it’s the platform, a site list, etc) should be “yes!” – even if a marketer isn’t in a position to spend inordinate amounts of time inside a platform, she would benefit from having some understanding of how it works, and her partner, whether it’s a trading desk, agency or DSP, shouldn’t be afraid to show her. Simply being granted the ability to get access might be answer enough for some marketers.
      – The answers to the “how did you evaluate the technology landscape/which technologies do you use and why” type questions should be met with a thorough response that gives transparency into the decision-making process – “we’re your agency, trust us”, isn’t good enough (though I suspect there’s still a lot of that).