Google’s Matt Brittin once likened programmatic to teenage sex – and it’s easy to understand why. Everyone seems to be worrying about whether the competition is doing more of it, or doing it better than they are. The truth, though, is that worryingly few people know what they are doing at all.

Brittin’s analogy is all the more disconcerting when you consider that, in Europe, roughly half of digital display ads are already delivered through programmatic (Emarketer, November 2015). Despite this, roughly half of marketers say they had “little or no knowledge” of the technology deciding where and when their ads appear (IAB, January 2016). Are brands risking their own future by blindly taking the plunge? Are they missing the real opportunity? And is there a more informed way to plan out a strategy for programmatic?

We brought together TNS’s Digital Director Jonathan Sinton and Caspar Schlickum, CEO of Programmatic Ad Platform Xaxis, to cut through the confusion and explore what brands should be doing to take advantage of programmatic – and what they shouldn’t. Here’s a selection of the highlights from their discussion:

What should marketers be using Programmatic for?

Jonathan Sinton (JS) : Programmatic can really help make sure you are reaching the right strategic target at the right time and hence reduce noise. It can also help ensure the same person is reached effectively across different touchpoints.

Done right, programmatic has the potential to deliver both of these things. And impact increases significantly when you get both of them right.

TweetboxWhat are the pitfalls?

JS: Programmatic is the executional end of a strategy, but that strategy has got to be right. If behavioural targeting or re-targeting are your only programmatic strategies, then you’ve got a problem. Marketers need to think more broadly about who the target is and how they’re going to target that audience effectively, with the right message. It should be used throughout the funnel, not just at the end.

Caspar Schlickum (CS) : To be honest, I think the biggest opportunity for programmatic is also its biggest challenge. Programmatic is really nothing more than using an algorithm to make a decision about whether to place an ad or not. It can make marketing data actionable and executable, but only if you can organise your data to enable it to do that. Marketers need to understand that the challenge really starts there: organising data and getting access to the right data within their own organisation.

Do marketers know what they’re doing yet?

CS: Lots of people aren’t getting it right yet. But in a way, that’s understandable. Re-inventing approvals processes, being able to access data in different siloes, that’s all going to take a while for clients to figure out. People are still trying to invent business models, and a lot of the backwards integration hasn’t happened yet. If Programmatic were a sporting event, we’d still be at the stage where the players are arriving at the venue; it’s very, very early days.

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Are marketers undermining brands by spending on Programmatic before they’ve figured out the right approach?

CS: Yes – well, to be honest, I think programmatic is at risk of undermining itself. It’s important to draw a distinction here between programmatic done well and programmatic done badly. There are lots of examples where programmatic is done in a very irresponsible way right now: re-targeting, cookie bombing, not applying proper frequency caps. All of that stuff causes huge amounts of annoyance to consumers, the end-users. It’s not fair to say we are spending too much. The question is: are we spending it on programmatic in the right ways?

Marketers should be challenging the partners they work with, whether that’s media agencies or third parties, not just about the results but about how those results are achieved. Are they real results, and are we sure we’ve delivered those ads in a way that hasn’t annoyed our end-users and consumers, and hasn’t damaged the brand?

What role can research agencies play in helping clients do more with programmatic?

JS: The most important thing that research agencies can do is reintroduce the concept of mindsets to targeting. If you go back ten, twenty years, all marketers were building strategic targeting segments that were a mixture of mindsets and behaviour. Now, suddenly, we’re seeing a whole lot of programmatic targeting just based on behaviour. Losing the mindset aspect is a real risk for brands. What we’ve found is that when you start to integrate

Get in touch

Jonathan Sinton is the Global Digital Director for TNS’ key clients. Jonathan is responsible for helping TNS’ global clients understand the connected consumer and on the implications for marketing approaches. In addition, he is also heavily involved in driving the inclusion of mobile, social, and behavioural data sources with new TNS products and is a member of the TNS global client & offer board. @JonathanSinton

Caspar Schlickum is co-founder and CEO of Xaxis EMEA. Caspar has extensive experience in marketing and digital media, having worked in marketing research and media agencies and publishing. He is also guest lecturer at London Business School. @CasparSch