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What's inside the black box of programmatic?
Tom DenfordSep 21, 20235 min read

What's inside the programmatic black box?

Brands Deserve Better Media

A weekly column from @tomjdenford




I want to use this opportunity to encourage you to listen to the podcast version of a recent #MediaSnack LIVE event we hosted. This is something we do monthly and I don't always mention the episodes here. You can find them on your favorite podcast platforms, just search #MediaSnack…


The latest monthly episode, hosted on September 8, featured special guests from the leadership team at Kroll, the specialist investigations firm that is supporting the Association of National Advertisers in their study and reporting on the transparency of the programmatic media supply chain…


That’s a mouthful. Still with me? 


The episode can be found on Apple, Spotify or directly at


Here are a few reasons to take 20 minutes to hear Kroll talk about the mess of programmatic:


1 - Plain Talk 

They are industry outsiders. Oh my! How refreshing it is to hear people talk about advertising, digital media and programmatic without all the usual industry jargon and TLAs (three-letter acronyms). It feels cathartic, a real joy, it feels good and nourishing

2 - Objective

This is no press-release. Kroll is not selling anything. Their work is paid for and funded by the ANA on behalf of their advertiser members. It's about as reliable a set of insights you could wish to find and worth paying attention to. 

3 - Qualitative

Kroll's investigations are qualitative, that is they focus on the people and companies behind the headlines. Their aim is to understand the behaviors (and any incentives affecting behaviors) and decision-making within the programmatic supply chain. 


The advertising (and especially media) industry drowns in endless QUANTitative studies. We are told that data answers everything and that there is no room for opinion, sentiment or nuance. Hence nobody ever funds qualitative looks at the industry. But that is where the real insights sit. 


Programmatic is not a technique designed to disadvantage the advertiser, but somewhere along the line some of the people and companies involved in programmatic got greedy or lost focus. The process got too complex and the advertiser felt like they stopped being the client (with primacy) and ended up more like the customer, "you’ll get what you’re given and don’t argue…"


Kroll has given us a load of rich new qualitative insight to think about. Three key findings in my view are:


1 - Information Asymmetry

There is an imbalance of information accessible to different players in the programmatic supply chain. This information disparity can lead to suboptimal decision-making, as individuals may not have access to the full picture of what is happening.


2 - Misaligned Incentives

The incentives within the supply chain may not align with the goals of transparency. In many cases, KPIs are driven by cost reduction rather than transparency. Marketers, traders, and others along the chain are incentivized to meet their specific KPIs, which may not necessarily lead to transparency or meaningful data sharing.


3 - Complexity

The programmatic ecosystem is highly complex, and the sheer complexity of log-level data and other technical aspects can deter individuals from seeking transparency, as they may not fully understand how to interpret the data.


Again, don't just take my word for it, hear it directly from Kroll.


As I said in my previous column about the ANA programmatic transparency study, I think there are three areas where progress can be made here:


1 - Education: to address information asymmetry

Advertisers should invest in education. “The more knowledge you have, the more likely the ecosystem takes you seriously because you’re asking the right questions” is very good advice. As one marketer once said to me, “Those who know the least pay the most.”


The best first thing any brand can do is to raise their base knowledge of programmatic. This doesn't have to be an onerous task. Simply aligning your team with the basic principles, language and companies in programmatic will go a long way to help any future decision-making. 


At ID Comms we often recommend advertiser teams take a short ‘intro to programmatic’ class with us first, so that all stakeholders and decision-makers are aligned on the basics. These forums also allow us to flush out any ‘dumb questions’ (there aren't any btw) so everyone feels they have the same information and can proceed with confidence.


2 - Calibration: a solution that is relevant to an advertiser’s needs

One of my biggest bug-bears of much industry reporting (especially in programmatic) is that it treats all advertisers as the same. They are not and the symptoms of poor programmatic performance will be different for advertisers in different categories, budget thresholds, agency models and so on. One size does not fit all, an approach that is right and proper for one brand may not be right and proper for another. 


Sadly, there is no single best practice template to follow because first the advertiser must understand fully their own situation. The only 100% commonality for all advertisers is the need to (please) decide to take some action to address programmatic and decide to do it better.


Diagnosing and addressing challenges in programmatic requires an especially well-calibrated approach, as the remedial actions to improve transparency and performance will vary depending on the advertisers’ current set up and their future ambitions. Sometimes we start with the technology, sometimes we start by simplifying the process and workflow, sometimes it's a capability gap that needs priority attention. 


3 - Analysis: learning from doing and getting better

Programmatic advertising is not inherently evil. It is simply a technique; sometimes done well, often done badly. Reset in your mind that programmatic can be good, you just need to decide to do it well. If brands want to commit to being better then the first thing to do is start counting, do some basic analysis of what’s happening, what’s being bought and what is being paid for it.


At ID Comms, we advise advertisers to conduct quarterly deep-dives on their programmatic buys and share information internally that is easy to understand and interesting for all marketing stakeholders. You shouldn’t need to have a PhD in computer science to understand a programmatic performance report. If it's not interesting for the CMO to review it then it's not interesting enough. 


Brands deserve better from programmatic. When brands get the media they deserve they flourish. 


When brands grow, we all win!




This post was featured in ID Comms’ weekly column, Brands Deserve Better Media. Each week, CEO Tom Denford shares insights on media and advertising and inspires us to work together to build a better future for the industry.

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