Media Redefined: Programmatic & the curse of the long tail
by Martin MacGregor (@MartMacG) To badly misquote Winston Churchill: ‘Never in the history of advertising has so much been spoken about one thing, yet so little understood.’ I have spent much time recently trying to really understand the phenomenon that is programmatic buying, why it came about and why it has been so successful (well, financially, for digital media agencies anyway).
This started by asking a lot of questions, first of myself and then of anyone in the industry that I have come in contact with. I soon realised that not only did I not really understand it but even the most-highly rated digital strategists were unable to explain it in simple terms.
The murmurs around transparency in digital advertising have now erupted into a very loud shout, especially by clients as they try and understand what is going on. I am not often on the side of procurement, yet I can see that this is coming from it and rightly so. Marketing teams shouldn’t be spending a cent of their budgets where they don’t fully understand why it’s being spent and where its messaging is actually going.
I am a big believer in understanding history as a way of getting to grips with the present and, usually in history, there is one moment on which everything pivots and a new direction is taken. This moment for programmatic, according to a brilliant article in Business Insider by Mike Shields called “The Advertising Industry has been living a lie”, was when someone called Chris Anderson wrote an article in Wired in 2004 called “The Long Tail”. It captured the real potential of the web being the ability to target every possible niche-target-market audience through the use of many, many websites. This has lead to the long tail of millions of niche sites that have proliferated everywhere.
If you think about it, it’s a no-brainer: targeting the most-relevant message to the most relevant audience at a rock bottom price. The internet was going to finally deliver the holy grail of media planning — almost perfect optimisation.
Reflection of reality?
Buying audiences instead of overpriced environments made so much sense on so many levels. Rather buy an audience with intent for the category within which the brand sits, and then follow them wherever they went — to every last niche (and cheap) site. But is this long tail really a reflection of reality?
Just like on DStv, where I have access to more than 100 channels, in reality I only really watch around five. I might dip into a few others but good luck to the advertiser trying to catch me there. How many apps and sites do you really use often? It’s probably a much-smaller number than programmatic buyers are banking on, and the wastage all along the long tail everyone admits is immense.
The more I understand programmatic, the more cynical I become. Marketers globally are already questioning the tail and it’s likely to be chopped off soon. Time for a new digital media model? I think so.
Martin MacGregor (@MartMacG) is managing director of Connect, an M&C Saatchi Company, with offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Martin has spent 18 years in the industry, and has previously worked at Ogilvy and was MD of MEC Nota Bene in Cape Town. He contributes the monthly “Media Redefined” column, in which he challenges norms in the media space, to MarkLives.com.