Planners Say Human Insights Needed in a Programmatic World

Related: Gadgets Altering Planners’ View of Video Universe

Related: The Strategists: TV’s Top Media Planners

Programmatic Buying is growing, but the top media planners say their human insights will still be needed to make advertising work.

While more of the buying and selling of TV—like other media—will be automated, planners themselves remain key in helping to match their clients’ products to the audiences most likely to purchase them. Smarter planners with superior insights identify more of the places where those potential customers can be found, creating a competitive advantage, and helping decide which networks and programming are worth investing client marketing dollars in.

B&C business editor Jon Lafayette asked the media agencies that spend the most money in television to help identify their best and brightest planners, particularly those who have developed strategies for campaigns that have used television in ways that take advantage of new technologies to boost efficiency and effectiveness.

Those planners commented on some key issues affecting the business, especially the increasing flow of data available to them.

The planners say the additional data is having a big effect on how they do their jobs. Several of them talked about how data has provided surprising solutions to marketing problems.

TV remains an important medium for advertising campaigns, but the planners aren’t completely buying some network claims about its superiority to the new digital alternatives that have become popular with big-spending clients.

What follows is an edited transcript of top planners’ and strategists’ thoughts on programmatic buying, data and the role of TV in a multiplatform world.

How involved are you in programmatic buying? Do you think the experience and insights generated by professionals like you are being replaced by automated decision-making?

Kimberly Aiello, Horizon Media: As an agency and on the businesses I directly oversee, programmatic is an increasingly important part of the marketing equation. The beauty of technology is the ability it provides to 1) enhance the data science that elicits greater insight, and 2) automate the processes to alleviate more of the “task-based” aspects of media roles. We are actively embracing programmatic practices and working with partners to help pioneer advancements in the space—from our digital programmatic trading solution, HX, to our Advanced Buying TV program. Both solutions allow our teams to hone in on the variables that drive business results, allowing us to access and optimize the “right inventory” at the right time for the greatest impact.

However, I do believe we have always been and will continue to be a field that requires a mastery of the balance of art and science. We are seeking to make connections with “humans” and that will always require the lens of experience, context and vision that media professionals bring to the equation.

Tom Bell, PHD: We’re very involved, and expect to become even more so as the transaction of traditional media turns programmatic. The squeeze on margins and the need for speed to market will only raise client expectations of their agency planners and buyers to deliver brand messages to our clients’ best prospects and as close as possible to their moment of need and point of purchase. Doing that requires man and machine.

Christopher Chin, Optimedia: The majority of the brands I work on are involved with programmatic to varying degrees within their “programmatic lifestage.” I don’t think the human touch will literally be replaced by automated decision-making. What we hope continues to happen is more along the lines of “evolve” rather than replace. When it comes to brands, especially on the strategic side of things, we’re still in the business of helping to build value for our client brands. Through our marketing and media plans, we strive to implement brand-building experiences to consumers. Insights stem from our inquisitive nature as marketers to identify what drives consumers. Data inputs need to be interpreted to see how the brand fits within consumers’ lives. Therefore, from our strategic view, consumers are the ones with all the control vs. machines being in control.

Programmatic is an incredible activation and performance solution and leverages new possibilities to connect with consumers in powerful ways. But strategically, our efforts are still founded and built around initiating and honing communications ideas, which are intrinsically human. Ideally, programmatic solutions also afford people the ability to place more time on what we may consider to be “creative tasks.”

Melissa Handley, Initiative U.S.: Programmatic is commonplace on the display side. It is a core channel to ensure the appropriate audience is reached with very little waste. In my experience, programmatic mobile continues to grow and is being used here and there by planning teams while programmatic TV seems to have an even smaller usage rate among planners. I think that each of these technologies disrupts the traditional course of business and will need some time for understanding, acceptance and usage.

I have found that planning and buying teams are both very involved to make programmatic—in any channel—work well. It is not the magic wand that some may have hoped it would be, nor a black box that takes over for human intelligence. There is significant set-up work required to ensure that there is a clear role for media to deliver the business objective and determine what success looks like. Is success just a click? Probably not. Is it a sale? Maybe not that either. It is critical for planning and buying teams—including trading desk partners—to have a common definition for the campaign’s goals, otherwise audience-based channels—my preferred term for programmatic—won’t be any more effective than broad-based, generic targeting.

Alison Karp, MEC: We all know a computer can’t generate strategy. Programmatic is a tactic and will never replace consultants framing out plan architecture and context. That framework, combined with technology advancements, is necessary to achieve the optimal balance for marketers and to deliver genuine business-driving results.

Janet Levine, Mindshare: My focus is planning and strategy, which is important before, during and after a campaign to constantly assess and optimize for the delivery of the desired and best outcomes for clients. Programmatic buying requires inputs and decisions from strategists to set the process and system; it’s a tool set to aid efficiency and not a set-it-and-forget-it mechanism that displaces human expertise and strategic thinking.

Jason Lim, MediaCom: Programmatic buying is a part of our industry and will only continue to grow. However, human experience and insights can’t be replicated. Today, there is a greater need to dig into not just the observations or the “whats,” but also the underlying “whys” and “hows.” With more and more data, there will be a greater need for nuanced analysis and interpretation, not less.

Lindsay Murtagh, UM: UM is up and running in the programmatic TV space. It gives us the ability to target in ways that we’ve never done before. In addition to delivering traditional GRP thresholds that we know work, programmatic allows us to add on another layer of refinement to our buying. Ultimately, our campaigns and KPIs change from campaign to campaign, so the insights and parameters that are set by experienced media professionals make all the difference and need to be adjusted by a human. Data and programmatic optimize campaigns, but the framework still needs to be set by savvy media professionals.

Steve Murtos, Starcom: Programmatic is critical. Moving from sample-based measurement of ads that are broadcast to every home to a closer census-based addressable TV world will require automation and new forms of buying and selling. In the television space, it is early days but we are clearly seeing agencies and clients readying themselves for the future of programmatic TV planning and buying.

Over time, the technology and data will continue to improve and result in more automation and a higher degree of precision. I don’t think this will replace the experience and insights of people as programmatic is not automated intelligence. But I do believe it will require a shift in capabilities for the individuals involved in the process.

Ralph Pardo, OMD: It’s a significant part of our daily discussions and we approach it through a lens of connected expertise as opposed to single-source competency. The vast majority of our display impressions for most clients are bought programmatically, and we anticipate that approximately 50% of our short-form video IMPs will be bought through our platforms by the end of this year. Most people don’t realize how much strategy and iteration is involved in the process. It’s a great platform for testing hypotheses that influence a broader strategic approach. We try to involve multiple disciplines across the agency in order to drive the best possible outcomes for our clients.

We need to develop new skill sets and sensibilities that meet the demands of a more complex data-driven era. I see it as natural evolution as opposed to extinction.

Adam Seymour, Carat USA: I personally think everyone in media today needs to understand and be involved in programmatic. I don’t think there’s room not to be. It’s fundamentally changing our business. When we first started seriously leveraging programmatic, I did hear from some of my team members that there was a fear of being replaced or things being ‘taken away’ from them. But there’s too much work to do for that fear to linger too long. Yes, there is a degree of automation that comes with programmatic, but there is still so much human intelligence that needs to go into it. Someone has to set the strategy and “rules,” someone has to make sure the technology and infrastructure is functioning and stays best-in-class, someone has to read the outputs and understand the business and cultural context behind them. There are significant benefits to programmatic. But programmatic is still quite labor-intensive.

Everyone is talking about data. How is greater reliance on data affecting the decisions you make?

Bell: Data affects and informs practically everything now. Our hiring and staffing decisions are one such area. We look for related experience in candidates already working in the business, and look for inquisitiveness about, and data aptitude in, those just starting out. We train for and annually evaluate these skills. Data dexterity has become a prerequisite for success.

Data has always informed the decisions media planners and buyers make, from the days of Harry Crane on Mad Men, to the present. The challenge now is daunting and two-fold: One, in drawing insight from a breadth and depth of data that would explode the heads of the media research directors that trained me; and two, turning this insight into action almost as quickly as consumers leave a digital fingerprint and faster than our clients’ competitors and their agencies. Doing that has helped us identify consumer opportunities that exist outside conventional sources of sales volume. Planners have turned to new media channels or scrappy new uses of “old media” to extract those sales. If “data is the new oil of the digital economy,” as someone far smarter than me once observed, then media planners and buyers are now squarely in the business of sales fracking.

Chin: The proliferation of data is obviously connected to an increased ability for measurement, with the goal of understanding more meaningful consumer motivations and behavior metrics. As such, data has the ability to enable stronger decisions, not just for activation and optimizations, but also for insights in strategy development. However, given the amounts of data that can be captured, there is also the ability to overanalyze. At Optimedia, we always say success requires focus. It’s not the quantity of what we can look at, rather the quality of the insights to impact the business. Our approach is to focus efforts on measuring what matters from a strategic standpoint as it relates to connecting back to help drive brand marketing objectives.

With one of my key clients, we are in the process of testing and modeling a range of channels, [through] traditional, digital and cross-channel. New data continues to roll in, and what’s been interesting is our ability to get into some of the granularity with respect to ROI. This helps us make better-informed decisions about where and how to place our bets by going deeper or pulling back with some media partners within channels based on attribution and sales performance. Some of the partners that we might consider “endemic” for lack of a better expression are not necessarily the top performers, and for other partners the inverse is true.

Lim: Data has always been a central part of the planning process, but the freshness, accuracy and granularity of the available data sets have changed substantially. This has helped planners be much more surgical in their media implementations, while also allowing for deeper insights and more accurate real-time optimizations. This is incredibly important, because, with more and more channels, we’re constantly discovering that pulling one lever can have unexpected consequences elsewhere. For example, we often see consumer response attributed to search, only to discover that the lever with real influence may be TV or something else. These impacts, and the role data has to play, is why MediaCom focuses on systems thinking, not silos.

Murtagh: Data is all around us, and we are constantly looking for as many insights as we can to drive the best results. While we are constantly getting bombarded with data, it’s our job to try and make sense of it all and apply it to the clients that we work on. Sometimes the data we are shown applies to another category or isn’t being presented in the right way. We have to make sure that we question everything and are looking at things through the lens of the business that we work on. Sometimes the data will tell us that the target audience is watching in places we wouldn’t expect. For example, we’ve had data tell us that our adult target is watching Nickelodeon. Maybe they are, but then we have to use our judgment to decide if that’s the environment we want to place our buys in.

Murtos: I focus on precision video—specifically, addressable and data-driven TV. Without data, there is no way to enable precision or prove impact. One of the greatest advantages we have with addressable TV is the ability to link consumer behavior directly to TV viewing data in a 1:1 manner. It brings the targetability of digital to TV and the value proposition for brands is simple—a better return on investment by minimizing waste and sending your message to the right audience, at the right time. This allows us to truly understand the impact TV is having on marketing and sales.

We are continually surprised by what new data is showing us. For example, one of the analyses we conduct for most campaigns is a frequency to conversion. This links the frequency of ad messages seen to when the consumer actually made a purchase, and more often we are using data like this to help advertisers make better-informed media decisions. Data is the lifeline for the future of TV.

Traditional television networks argue that TV remains the most effective media at generating sales, particularly as digital media contends with issues such as viewability. Do the network claims hold water and will that stop the shift of marketing dollars to digital?

Handley: I believe that TV is an effective sales driver, but digital may catch up very soon. In several of my client assignments over the years, I have heard that when TV is active, “good things happen to our sales.” This claim is not very scientific, but there does seem to be merit that TV drives sales. I’m not sure that this impact can be attributed to viewability or other challenges across digital channels. Perhaps it is driven more by scale—it is just harder to reach the same volume of people who are willing to look at the advertising within a short period on any channel outside of TV. That said, as benchmarks and common definitions are adopted by media buyers and media sellers for digital measurement, the dynamic will probably shift.

Levine: It’s arguable whether the first statement is true. In addition to real-time analytics, we have our marketing mix models that show effectiveness for every channel—depending on brand, creative strength, etc. we see various media perform strongly in terms of ROI, not just TV. We hold very high standards on digital viewability at GroupM and if anything, there’s fluidity of dollars due to our video neutral approach.

Pardo: TV is still very dominant but the digital video surge is sure to continue unabated for the next few years. We’ve seen tremendous growth in the quality of content, advanced targeting capabilities and buying models from publishers who are innovating quickly to meet the demand. TV is still a solid bet; I recently experienced its remarkable impact accelerating sales for a client almost instantaneously, that had otherwise been spending most of their money in digital. There are also plenty of untapped opportunities ahead. We would love to have the ability to aggregate smaller audiences across more mid-and long-tail cable networks to create new buying models. It’s also nice to see advances being made in addressable TV where the ability to reach specific households is starting to scale.

Seymour: If I were a traditional television network, I would argue the same thing—wouldn’t you? It’s an easy argument to make. If you could measure TV the same way you measure digital channels, the conversation would be entirely different. I tend to believe that marketing dollars follow consumer behavior. And marketers are demanding more transparency and accountability. Traditional television networks are going to have to get on the bandwagon. Will they hold out as long as possible? Probably. I would. But things are changing.

What is the role of TV in campaigns that are increasingly multiplatform?

Seymour: I think the most important thing is to have a clear role of all the channels in your campaign and how they’re ultimately contributing to the end goal. TV can be a critical channel to do a number of things – build reach quickly, increase awareness and consideration, brand affinity – it depends on how you use it. And it works in concert with other channels. At Carat we look at ecosystems – how all marketing activity, not just media activity, is not only contributing but is interconnected.  What impact does TV have on social and search channels and how are you maximizing their inter-relation to get the most value?

Aiello: TV is no longer the only or necessarily main connection point along a consumer journey path but it does still bring scale and immediacy to multiplatform initiatives.  We focus a great deal on partnerships and viewer experiences at Horizon.   Linear TV is often the “anchor” of those partnerships driving scale with other platforms such as digital, social and experiential elevating the brand profile and enhancing the consumer relationship with the brand.  A good example is the work around large event programming such as New Year’s Eve and the Super Bowl.  The commercial environment drives immediate reach at scale, a strong springboard that then has the ability to leverage brand integration, social & digital to further engage the consumer and influence the experience and relationship with the brand. 

Handley: I think that all planners know the basic plan parameters needed to build a plan – target audience, budget, seasonality, creative assets available, etc.  The two pieces that are often overlooked - or just plain skipped - are defining success for the media plan and the contribution of each channel.  On success, the media plan may not always have the business goal as its goal.  For example, if you are working on a retail client, is it better to set your goal as in-store sales or as driving people to the store and letting other activations (merchandising, pricing, customer service) take over to complete the purchase?  Not all will agree with me, but I think that we should let each activation do what it does best to deliver on the business goal.

The other element often missed is the role of each channel and, as a result, a plan is developed where every channel is expected to do everything.  Everything is driving reach.  Everything is creating repetition to stay top of mind.  Everything is reaching the consumer in the appropriate mindset.  Coming back to the idea of letting things do what they do best, it is so important to consider each media channel through this lens.  It may not be affordable to use TV to generate high frequency levels.  You may not make many friends on your buying team if you are very precise with cherry-picked TV programming to reach your consumer while they are in a shopping mood for your product.  What is TV very effective at? Driving reach. That is its most common use.  Of course, there are plenty of examples of using television in a strategic way to deliver on the media goals, but at its core, TV today is about scale.

Karp: I feel confident that TV and video will always deliver reach. Again, however, it’s our live working environment that will help to amplify this reach in unique ways moving forward.  With more and more data, we can’t even imagine the future possibilities of targeting, message sequencing, re-targeting, storytelling, e-commerce and more.  It’s an exciting time to be in media.

Lim: It’s difficult to replicate the reach and cultural influence of TV in any other medium.  Additionally, the evolution of addressability and set-top boxes will result in television becoming a much more personalized experience. We also know that online video consumption continues to increase, as does VOD activity. The biggest insight isn’t in the technology, though – it’s the viewer experience. Through regression modeling, we can actually map social interactions back to mentions and airings on TV, along with search queries, ultimately proving that the consumer is actually interacting with the programming. TV’s role isn’t going away anytime soon.

Levine: Television is still the single greatest reach driver and by far the most viewed video option, so it’s an integral part of our campaigns.  On the deodorant brands, we lean into the equity of major television-based events (red carpet events, sporting events) as a way to elevate our activations and reach our core consumers in a breakthrough way.

Pardo: Yes there are more tools in the arsenal these days but we are in the golden age of content and TV still gives you the ability to connect with passionate engaged audiences.  It’s one of the best channels for storytelling and creating consideration.  If you are an acquisition focused brand, TV can still be a powerful engine to drive action and influence digital behavior.

Chin: In an increasingly fragmented and complex world, a cross-channel view along with funnel metrics help fuel holistic communications experiences.  The strategic challenge is to understand the correlation between channels and how brands can use this input to deliver influence to shape perceptions and drive a consumer responses or actions across the journey. 

Ideally our channel approaches are not rooted in “either/or,” but rather “and.”  Obviously, TV needs to be able to drive brand goals, as well as be a financial fit to be considered a part of the mix.  As the landscape evolves, channels tend to play a larger role when integrated in to an overall communications ecosystem.    When it comes to TV, our conversations with brands tend to flow more towards the broader view of video distribution, as well as the synergies that exist between TV and Search, and TV and Social.   This still places TV and “TV-like” experiences as a key element or driver of many of our campaigns, and will likely remain so with continuing advances that leverage data capabilities to improve brand interactions across all screens.

Bell: First and foremost, TV adds communication horsepower (sight, sound, motion) to a brand’s message.  It does that efficiently and at scale (reach).  And importantly, in a crazy busy world, brings relaxing, big screen entertainment to the consumer in the comfort of her home – a state of mind that can be very hospitable to a brand message.

In a socially connected world I would expect that role to expand as smart TVs penetrate more households and get smarter (easier to use and set up, more interconnected with other devices).

Murtos: TV’s biggest advantage has been and will continue to be sight, sound and motion. While online and mobile video now bring that capability at scale, the TV experience is different– higher quality video, larger screens, more of a lean back environment. And again, with the ability to leverage data in new ways, we can learn more about how to optimize television for the future. Given its current scale and sophistication, TV’s role will continue to be an important one in the future.

Murtagh: TV is still a very important medium to awareness driving campaigns, but how we utilize TV is the question. As media evolves overall, it has forced TV and us to evolve as well by incorporating interesting solutions such as Addressable TV & Programmatic TV buying. Maintaining a multiplatform approach is key with complimenting tactics such as Samba TV to help further enhance a campaigns reach and deliverables.

Viewers want to pay for fewer channels—keeping the programming they think they want—in skinnier cable bundles. How would having fewer networks affect marketers’ ability to reach consumers?

Seymour: Well, the programming most viewers want tend to be the top-rated programming or programming with niche following, which is the content that marketers want to align themselves with.  But as consumers’ media consumption diversifies, your media mix to reach those consumers needs to diversify. It’s a challenge we’ve been dealing with independent of skinnier cable bundles.

Aiello: The reality is that marketers are facing the challenge of an increasingly fragmented video landscape today.  Skinnier cable bundles will further compound the consumer driven marketplace.  Ratings erosion on linear TV coupled with quality programming options has driven marketers to follow those “eyeballs” in alternative environments (online, connected TVs, VOD, mobile…etc.).  It is a challenge for agencies/marketers to navigate this expanded landscape, especially in the absence of consistent measurement.  It will be more critical than ever for video producers /distributors to be nimble and leverage technology to connect consumers and marketers.  Programmatic practices coupled with other advanced video such as addressable will become increasingly more important as marketers seek to connect with their desired consumer wherever and whenever they are consuming content.

Handley: We are quickly approaching a tipping point for consumer access to content.  Aside from traditional providers like Comcast, TWC, and others, new entrants like PlayStation Vue and Dish’s Sling TV (plus the on-again/off-again possibilities from Apple) are changing the rules of the game by allowing customers to have more input into their content subscriptions besides all-or-nothing.  This game change will have impact on at least 3 fronts: niche Cable channels will have a harder time proving ROI, broadcasters will need to re-think ratings guarantees given this increased fragmentation, and planners will need to provide more specificity on Cable buys to buying teams. 

With or without skinny bundles, fragmentation is a challenge – for device usage, for TV ratings, for driving impact.  As we think about the role or contribution of each media channel, this fragmentation could change how or why television is used.  I am very interested to see how these rules continue to change.  We may be a playing a completely different game in a year.

Karp: With all the data we are able to collect, track and analyze, we can likely maintain reach and frequency to specific audiences even with fewer networks connecting with our consumers.  In this scenario, audiences will also be able to organically segment themselves and give advertisers the opportunity to deliver more contextually relevant messaging – a benefit for all.

Lim: As a consumer, I would absolutely applaud this (as long as it reduced my cable bill), but – as a marketer – it presents a variety of challenges. First, I think we need to recognize that, on its own, reach isn’t sufficient or long-lasting. Content is now the primary driver, with AMC serving as an excellent example of how content has elevated the effect of reach, rather than the opposite.  Additionally, having fewer networks in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily increase or decrease the amount of reach available in a media-agnostic environment. Finally, the traditional view of “discovery” within a linear TV environment has changed, with discovery now focused on specific properties, rather than the network on which they happen to appear. In other words, it’s not as simple as it seems; nothing ever is, and we seem to figure it out!

Levine: If there were huge changes in that direction, then that would be an obstacle as it would limit TV reach. Having fewer network options would also make the pricing model much more expensive.  But currently, we’re not at a point where distribution for these networks are being diminished in a significant way.

Pardo: This is something we are watching very closely, but think it is too early to predict the impact on TV viewership or our business. 

Chin: This poses an interesting dynamic that could impact networks and marketers in a few ways. 

One initial thought is that while a network’s overall potential scale and penetration may be reduced, a consumer cutting channels that are not watched doesn’t really diminish scale/reach for marketers, since these consumers weren’t watching anyway.   This may not pose that much of a viewer issue given that the average home already receives around 190 channels, and regularly watches less than 20 of them.  The issue may become how this impacts revenue streams for networks and providers; and stemming from that, there could be potential impact to marketers and viewers in terms of pricing.  Typically, there is a premium associated with choice.

Obviously, consumers want lower pricing.  As a positive impact, skinny bundles might also help networks and providers attract potential new subscribers who don’t want to pay for pricier cable packages.  The challenge for Cable providers will be to find the balance between attracting viewers with less costly packages, while not encouraging other viewers to trade down.

Another thought is that for marketers, skinny bundles could be considered as a positive.  While a particular networks’ reach potential might be reduced, the viewers they are able to reach may be a more engaged consumer, and thus a higher quality audience base. 

The connected challenge for marketers is the consumer “keeping the programming they want” piece through the growing ability for consumers to access more and more streaming content, some of which is obviously not ad supported. 

Ultimately, what all this will likely mean for marketers is continued fragmentation and complexity in the marketplace to navigate.

Bell: It will create short-term challenges, but not insurmountable ones.  Consumers still watch as much “TV” (whatever the screen) as they ever have.  But as happened when viewers moved from broadcast to cable TV, marketers and their agencies adapted.  Planning strategies, buying tactics, research and systems were retooled.  Data and technology today are more robust and powerful than they were then, so marketers will expect their agencies to adapt that much more quickly, if not out ahead of this shift.

Murtos: Streaming video and skinny bundles are the new norm but it always comes back to the data. It remains to be seen how an a la carte approach to television will evolve, but every change to the video ecosystem has resulted in a net increase in consumption. And with more consumption comes additional advertising opportunities. The challenge ultimately becomes how we make advertising meaningful and more relevant to consumers—and precision video approaches are making that a reality.

Murtagh: Ultimately if consumers had skinnier bundles and less cable channels, their viewing habits would shift to other networks or media.  It shouldn’t affect overall media consumption as a whole, so we should be able to follow them to the new consumption habits.  What’s more challenging is the shift to outlets that don’t accept advertising like Netflix and HBO Go, we have to get creative to cover off some of those viewers who in some cases tend to be lighter TV viewers.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.