We need to talk about programmatic:
Richard Badley, SMRS


You would have done well to get through the last two weeks without seeing one of the many articles covering the supposed risks associated with online ads, more specifically programmatic.

What matters here is not hype, opinions or propaganda but brand protection, integrity and trust.

We at SMRS have an opinion on the articles that have recently caused a buzz, but I will come on to that. For now, let’s focus on the facts and the solutions.

There are some key points to note:

Programmatic does work

Advertisers are almost universally understanding that programmatic can deliver excellent results for their businesses. For some it’s transforming their entire campaign outcomes.

There are still questions (and some risks)

It is naive to think that programmatic is completely risk free. There are issues we need to address and questions we need to answer:

  • Where might our ads appear (on damaging sites and next to risqué content)
  • How well they perform (viewability, site placement, bots)
  • The accuracy of information (ad fraud, transparency, reporting levels)
  • The value chain (agency commercials, mark-ups, rebates, zero cost strategies)

It’s still relatively new

Yes, programmatic is in its infancy. That said, there are very well developed, intelligent and advanced systems in use, supported by incredibly talented people. But it requires vigilance, care and attention. We are also learning constantly and can expect to see continuous and fast paced advancements in technology, uptake and adoption.

We should not tar all with the same brush

Most programmatic practitioners are putting in place tools and processes to ensure brand safety, robust ad verification, viewability measures and comprehensive domain and keyword white and blacklists. Admittedly, without these layered measures of protection, brands are at risk. But we must not discount the efforts being made by the careful businesses in our industry, or the positive effects of compliance policies and controls.

Be careful what you wish for

We can ourselves fuel the problem. For example, if we obsess about volume metrics or last event goals, we potentially encourage traders or media planners to seek high volume, low cost inventory to ensure KPIs are hit. It can also encourage ‘cookie bombing’, with a hope that these convert and benefit short term measurement goals. The result of planning and trading in this way is that it can impact the type of inventory being purchased, and increase the likelihood that is the type to be influenced by bots and fraudulent clicks.

It helps to know what you want

Using Programmatic well is more than simply setting an objective or target and allocating a budget. When used correctly, the technology allows us to reach high value audiences, who have a propensity to deliver value to our businesses. Therefore, the more we know about the audiences, the better. All of the insight we have needs to feed into our programmatic strategies (whether it be cookie data, demographics, geographical distribution, CRM/ATS data, white or blacklists, other media scheduling, segmentation etc). The more specific and strategic we can be, the better, as we reduce the likelihood of wide and loose targeting.

Here at SMRS, there are three ways in which we maximise our clients’ brand safety:


All of our programmatic activity is wrapped up in Integral Ad Science (IAS). This works in two ways. Firstly using IAS’ AdSafe Firewall, which is the best in breed preventative ad-blocking solution. The second is using their ‘pre-bid’ data for safe programmatic buying within the auction process.

We also have access to and utilise where necessary all other leading brand safety technologies such as MOAT and Double Verify.

Intervention and experience

In addition to relying on technological solutions we also carefully manage channel categories and black and whitelists. This ensures we don’t jeopardise where our ads appear.

A recent articles suggested blacklists are not effective. As with many security measures, in isolation, we agree. It is about a combination of measures. Not only are our blacklists updated twice monthly, we also complement the blacklists with vetted and categorised whitelists (we have a list of over 2,500+ manually verified sites). Where appropriate we also use private market places in which we are able to ensure placement on selected, approved and high value sites.

The last level of protection is the utilisation of carefully constructed negative keywords lists. As well as ensuring a site is controlled and vetted, we also want to ensure the content within it is relevant and safe (even the highest quality of sites may carry content that advertisers don’t wish to be associated with – this is especially the case with news and current affairs sites).

Our route to market

We are not tied to any single Exchange/SSP and can access all platforms easily. This means we are never bound to one route to market. Positively, and in 99% of circumstances, this means we are able to (and do) operate across the most valuable and effective solutions for our clients. Less positively, it means if problems do arise and in the event of flagged or suspicious content, campaigns or ads, we are flexible and have the ability to migrate instantly.

Needless to say, we do everything we can to protect our clients’ brands. Aside from that, I also have a personal opinion on the article(s) that caused the stir recently.

There seems to be very little evidence to suggest that brands, or Google specifically, are directly funding terrorism. For me it raises the question of whether this is sensationalist journalism, fuelled more by an agenda of the publishers in which it sits than the truth behind the content.

I appreciate, understand and respect the fact that multinational brands have made the decision to pause or reduce some of their display or online activity as a result of the recent scares. But it does not mean that programmatic is ‘a route to funding terror’. That seems a highly provocative and unfair claim to make based on so little. You would not have to look far to find a brand that has achieved incredible ROI with programmatic, and this fails to be appreciated or acknowledged within certain articles.

It is unfortunate that a few brands have been poorly placed next to content that is so damaging. But then, that content may well have been searched for by a user who is of high value to them as a customer. So actually, the technology of targeting is working. And what makes programmatic so successful has also lead it into a trap.

We must not ignore that there are known risks with online and digital advertising. But these also exist with all advertising placements, positioning and associations. And they always have. I remember having to have many conversations with print display clients who were on the opposite page to the ‘adult classifieds’ (or other sensitive content). Then, as is now, the conversation was much the same. Assuring the advertisers that it was not damaging, or did not suggest association. Of course, with this print example, there would have been a flat plan and a human decision to place adverts and content together. We weren’t leaving the entire process to machines. But when programmatic is done right, we shouldn’t do that anyway.

The sector is acutely aware of the challenges associated to programmatic. And is actively addressing and solving them. Ideally by working together, openly and honestly. Will it ever be perfect? Probably not. But when it works, it is highly effective. Therefore, let’s not panic or obsess about the opinion of a few businesses that either do not allow programmatic behind their paywalls, or are seeing their own commercial revenues hit by its success.

So where does this all go next? The internet will continue to grow, as will the connectivity of everything. As a result so will how we target, reach and engage with customers. This growth, albeit exciting, makes it more complex and harder to plan, track and accurately deliver messages. As evidenced lately, we will also need to know where those messages appear, what they appear next to, and the context of the environment in which they sit.

I personally wonder where we draw the line between control of all of these variables, and the value in which we place on a customer. Surely we want to target high value customers at the right time, in the right place, with the right message. Does it matter too much what they are choosing to read or digest if they are a customer, and how much should we cherry pick from the range of potential touch points?

We evidently have more learning to do, our processes need to catch up with the tech, and we need to decide how much we want to control. But we also cannot write off programmatic. That, in my opinion, would be a great mistake.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

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paul roper Date: Feb 22, 2017

Great article, but I would argue that programmatic is not in its infancy - far from it. I've been managing programmatic accounts way back to about 2011-12. The term was just coined as marketing bull to sell it in more easily - who wants to speak to a client about a platform that provides highly targeted advertising across display, social, video and content?

Anonymous Date: Feb 24, 2017

Richard thank you for continuing to raise awareness of the benefits and challenges of programmatic advertising. You mention that there are challenges with agency commercials... The majority of media partners in the recruitment space offer agencies a significant discount or commission, so every £100 of spend might result in £15 or £20 being passed back to the agency. With such a huge financial incentive to use media that provides these incentives, how does SMRS manage this conflict of interest, and ensure they are acting solely in their clients best interest?

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