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It's Time for Programmatic to Grow Up

By Ryan Pauley, VP, Revenue Operations & GM, Concert

Every week, Vox Media goes deeper. But for this Advertising Week, we’re sharing a peek behind the curtain at how we do it. To mark the occasion, our company’s most senior leaders will be participating in a series of panels and events on what drives brand value, and for those who can’t attend in person, we’re sharing their thoughts right here, on voxmedia.com. We hope you’ll join us for the journey. Because if you aren’t going deep, where are you going?


The first American newspaper ad was published in the Boston News-Letter in 1704. The all-text announcement sought a buyer for a “very good” estate in Oyster Bay, Long Island and offered no reply address for the seller.

Since that inauspicious start, the advertising industry has, of course, had a lot of time to grow up. It’s had opportunities to make mistakes, publish atrocious creatives, adjust font sizes, introduce photos and milk mustaches, and send the Most Interesting Man to Mars.

The programmatic industry, on the other hand, has had significantly less time to mature – programmatic, as we know it today, has been around for less than a decade.

As is to be expected, programmatic advertising has made a lot of mistakes in its toddler years. When you think about programmatic, the first thing that comes to mind might be an ad for an embarrassing item of clothing that you’ve already purchased, following you around the internet like a pesky dog. But we’ve also gotten some things right. Targeting and measurement have allowed programmatic to dominate the direct response ad market.

What’s been missing though, are the core elements of brand-building – quality, trust, creativity, adjacency. Strong creative and premium scale are glaring holes in an ecosystem that’s currently built on scale for scale’s sake.

Middlemen, with no accountability to the marketer or the user, too often get between advertisers and publishers, establishing misaligned incentives and creating unnecessary waste.

Nascent though it is, we should raise our standards for what programmatic can be. We should settle for more. After all, eMarketer estimates that by 2019, 84% of digital display ad spend will go toward automated ads; just in 2015, that number stood at 65%.

Given its relative youth, that the automated advertising market is in its beta stages should be news to no one. But with the rate of innovation in our industry, the unsightly design and intrusive experience that are associated with programmatic should be unacceptable to everyone.

Let's remember that programmatic advertising's primary function is – well, to advertise a brand. What makes a good ad? At the most basic level, it needs to be pleasant to look at; it needs to find the right audience; and it needs to be adjacent to premium content.

At Vox Media and our sister company Concert, we view the early stages of automated advertising not as a failed project, but as untapped potential – a work in progress, that can be molded into so much more. And we’re proud to be at the forefront of efforts to make programmatic not good, but great.

Today, I’ll be speaking on a panel where I’ll dive deeper into the answer to these challenges. It’s something that we unveiled last week – Concert Programmatic.

Concert Programmatic is a beacon for the bright future of automated advertising. It introduces effective brand-building to a programmatic world by enabling high-performing ad products to be purchased across the Concert marketplace via automated channels.

In order to cleanse programmatic of its worst attributes and create an automated product that – imagine this – marketers are actually excited to use, we took cues from the best of advertising's past.

First, we’re bringing creative back to the foreground. We say goodbye to the standard ad sizes, using custom-sized formats that boast a click through rate that’s 170% the industry average and an interaction rate that’s 385% higher.

This is what it looks like to create ads that don’t repel, but invite audiences. Ads that allow marketers to build brands and create connections with customers at the upper funnel, instead of just chasing cheap dollars around the internet. Programmatic ads can exist to build brands, and not just to sell products – we believe this is truly a ground shift that will inspire marketers to reimagine the role of programmatic in their marketing mix.

Second, we’re focused on helping brands find the right audience without needing to sacrifice quality for scale. Concert's combined audience of 200 million users represents 99% of millennials online. By accessing them programmatically, we allow marketers to layer on their own data segments to reach the audience that’s most valuable to them while being proud of where their brand appears.

Finally, by bringing together beautiful ad products, premium audiences, and premium brands, and working with limited technology partners that share our user-first values, we’re able to deliver experiences that respect our audiences.

Let’s face it – the first draft of programmatic was tough to stomach. But, in short time, it will look as antiquated as an ad in the Boston News-Letter. Transforming the programmatic ad marketplace won't be easy, but with Concert Programmatic we can turn the page.