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Digital Advertising Isn't the Problem, Programmatic Is 👏 Louder for Those In the Back

Digital Advertising Isn't the Problem, Programmatic Is 👏 Louder for Those In the Back

10/25/19 UPDATE: Hello Facebook Agency Visitor Person!  We’re delighted to have you visit this awesome post. About a year ago, ZATO stopped offering Facebook Ads solutions so we could focus solely on what we do best: Google Ads. Because of this, we’re always interested in partnerships with great Social Advertising agencies (like yourself, wink wink!) and we offer referral fees for signed clients!  Anyway, back to it, and happy reading…

Post Summary

Programmatic is not Digital Advertising in its entirety.

Programmatic is not representative of all of Digital Advertising. It acts quite differently from other forms of Digital Advertising.

The many problems that tend to crop up with programmatic have to do with ad placements and fraud, not performance marketing itself.

Where do we go from here? 

Well, here we are again.

Where is here?

Oh, you know, someone found a massive problem with a programmatic media buy and now people are questioning whether all digital advertising is untrustworthy.

Bathwater, meet baby, as you both sail through the cold outside air, having been thrown out.

I recently chatted with someone in the media who was trying to get an understanding of the level of fraud, misplaced targeting, errors, and other concerns people rightfully have about digital advertising.

Without realizing it, I began to answer (most of) his questions by prefacing with something like: "well, let me start by distinguishing between programmatic media buying and audience or intent based media buying like on Google and Facebook." If you begin to look at many of the big concerns people have with advertising these days, they seem to suspiciously circle around programmatic media buying.

Because of that, I wanted to get a quick, big picture response out: 

Programmatic is not Digital Advertising in its entirety.
Programmatic is not representative of all of Digital Advertising. It acts quite differently from other forms of Digital Advertising.
The many problems that tend to crop up with programmatic have to do with ad placements and fraud, not performance marketing itself.

Programmatic advertising is "Programmatic ad buying is the use of software to buy digital advertising."

Programmatic advertising uses algorithms based on data to target audiences in massive display ad buys around the internet. The concept of Programmatic isn't inherently wrong. In fact, I think the concept is a good one, it's just, well we seem to see the application of the concept continue to get abused. Ad fraud is a huge concern on programmatic, as is the correct targeting of the correct websites. The algorithmic based bulk purchasing of placements, especially when combined with filtered results (someone may use the phrase: "cherry-picked KPIs") from the provider, can lead to less control over results, placement, and a variety of other things that can increase the risk to a brand.

When you think of Programmatic, think more like a (semi-targeted) digital physical billboard, than a targeted ad to a specific person. I mean, there is an algorithmic aspect to programmatic for sure... that being of course, limited to the datasets within the algorithm, but it's still more of a display "distraction marketing" upper funnel bulk ad buy which is different than more traditionally understood "performance marketing" ad buys.

This is an important mental image to understand.

When a CMO approves a Programmatic Media Buy, she is not approving an ultra-targeted, intent based campaign to her exact customers actively searching for her product. She is approving the creation of "digital billboards" to be placed across certain websites to raise awareness for her brand. This may be over-simplification, but in my opinion... not much. This is typically limited to the primary search websites the ad user is targeting (some expansion allowed... that many advertisers I know dislike).

In other words, it would be more accurate for someone to take the issues with Programmatic, and question whether upper funnel brand awareness marketing should be reconsidered, rather than to use those Programmatic issues to assault "digital advertising" which can include Email, Search, and Social.


Search advertising (with all its foibles), is targeting specifically interested people who have revealed their intent by typing (or saying) it into a search website. This can be more easily identified and tracked to real people who are more likely to be interested in the product you have to sell. It is also typically easier to track a user journey to conversion, though this admittedly is getting more difficult with privacy changes, and our better understanding of the limitations of attribution. Even then, that doesn't negate the idea of Search, which is matching product to revealed (typed/spoken) intent. That's a hugely powerful targeting metric.

Social advertising (with all its foibles), is targeting audiences of people who have revealed aspects of their personalities and interests through social media interaction, and can be matched to similar products or services through the use of specific demographics (privacy concerns aside for the moment... we're just talking targeting capabilities & placement location right now). This is typically limited to the primary social websites the ad user is targeting (some expansion allowed... that some advertisers I know dislike). This has and will continue to change as privacy controls increase, but it's again worth pointing out, that the core of Social advertising is monitoring and utilizing actual user social behavior in the ad targeting which has often proven scarily accurate. Again, far different from the broad programmatic buys with limited data.

So where do we go from here? 

IDK

If anything, at least take this article as someone on the media buying side who is also denouncing the foibles of programmatic.

Enough is enough

When does this black eye on digital advertising get resolved? I'm not a programmatic media buyer, so I don't have the solution, but I can tell you, I'm getting weary of defending all digital advertising for programmatic's screw-ups.

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Kirk Williams
Owner & Chief Pondering Officer

Kirk is the owner of ZATO, his Paid Search & Social PPC micro-agency of experts, and has been working in Digital Marketing since 2009. His personal motto (perhaps unhealthily so), is "let's overthink this some more."  He even wrote a book recently on philosophical PPC musings that you can check out here: Ponderings of a PPC Professional.

He has been named one of the Top 25 Most Influential PPCers in the world by PPC Hero 6 years in a row (2016-2021), has written articles for many industry publications (including Shopify, Moz, PPC Hero, Search Engine Land, and Microsoft), and is a frequent guest on digital marketing podcasts and webinars.

Kirk currently resides in Billings, MT with his wife, six children, books, Trek Bikes, Taylor guitar, and little sleep.

Kirk is an avid "discusser of marketing things" on Twitter, as well as an avid conference speaker, having traveled around the world to talk about Paid Search (especially Shopping Ads).  Kirk has booked speaking engagements in London, Dublin, Sydney, Milan, NYC, Dallas, OKC, Milwaukee, and more and has been recognized through reviews as one of the Top 10 conference presentations on more than one occasion.

You can connect with Kirk on Twitter, and Linkedin, or follow his marketing song parodies on TikTok.

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