Programmatic media buying and the vagaries of the digital media ecosystem hit the headlines again recently with the publication of PwC’s research report for ISBA. The study found that only 51% of UK advertisers’ programmatic ad spend actually reaches publishers and around a third of all supply chain costs could not be attributed.

The ISBA study tells a story about programmatic media that we already know well, the story of an ecosystem characterized by a high degree of complexity that rarely delivers results. There are many more practical starting points for unlocking value in digital media spend than analyzing trades at a transaction level.

We now have a much better understanding of what makes digital display advertising so ineffective. While most advertising is digital and 90% of digital display is traded programmatically, marketing analysts and econometricians still find it challenging to identify positive ROI on digital media investment.

My primary concern is that there’s a genuine risk that all this talk about the programmatic supply chain will mean brands lose sight of where the real value drivers lie in digital marketing effectiveness. Disclosure and transparency can help advertisers achieve greater control, but they don’t guarantee that programmatic media buying will deliver better results.

Advertisers can and should prioritize a number of key drivers that sit well outside the programmatic ecosystem. Excessive automation, coupled with poor briefing and misalignment in campaign strategies, mean that programmatic has become highly tactical as opposed to strategic, certainly with little brand thinking involved.

The real crisis in programmatic trading is that much of its value is lost beyond the tech stack.


Too many ads fail to attract consumer attention. Ads should be created that capture and hold attention on a brand. That attention can be measured with eye tracking studies, A/B tests or even using AI-based predictive solutions. CPMs should increasingly be related to and adjusted for attention. Remember, more than 90% of display ads are currently viewed for one second or less.

Brand safety

Marketing spend is wasted, and brand equity placed at risk, when ads run in non-brand-safe environments. These are also placements with high risk of ad fraud, a potentially very large problem. To ensure brand safety and reduce the risk of fraud, marketers can whitelist the right environments and cut out the long tail.


The wrong context can render an ad ineffective. To increase receptivity to a creative message, consumers need to be reached in the right context. Context trumps the false promise of microtargeting.


There is no one-size-fits-all ad format. Brands must produce creative executions that work in the media in which they run. Repurposing TV commercials to run on digital video platforms does not work. Branding and product need to be visible. You don’t have time to tell complex, nuanced stories online.


Poorly targeted ads increase the potential for irrelevant messaging. Avoid retargeting consumers who have already made a purchase. Remember that half of ads are off target and targeting too narrowly at the expense of reach can end up being costly for many business models.


An ad can’t have an impact if it is never viewed. Sixty-five percent of ads are not viewed, and half are not even viewable. Excessive frequency leading to bombardment irritates consumers and leads to low viewability.

As with any complex problem, the solution requires a broad, diverse worldview. Brands should take a holistic approach to improving the value they get from programmatic media. It’s only by addressing challenges holistically that advertisers can truly optimize effectiveness in digital display.

This article was featured in AdExchanger.

Download the Ebiquity guide, Fixing the leaky bucket: How to optimise value from programmatic media buying, here. 

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