Digital Publishers Are Fighting the Shift to Programmatic

Pushing back against automated buying

Are digital sellers undermining the move to automated buying? For a long time, online publishers have worried that the shift to programmatic would undercut their premium business. Some have even created their own private exchanges and are compensating salespeople for programmatic sales. The adoption has been uneven, though.

“There are definitely people who are trying to talk us out of [automated buying],” said Dave Martin, svp of media at digital agency Ignited. “It’s because the [premium] margins are better. They will tell you the quality is too low or it’s not brand-safe. The truth is, those problems have been solved for a year or more. The inventory I can access through any of these programmatic companies, it’s actually very high [quality]. I can actually overlay my own data. I don’t think they’re deliberately trying to mislead anyone. They’re still drinking the Kool-Aid.”

The Media Kitchen president Barry Lowenthal shared similar experiences. “I was talking to one publisher about a direct deal, and I said, ‘Why would I go through you when I could be buying it programmatically?’ He said, ‘Well, I provide a lot of high touch and can manage the campaign strategically.’ When I pushed a little further, he said, ‘What are you trying to do, get me out of a job?’”

In another instance, when trying to buy inventory from a major publisher via a trading desk, Lowenthal said, “The salesperson went around us to the client and said we should not be buying through the desk, that it was crap inventory and it could all have been done through them. The publisher was not incentivized to sell any media through a trading desk.”

The story is a redux of sorts of the early days of the Internet when traditional media sellers were handed responsibility for selling low CPM digital platforms. Today, it plays out between television and video sales as well as between online direct and programmatic.

“I’ve been in rooms where arguments have escalated into huge melees” over who should get credit for a sale, said an agency source who requested anonymity. “It sounds petty, but the television salespeople have said, ‘I’ve had this 15-year relationship with this agency.’ They originated the interest. All of a sudden, the money’s going into online video. They need a deal on the back end that compensates them on all video. There are a lot of territories that start to overlap.”

Buyers say publishers need to read the writing on the wall and compensate salespeople for programmatic buys until sellers learn to sell the virtues of automation. As one exec at a leading publisher that’s doing just that said, “You’re better off setting yourself up to win instead of fighting it.”

With agencies pushing to buy more inventory programmatically, and with more premium inventory going into exchanges, the tension only stands to get worse if publishers don’t figure it out.

Illustration: Meriel Jane Waismann/Getty Images

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