Finally, the Ad Industry Can Deliver on Purpose-Driven Media Investment

The solution may lie in one of the biggest trends in programmatic

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Several brands have made public commitments to shift their budgets to purpose-driven advertising and allocate spend to companies owned by and reaching underrepresented populations or focusing on industry causes.

However, given the complexity of the digital media ecosystem, the actual shifting of dollars to purpose-owned or led organizations has proven elusive. The fact remains that despite best intentions, it’s been hard to scale purpose-led programmatic media investments.

Display advertising accounts for over a third of all U.S. media spending, and 90% of display dollars go through programmatic. In 2022, that represented more than $115 billion. Almost every digital budget allocation, therefore, includes a heavy programmatic component, but programmatic was designed to deliver efficiency and efficacy, not “purpose.” That foundational tenet of how programmatic was designed has resulted in challenges for brands and agencies interested in purpose-led investment at scale.

Many have tried. Historically, however, when brands and agencies attempt to spend programmatic dollars with specific supply partners, the algorithms optimize those same specific partners out of the plan, shifting buys toward performance. As such, the spend is often reallocated to larger players that may meet core KPIs, even though those changes may run counter to the desired goal of scaling purpose-led investment.

As this is happening, there are still basic questions regarding what qualifies as a “purpose-driven” investment. Before we define that term, buyers need a bridge between purpose-led media investment and programmatic scale. The solution may lie in one of the biggest trends in programmatic: curation.

A solution within reach

Curation is the process of activating data and inventory packages on the supply side through PMPs. This provides buyers complete control over the inventory considered, the data applied and each option in the digital supply path. Buyers can assemble curated private marketplaces that include hundreds, even thousands, of inventory providers and audience segments around specific parameters and KPIs ranging from audience characteristics to inventory characteristics. Importantly, these curated PMPs can be optimized with real-time performance data.

Curation gives brands the ability to assemble inventory partners that match their criteria, at scale, finally making exciting and ambitious purpose-driven pledges a reality.

An additional benefit of curation is that most large agencies and holding companies are already using or have started embracing it in some capacity. This is evident in the number of companies announcing curation capabilities and the simple fact that the ubiquitous LUMAscape has added “data curators” to several of its maps. Curation has become increasingly utilized by SSPs and DSPs to create new options to identify more efficient solutions, making it a popular tactic for performance marketers. It is also a foundation for the growth of off-platform retail media solutions.

Defining ambition-driven

With a solution to reallocate investment at scale now a reality, the industry needs a clear definition of “purpose-driven” to inform how curated marketplaces can be developed.

Possibly the simplest way to define purpose-driven is around two key terms: underrepresented and recognized.

“Underrepresented” refers to a marginalized group in at least one part of the advertising supply chain. How the concept of underrepresented is applied can be determined by the buyer, brand, company or holding company that has specific purpose-driven media investment goals. This can include race, gender, disability status or other criteria, similar to how we’ve seen brands like GM commit to spending with Black-owned media.

“Recognized” speaks to the need for external validation through auditing or third party validation of the specific purpose-led criteria. Media opportunities need to meet clear and confirmable criteria such as reach or audience composition. Organizations like the National Minority Supplier Development Council certify that businesses are at least 51% owned by an ethnic minority, while Media Framework’s Maven operates as a diversity discovery and reporting platform.

The key steps here are first, for the buyer to set the criteria, and second, for a way to validate if a company meets that criteria. If that sounds basic, that is because this is the same approach utilized by nearly every media buy to provide the confidence to unlock scale.

More than an afterthought

With a solution and definition in place, brands will need their purpose-led initiatives to demonstrate results to ensure the longevity and impact of purpose-led investments and strategies. For the long term, measurement is key to proving that purpose-led investment is good for society and the bottom line.

Brands and agencies have long recognized the importance of purpose-led investment and for supporting purpose-driven, -led and -owned companies, but could not achieve the scale pledged. Curation, the approach powering many core sectors (retail media, financial services, pharma, tech), represents an effective way of shifting investment to specific companies at scale.

This is an exciting moment in the advertising industry when the desire, ideas and capabilities required to move the industry forward are aligned. With the solution now within reach, the next step is to bring the opportunity to life, work on fulfilling these promises and drive meaningful positive change.