What can legacy media teach us about programmatic’s future?
In 2012, when Newsweek announced that they were going to scrap their print edition and go all digital, it felt like the culmination of an inevitable trend. The march of content away from legacy formats and toward the infinite horizon of digital distribution was inexorable and unstoppable. Print was dead or dying, and there was no point in resisting it. If media were to survive at all, it was to do so as digital media.
Now, five years later, digital’s own future hits an inflection point as it faces growing pains that we all grasp now: non-human impressions, non-viewable inventory, unsafe supply and the rise of ad-blocking users. As digital comes of age, I wonder if there’s not something about those old days of legacy print media and linear television that we might take back if we had the chance.
How we got here and what we lost along the way
Let’s not overindulge in nostalgia here. Let’s first take a moment to appreciate our arrival to the current state. Digital media has provided a series of fundamental innovations from which there is simply no going back. These are the extension of supply and the proliferation of rich new channels with untapped creative potential, and an entirely improved standard for measurability.
We also are talking about addressability of audiences, targeting and measuring with untold precision — the alluring promise, still a work in progress, of being able to deliver the right message at the right time to the right consumer in the right place, and measure accurately whether it had its intended effect. We strive to be able — with full transparency — to analyze and attribute its effectiveness through reliable metrics. This is progress.
And yet, despite the vital evolutions in targeting and measurement that digital has brought to the media landscape, there are elements of the older, legacy formats whose benefits we are still working to recover. For example, all ads were in view because they were printed in real ink. This connotes quality. Audiences were all real people. The supply was brand-safe, because publishers were known quantities and could not be mistaken for something else.
Moreover, the time and attention paid to this media was qualitatively different than it is today, not only because of its physical manifestation, but because of the directness of its distribution, its monopoly and its relative scarcity. It’s the difference between, say, sitting down with the local newspaper at breakfast or watching prime-time network TV, and breezing through an article in your social feed while on a conference call on the subway. Who doesn’t crave and respect quality time?
Recreating quality time with media
The question becomes, how do you create (and protect) that environment in which people can sustain quality attention? How do you price inventory that is commensurate with that quality? And how do you deliver ads that are consistent with the quality of that publication so it’s not rendered interruptive and leads to ad blocking? This was a not a problem that legacy media had to face; while ad blindness was always an issue, the mechanisms to block all ads in retaliation simply did not exist. It’s almost a matter of trying, in the sort of infinity of digital space, to reintroduce the tactical constraints that print media had before the digital revolution.
Those were constraints of scale, which the internet has solved for, but they were also guarantors of quality, which the internet has yet to solve for. And perhaps that’s one of the biggest questions facing us now.
Advancements in viewability and verification technology have gone a long way toward approximating the incumbent truth of legacy media — namely that it was only read by real people and that its physical existence guaranteed a certain basis of viewability. But the deeper questions of quality attention and brand-safe inventory are the ones that we must conquer now.
While third-party tools alone cannot solve for the subjective challenge that quality issues present, solutions like private marketplaces (PMPs) present a very promising mechanism by which some of the implicit guardrails from legacy media can be introduced to the programmatically fueled, boundless digital landscape without limiting its core advantages.
While the first generation of programmatic technologies was all about breaking free of the constraints of old media, I believe that the next stage of programmatic evolution will involve the intelligent reintroduction of some of those constraints — the ones which acted as guarantors of quality, of brand safety, and of trust.