17 February 2020

The rise and rise of new programmatic formats

Using programmatic for branding - Why it didn't work then but it does work now

Since the advent of programmatic buying in 2007 and real-time bidding in 2009, advertisers and buyers have looked for ways to marry programmatic solutions with branding campaigns. And it’s never really worked. 

Until now. 

In this three part series, we’re looking at how the programmatic landscape has changed to make brand building through programmatic not just possible, but something all smart marketers should be doing. 

In part one we looked at measurement and brand safety, and how recent changes to programmatic mean brands can be sure their campaigns are being seen by real people and making a real impact.

In part two we’ll look at all the new programmatic environments marketers can use for connected brand building that targets the precise audience that matters most to them.  

Finally, in part three, we’ll look at how programmatic can be a powerful asset in building and executing creatives that resonate with your audience and deliver better returns. 

Let’s go.

The explosion in formats

Programmatic companies have become more aware of the challenges of context and environment, and have made an arms race out of securing high-quality sources of inventory through direct deals with publishers and the creation of private marketplaces.

Although desktop display inventory still represents the bulk of biddable inventory, mobile now commands the lion’s share of actual web traffic. As a result, while around 60% of total biddable inventory appears to be on desktop PCs or laptops, more than 40% of total spend is allocated to smartphones and tablet devices. 

Game consoles, connected TVs, media players, and other OTT devices also stand to eat a growing share of desktop inventory, as these devices accounted for the bulk of video ad impressions in 20181, with a 41% share of video ads in Q3 2018. More impressively, these devices also command significantly higher ad completion rates than those seen on desktop PCs or mobile devices, averaging completion rates above 90%2. The proliferation of these devices has given branding advertisers an effective, measurable way to deliver high-impact brand messaging on the largest screen in the household.

Private marketplaces

Private marketplaces (PMPs) are invitation-only real-time bidding environments for digital inventory. Through PMPs, programmatic buyers can connect their DSPs/buying platforms directly to a premium publisher’s inventory source. While inventory in these environments is bought at auction, the terms of the deal are pre-negotiated between the buyer and seller and the advertiser has to be approved, creating many more checks on the process.

For advertisers in both branding and direct response, PMPs offer a competitive advantage when used properly regardless of how they are used, giving marketers access to a wider range of formats, publishers, and audiences that aren’t available through open marketplaces. This is particularly important for brands with smaller budgets and less negotiating power, for whom direct buys may be less desirable. 

As brands continue to go more digital and move away from the historically-favored commodities of print, out-of-home and TV for digital print, digital-out-of-home and addressable TV, the barriers of entry become much easier to overcome when everyone has access in a biddable environment. More often than not, the best inventory, audiences, and performance will be behind the paywall of PMP (or programmatic guaranteed).

Mobile (web and app)

More than half of the world’s web traffic now runs through mobile, be it through mobile web or in-app activity. As consumers leave desktop experiences behind, the industry will also have to change how it thinks about reaching those consumers and the ad formats it uses. Fortunately, mobile devices create new ways to reach consumers programmatically and new formats for reaching them. 

When working in mobile, advertisers need to consider the format. There’s a significant difference between mobile web and mobile in-app both in terms of the ad formats used and the environments themselves. While in-app ads often garner greater attention and allow for better experiences, the app space is dominated by a very small number of massively popular apps, making competition for that inventory fierce. By contrast, mobile web is thriving and while the experiences can be less dynamic, mobile web offers standardized formats and greater scalability for advertisers. Smart strategies will consider how to use both, and how to build a strategy that connects multiple mobile, TV, and desktop tactics to weave a comprehensive brand narrative.


Video has long been an ideal channel for brand marketers, from the first time our grandparents turned on their massive tube black-and-white televisions to modern proliferation of “TV everywhere” formats making streaming content accessible anywhere in the world. But while the amount of available video content has exploded, the amount of quality inventory has not kept up. As a result, video inventory still sells at a premium and distributors participate in a trillion-dollar arms race to produce new content targeted to every possible audience.

The upside is that there is more high-quality content than ever before, catering to every possible audience and interest. By overlaying content with digital targeting capabilities, branding advertisers can achieve the kinds of results they always dreamed about in TV, reaching a targeted, engaged audience in a brand-safe environment around compelling content without the built-in waste of impressions on out-of-target consumers inherent in linear TV. Ad-supported linear OTT services and devices have added to this, providing easily-measurable channels on larger screens.

Live streaming

Live video viewing continues to increase each year: More than two-thirds of consumers globally watched live streaming video in 20184, and most of those (70%) watched live streams at least once per day, with the most popular content type being TV content and the most popular platforms for viewing being social. In the same way that the demand for VoD streaming content has led to a content arms race, we’ll see the same frenzy overtake the live video marketplace, where Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Facebook have already made major content and platform investments to build out their offerings.

This surge in popularity for live streaming content has started to create cracks in the last 80 bastion of linear TV, live sports. Last year’s FIFA World Cup set new records for streaming views and time spent watching online as consumers tuned in via a variety OTT platforms, and time spent watching NFL live streams in Q3 increased 83% from 2017. As more and more fans turn to live streams of major sporting events and digital networks bid for digital broadcast rights, branding advertisers can take advantage of the transition and apply their same digital video creative to programmatically-purchased live stream inventory. 

On average, consumers tend to spend significantly longer watching live streams than they do watching on-demand content - almost twice as long on tablets and 11x for desktop devices, and they tend to prefer larger screens. 

The relatively lower cost of producing live video has also helped make it the web’s fastest-growing source of online video5. Live streaming video creates a consumer experience that feels similar to TV while potentially being even more engaging, with consumers who are immediately primed to take action or interact with brands post-exposure.

Programmatic TV

For branding advertisers who are more comfortable with the TV experience, those channels can now be bought programmatically as well, allowing branding advertisers to automate the TV buying process while adding on a layer of targeting at the household level. With programmatic TV, branding campaigns can tap into inventory from local affiliates and cable and satellite companies to buy inventory and audiences that are normally unavailable through traditional TV buys. In this way programmatic TV adds another powerful tool to the brand marketer’s toolbox, and helps them further build on a strategy based as much around audience as content.

Programmatic audio

Programmatic audio is a broad term that can cover a number of different sources, including radio (both online and traditional), podcasts, and streaming audio services such as Pandora or Spotify. Advertisers working in these spaces typically create 15- or 30-second audio ads to air, potentially accompanied by a display ad depending on the platform. With an estimated 180 million monthly listeners1, the surging popularity of online audio channels has given marketers occasion to dust off their radio playbooks and reconsider their strategies in light of new technologies. Despite the popularity of online audio, ad spend for digital audio, whether sold programmatically or direct, hasn’t grown at a rate commensurate with the amount of time consumers spend with the content.2 

The largest barrier to adoption of programmatic audio has traditionally been scale, though the programmatic landscape has changed dramatically over the last two years. Programmatic audio really took off with the introduction of Spotify’s offering in 2016 and expanded significantly with Pandora bringing its audience to buying platforms in early 2018. 

For branding advertisers with audio assets, the advantages of programmatic audio are significant. These marketers are free to make their targeting as granular as they’d like using demand-side targeting restrictions or by having the publisher apply their own targeting and segmentation using their 1st-party data. The latter is likely to be more effective (depending on the quality of the third-party data a marketer is using for their demand-side targeting), but typically carries with it a higher cost.

Compared to other programmatic channels, audio is uniquely situated on and suited for mobile devices: 83% of US adults listen to audio on a smartphone each week3, and some estimates suggest that 38% of audio listening that happens in the UK now occurs on a device other than a radio. As a result, the vast majority (roughly 90%) of available programmatic audio inventory is on mobile devices. Advertisers looking to reach consumers on these devices should consider both the challenges of mobile advertising (cross-device identification, measurement), and the advantages (location-based targeting, increased attention).

New formats, new opportunities

The days of programmatic as a tool exclusively used by direct response advertisers are over. The proliferation of programmatic environments and formats have opened up a host of new ways for branding advertisers to build successful campaigns. 

As branding advertisers re-acquaint themselves with the programmatic space, they’ll need to find partners that can help them navigate potential land mines, connect data sets, and build and measure new KPIs. Ultimately, they’ll need to partner with companies who can help them convert their existing data into the Marketing Intelligence necessary to drive business success.

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