For newspapers, the medium is still the message

Just as we were all becoming relaxed and comfortable with the digital future for newspapers, along comes a buzz phrase that threatens the thinking behind some of the strategies in place to optimise the revenue potential of premium digital display advertising.

“Programmatic media buying” is automated procurement of digital ad space via real time bidding and essentially it renders the context of placement (and to a large extent, creative) largely irrelevant.

It seeks to speak to a specific consumer, rather than live in a specific placement. Analytics cookies are used to hone message delivery to your interests and these messages can follow you from site to site. You, the internet user, become the context. You’ve probably noticed that after you’ve been to certain sites they start to ‘follow’ you around with offers?

Simplistically, it is CPM buying the old fashioned way, but with a target audience of one. In many ways, it’s not unlike services that use telemarketing to communicate extras to customers who already have some kind of relationship with that company.

The majority of calls may be a waste of time and the customer may find it annoying, but that is all offset within the analysis of ‘Big Data’ by the one call that lands a sale. But what happens to how people feel about brands in that scenario? When they start feeling ‘stalked’ as one very senior US media executive I know described it?

The enthusiastic proponents of programmatic buying talk breathlessly about the millions of dollars that will be saved and diverted back into brand health marketing. Oh really? Tell me more about this magical client/animal who will resist the lure of stashing all that cash back on the bottom line and being a hero to the (often with no experience in marketing) board, versus going into pitch for some difficult to measure ‘it’s all about the vibe’ campaign?

And where will he/she be in five or 10 years when the brand no longer has any relevance in an increasingly commoditised market and can no longer pay their ‘pick and packers’ to pick and pack?

The one thing programmatic buying cannot fully factor into the automated data-led process is somewhat of an ‘X factor’ i.e. that intangible sense of respect and worth that is implied by the company you keep. Who you pal around with tells us a lot about your values and your intentions.

Newspapers are discriminating in their relationships through the necessity of preserving their unique selling proposition – journalism – and part of that is providing the right context in which to deliver that information. It’s not for everyone … and doesn’t cater to every advertiser. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s a key selling point!

I’m sure many marketers are out there thinking: “But I’m only putting 30 to 70 percent of my digital budget into programmatic buying. I’m not addicted. I can stop any time I want to”. Well guess what marketing guru, so can any other competitor, big or small. Your only point of difference in that market place is your capacity to throw money at the problem.

Brands matter and the context you place that brand in matters. Valuing ideas and effective creative, to uniquely position your brand to a jaded and overwhelmed consumer population also matters.

The defenders of programmatic buying claim they can ‘adjust the controls’ to allow for context and quality, but I remain concerned that this is left up to a piece of code, rather than human oversight.

It is reported, that Australians are less trusting of mainstream media reporting than they were years ago. However, despite the loudly voiced opinions of the Twitterati, newspapers are still the most trusted commercial media source for opinion and information (the least trusted are blogs).[i]

And a big part of that is the strength of newspaper brands. One of the reasons other media and the public remain fascinated by the boardroom machinations of newspapers is that they feel emotionally invested in mastheads. They are an integral part of the fabric of society like no other medium can claim.

So while programmatic buying may be a good opportunity to sell non-premium digital inventory that may be otherwise left on the shelf, when I hear buyers talking about wanting to extend the concept into the printed product or other newspaper media platforms, I am sceptical about the benefits. Not just to the advertiser, but to the newspaper brand.

If newspaper creative (and effectiveness) becomes devalued in an environment of short term efficiency driving, the losers will not only be advertisers whose campaigns don’t deliver to their objectives, but the newspapers who won’t get a second chance to rebuild trust with both the advertiser and the reader.


[i] Essential Vision, Trust in Media, January 22 2013 and Nielsen Trust in Advertising Report, 2012 (Australia)

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