The Top Ten Programmatic Advertisers

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by Allison Schiff, Alison Weissbrot, Sarah Sluis, James Hercher, Kelly Liyakasa and Ryan Joe

Programmatic advertising comes in many flavors.

A handful of brands load up to take their buying fully in-house. Many give their agency partners carte blanche. Other brands take ownership of the tech contracts and segmentation, while letting their agencies pull the levers.

How each advertiser approaches the discipline depends on its unique needs and resources.

While there's no single winning formula, the programmatic mavens out there do embody a handful of constants: An embrace of data-driven marketing, an understanding of how to work with a vast partner ecosystem and quality oversight.

The ten brands listed below are the best programmatic marketers today.

kristi target10) Target – Bringing First-Party To Programmatic

Over the past few years Target has redefined its marketing organization through programmatic technology, both as a spending category and revenue driver.

Target added Kristi Argyilan in 2014 to manage its “paid, earned, owned and shared media initiatives.” Nowadays, the retailer sees the only meaningful channel distinction as “pipes with first-party data” and those without, she told AdExchanger earlier this month.

Argyilan oversaw the company’s blockbuster media agency review last year, when Target consolidated its $700 million account with GroupM after more than 35 years with Haworth. She declined to discuss specifics around programmatic budgets or as a percent of overall media, but called programmatic spending “one of the fastest-growing investments from the top down.”

Target is also actively testing channels where to expand programmatic buying beyond desktop and mobile.

khoi truong loreal9) L’Oreal – The Perfect Hybrid

L’Oreal isn’t just a pretty face when it comes to programmatic.

The beauty giant, which is parent company to Garnier, Maybelline, Lancome and a makeup bag full of other cosmetics brands, first started experimenting in earnest with programmatic media buying around 2014, the year it brought on chief digital officer Lubomira Rochet.

As the third largest advertiser in the world – in 2015, L’Oreal trailed only Procter & Gamble and Unilever in terms of ad spend – the French cosmetics brand has a vested interest in media effectiveness.

“We’ve seen that combining display with our own first-party data can have a real impact on how consumers engage with ads and then make purchases,” said Khoi Truong, L’Oreal’s global director of precision advertising and digital analytics, in a previous interview with AdExchanger.

But L’Oreal prefers a hybrid model.

Although the brand has inked deals with ad tech companies, including one with TubeMogul, is reportedly looking to build its own in-house trading desk and works directly with Google’s DoubleClick, L’Oreal defers to its media agency on strategy around technology and operations.

WPP’s MEC won L’Oreal USA’s media business in late 2015 during the wave of media reviews dubbed Pitchapalooza.

kc lab8) Kimberly-Clark – Internal Innovation

Kimberly-Clark was one of the earliest brands to bring programmatic technology in-house. Its programmatic roots date back to 2011.

Its marketing technologists, such as Cameron Friedlander, also double up on content strategy and planning. “It’s one thing to hustle out 1,000 different personalized ads, but you need to be able to then deliver on that from an execution standpoint,” Friedlander told AdExchanger in December.

Kimberly-Clark’s tech-savvy ethos permeates well beyond the brand’s own marketing organization.

It has a marketing technology and innovation practice called This Digital Innovation Lab dedicated to improving consumer experiences using data-driven marketing. The Lab incubates budding startups working in omnichannel, data/predictive analytics and media/content.

jennifer gardner unilever7) Unilever – Quality Control

Unilever made its claim to programmatic fame when it released a stringent viewability standard with GroupM in 2014. In an example of a marketer pioneering media supply quality, the CPG company said it would only pay for video ads that render 100% in-view and are 50% completed without autoplay and with the sound on. Unilever’s cry for better viewability put into question the MRC’s industry accepted standard of 50% of pixels in view for one second.

“We define viewability as an ad that is viewed by a real person who is in our target audience in an appropriate environment,” said Jennifer Gardner, Unilever North America’s director of media investment and partnerships. “We believe we’ve reached a tipping point in technology when the time is right to level the playing field with other media.”

Unilever was also one of the first marketers to take ownership of its programmatic strategy. The CPG giant launched a dedicated programmatic buying unit called Ultra managed by media agency Mindshare.

pritchard6) P&G – The Exacting Partner

Many of the biggest brands prefer to be early adopters rather than actual first movers. But Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest advertiser, has truly taken a pioneering approach to programmatic.

In 2009, P&G and Right Media took up a hybrid managed service and internal trading desk called Hawkeye, with the brand taking on responsibilities and pieces of the tech stack more gradually.

In 2014, P&G set a goal to spend 70% of its digital budget programmatically, though whether it met that target has never been confirmed.

Along with market-leading investments, P&G has been an extremely demanding programmatic marketer, and is always evaluating new technologies. According to sources, P&G is now in phase two of a DSP evaluation that has included The Trade Desk, Rocket Fuel and its longtime buying platform, AudienceScience.

“We spend enormous amounts of time trying to understand, analyze and explain the differences between Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Pandora, YouTube and the dozens of different viewability standards claimed to be right metric for each platform,” said Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard at the IAB Annual Leadership Forum last month. “We will no longer tolerate the ridiculous complexity of different viewability standards.”

conagra brands5) Conagra – Finding Quality And Relevance Through Programmatic

Conagra takes an active role in programmatic strategy, but leaves execution to its partners.

Its four-person internal media team shares the work of planning programmatic strategy – and the food company is hiring a fifth person to solely focus on programmatic. The CPG advertiser takes that active role because it spends heavily on data-driven media: roughly one-third of spend goes to programmatic, and fully two-thirds is "data-driven."

Conagra doesn’t believe in having a trading desk. Instead, it partners with other tech companies.

“Our philosophy is not to have the internal team have ‘hands on keyboards’ for all our campaigns,” said Heather Dumford, the company's former global marketing director for media and advertising technology. Dumford is now at MediaLink. Conagra has logins in order to check details, but “our partners are still the ones that 100% manage the buys in the system.”

The advertiser unifies all its spending through its data management platform , which in turn links to its CRM system. That unified database allows it to show ads only to humans more effectively. And it’s also enabled it to make advertising creative more relevant, as with experiments last year that used data to show the right message to the right segments. Programmatic offers quality and relevance for the CPG advertiser – not just efficiency.

SanjayGuptaAllstate4) Allstate – Putting Hands On Keyboards

Programmatic is Allstate’s policy.

Allstate, which serves more than 16 million households nationwide, has been handling its own programmatic media buying in earnest since early 2015. But that doesn’t mean the insurance brand is cancelling its long-standing relationship with media agency Starcom.

Digital advertising is becoming “a team sport,” said Allstate CMO Sanjay Gupta at the 4As Data Summit in February.

“We rely on our agency partners,” Gupta said. “They bring strategic thinking.”

Even before going full in-house, programmatic comprised an enormous chunk of Allstate’s media plan – around 70% by late 2014, excluding search and pricy one-offs like sponsorships. As of last year, Allstate’s reported ad spend was more than $400 million.

Although in-housing isn’t for every brand, Gupta told AdExchanger that hands on keyboards is working out for Allstate because “we find that we’re much closer to the data.”

“And that allows us to better optimize our marketing,” he said. “We still have a great partnership with our media-buying agencies, but our internal team has seen good results.”

google bob3) Google – The OG

Google is a programmatic powerhouse – but it also enthusiastically drinks its own Kool-Aid.

“If given the opportunity to buy an ad via programmatic, we always buy it via programmatic,” said Bob Arnold, Google’s digital media and strategy lead for North America. Arnold joined Google in 2013 after leading the programmatic charge at Kellogg Co.

The DoubleClick suite of products is the granddaddy of all automated buying tools – leading to $22.4 billion in ad revenue for Google in Q4 2016 alone – and Google, wearing its advertiser hat, is actually one of its heaviest users.

It’s easy to forget that Google, as the purveyor of platforms, is also a marketer itself.

The Google Media Lab partners with GroupM-owned Essence, Google’s digital agency, to help promote Google products, everything from Chromecast to Search to Android Wear. Essence handles 100% of Google’s programmatic media buys.

“Programmatic is the hands down most cost-effective way to buy media,” Arnold told AdExchanger. “It’s no longer the future – it’s the here and now.”

2) American Express – Banking On Better Data

AmEx shines in its data-driven approach to advertising, and for its attempts to streamline the ecosystem. It pushed for media supply chain transparency in early 2015.

“We saw the ecosystem become more complex with a lot of players across the stack taking an ad tech tax,” said Amy Leung, director of digital acquisition, consumer marketing for AmEx, speaking at the Programmatic I/O conference in New York last October.

So AmEx embarked on a complete overhaul of its programmatic partner roster. It issued RFIs to buy- and- sell-side vendors, asked detailed questions and requested access to bid-stream data, which is important for improving efficiencies.

AmEx also tackled the issue of viewability head-on. In 2016, it worked with its verification vendor to roll out tracking capabilities that captured viewability signals both at the impression and conversion level.

“We then reattributed credit to only those impressions that were viewable down to the conversion level,” Leung said. “We cut ad sizes and formats not performing to our minimum viewability threshold.”

AmEx also emphasized cooperation within the internal constituents who touched programmatic: brand and acquisition media teams, information management and digital analytics.

kelly uphoff netflix1) Netflix – Test Obsession

Not every brand has the intestinal fortitude to take programmatic in-house. Netflix is one of the few that does.

The company brought automated ad buying in-house in 2013, when programmatic spend was just starting to ramp up. According to Index Exchange, Netflix was the top in-house spender on the exchange in 2016, ahead of Kimberly-Clark and Johnson & Johnson.

Netflix uses API-based methods to source media across search, display, social and video and manages its own programmatic trading desk.

Today, there are lots of hands of keyboards, with more than 30 people working directly on programmatic projects.

Netflix is obsessive about testing – and it has some pointed advice for all the ad platforms out there.

“If you’re not A/B testing or doing something with causal inference, you’re not really learning what’s effective,” said Netflix’s director of growth and data science, Kelly Uphoff, last year at Programmatic I/O in San Francisco.

“The final frontier is the confluence of machine learning and causal inference,” Uphoff said. “This is what Netflix wants.”

Honorable Mention – Amazon

Amazon's activities as a programmatic advertiser aren't always clear, as the company is notoriously mum on the subject. But it is known that the commerce giant is a major paid media marketer. Amazon recently spent $135 million on linear TV ads in two months alone, and regularly buys across Facebook, Instagram and even arch rival Google's product ads.

 

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