The Train Will Come: The Power of Anticipation in Digital Media

By Stephanie Lozito, SVP Client Solutions, Digilant

Coloring Within the Lines

Programmatic media buys via DSPs usually materialize as a checklist of targeting tactics and bidding parameters pushed through a platform using an algorithm.  When heralded as the power of machines over people, DSP-based programmatic buying can appear to be sterile and isolated from other channels of media delivery, such as search and social.  The “human element” of programmatic buying usually refers to optimizations and analysis, when in reality, it is how a campaign is serviced that also makes the process human.

Too often, marketing goals dictate media plans that rely on dated programmatic tools, tech, and thinking.  While there is a time and place for coloring within the lines and relying on those plans and approaches that have worked in the past, we need to sharpen our focus on creativity and experimentation and apply new data strategies within marketing plans.

The pre-planning process is not the only proper place for creativity!  Programmatic media professionals are also creative thinkers and explorers on the front lines of innovation.  How can we inject a new creative sensibility into programmatic?  By prioritizing the human element of media buying.  In short, we need to anticipate.

Laying the Tracks:  The Semmering Railway

The case study of the Semmering Railway offers us a roadmap for what I’ll call Anticipation-Driven Creativity.  Between 1848 and 1854, about 20,000 workers laid 41 kilometers of train tracks across the Semmering Pass in the Austrian Alps.a  This was not an easy feat, as the mountains held especially steep grades with challenging turns, making them uniquely difficult to traverse. Neither surveying tools nor locomotive design available at that time could accommodate travel on the newly-laid tracks.  In short, the Semmering Railway Project was laying tracks for a train that didn’t yet exist.  They built the tracks knowing that one day, the train would come.

A competition asked entrants to design trains that would achieve what had been previously impossible.  While none of the original four entrants were successful, “
trials for a suitable locomotive led to a number of developments in this field of engineering, and in the end resulted in the invention of the Engerth locomotive.”b  In this case, the “thing” that was anticipated (a train that could make this unprecedented trip) forced the process to create the very thing they were anticipating when they laid the tracks.

Solutions-Based Partnerships

Solutions-based partnerships ultimately fail without anticipation and human creativity.  In fact, creativity needs to take its place at the very center of programmatic buying – to anticipate where tech could potentially go, and help us get there.  To be better at what we do, we need to lay the metaphorical tracks, which will help us design the train fit to travel on them

First, we need to build a level of trust that offers us the freedom to not only present new ideas, but more importantly, present new ideas for which there is no currently established proof that the idea will work.  We need some leeway to be risk takers. Many will say, “What?  That sounds like you want to allocate client spending to a leap of faith!”  To which I would respond, “brands take risks in their creative processes all the time.”

Innovation is based on risk, but calculated, rooted in experience, information, and intelligence (should sound familiar to those working in the programmatic media buying space).  The proliferation of think tanks within brands, like Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, helps break through the innovation clutter.c  Additionally, the title “Chief Innovation Officer” within agencies and brands also indicates the value placed on calculated risk and innovation within the “creators” of media strategies and plans.  Let’s inject this same approach into the practice of programmatic!

To do that, we need to transform programmatic’s “test and learn” mentality into an incubation mentality.  Programmatic incubation fosters freer conversations about new capabilities and allows for greater risk in leading the technology where our clients’ marketing objectives need it to go.

Programmatic Think Tanks

If we were to generate programmatic “think tanks,” similar to our brand and agency colleagues and partners, we’d see a dramatic increase in programmatic innovation and creative thinking at the DSP-level.  Not all of our ideas will work as originally designed (much like the 4 locomotive entrants in the Semmering Trials), but having designed them will allow us to push our programmatic thinking forward.

Let’s avoid making programmatic a rote exercise.  We need to own programmatic creativity. We, as an industry, need to experiment more.   Digilant has made the shift toward a more custom offering that is unique to the buyer, uncovering new data and audiences they wouldn’t have know about.  The beauty of programmatic is its ability to make quick pivots; let’s use this to our advantage.

The Train Will Come

We, as an industry, should make anticipation a part of our daily approach to media buying.  To that end, we should activate programmatic think tanks to innovate as the “human layer” on top of the programmatic tech layer.  And with enough focused anticipation and experimental fearlessness, in every case, the train will come.

Sources: Unesco, and New World Encylopedia, Great Rail, and Fast Company 

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