Advertising Technology

“You’re acting like a five-year-old.”

matt-prohaska260Do you remember when your kids were five? Or even when you were five? It’s an awesome age. Our daughter, Danielle, started kindergarten then a couple years ago, with my wife, Bronwyn, and me bawling like babies dropping her off on Day One, knowing it was the end of an era but the wonderful beginning of another.

Five-year-olds usually learn how to do many great things that year, and they realize they can do those things more than before. They also start developing some confidence because of this newly found self-awareness. It’s wonderful to see as a parent, but Bronwyn and I often needed to keep it in check when Danielle would extend that confidence into also newly discovered cockiness and entitlement.

I was thinking of Danielle and the ups and downs of that time when doing the quick math listening to a recent Internet Week panel here in New York. Many of the sessions and speakers were solid, with few sales pitches and good content usually focused on the topic. Yet I also noticed quite a few panelists carrying a certain attitude and tone with their answers, like they were competing to see who was the smartest person in the room. It wasn’t that blatant, but it would show up whenever people had chances to admit mistakes, or make broad statements like “we clearly don’t have all the answers yet,” but came off as know-it-alls with no specific examples to back it up.

Programmatic buying and selling is about five years old now, thinking back to when I was at AOL meeting with early innovators like Mediamath’s Joe Zawadzki in 2008. Multiple research firms predict that programmatic will reach about 20% of all U.S. display spending by the end of this year, up from 14% in 2012, and 0% pre-’08. I’ll bet some big advertisers in certain verticals like retail, education, and finance will even top 40% this year. Pretty nice growth curve. It is exciting to catch up with some other industry friends that have also been doing this for at least a couple years, where we both have that subtle confidence knowing this is very, very real now.

I am seeing plenty of analogies to this moment in programmatic’s history to the last time an industry was five years old. Were you in the digital media industry back in 1999, about five years after Netscape 1.0’s release? Clearly the macro-economic conditions were very different then compared to today, but, man, there were some chesty (sports term for players with a swagger sometimes going too far) sales execs out there back then. People started talking about having to buy certain stocks or advertise on certain websites, not because it tied to someone’s goals or the company fundamentals/audience were obvious for creating value, but because “you just had to do it.” The stock market dive starting in March 2000 and companies realizing they actually needed things like revenue, or a path to revenue, led to some hard crashes. Show of hands for those of you who remember theglobe.com….

Now that many top publishers, agencies, and marketers are starting to expand past the one guy in the last cube that “gets this programmatic thing,” let’s make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes of 14 years ago. Let’s not pretend we know all the answers yet. Let’s explain what we do without showing someone 300 logos on a slide, often confusing them further. Let’s write fewer op-eds discussing how college graduates need to have an expanded skill set to get hired in ad tech, that are meant well, but when read in text-only could come across to some as a bit uninspiring.

Let’s instead keep all the great qualities of the five-year-old still in all of us: enthusiasm, wonder, innocence, sharing, humility, and pure joy for doing what we are lucky enough to get to do.

Matt Prohaska is Programmatic Advertising Director at The New York Times.

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