Of Mice And Programmatic Men

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

Article contributed by Matt Prohaska, Programmatic Advertising Director, The New York Times

Did you ever read John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” in high school or college? Great story. Good lessons. Also made into a surreal cartoon that slightly confused and scared me when I first saw it as an 8-year-old.

For those of you who haven’t read it, or did read it but have had a few years since then to develop amnesia, here’s a synopsis. Not exactly a warm-and-fuzzy read.

I thought of that story when seeing a study published by trading desk Turn a few months back, which showed that the top 2% of digital consumers, in terms of ideal behavioral profiles, see 24 times more ads than the other 98%. Not 24% more. 24 times more. I use the loose analogy to Steinbeck’s story often when talking with clients and our teams about doing programmatic deals directly leveraging audience targeting. We all know re-targeting is by far the top marketing tactic used in programmatic buying, since the majority of budgets still today are purely for performance, or direct response. But it’s getting overused in many ways on a campaign-by-campaign basis by planners who seem to have forgotten, or were never taught, or don’t care about, Media Planning 101. When I and my peers were lucky enough to take these fundamental classes in our early 20s, WAY back in the day, at great agencies like BBDO, we learned about these wonderful charts, called Reach/Frequency curves, that reveal how many times an ad or brand should be shown to the same person. These are classic bell curves that have some tipping point, often depending on the category, media type, and creative, when showing the ad too much has zero or negative impact. For all the algorithms and analysis used among smart buyers in programmatic buying, it’s amazing how charts like these and calculations like unique reach and total GRPs clearly are often not part of the optimization for programmatic campaigns. Understood because of how most agencies and trading desks get comped today by their clients for immediate success, but it’s getting a little crazy in some places with some audiences.

Yes, for categories with longer consideration cycles, like real estate, auto, big-ticket retail, financial, or education, it makes more sense to tell a story, sequence ads, or at least deliver a higher frequency to influence behavior. But after getting the 12th ad of the same creative on Day 15 after I already bought the pair of shoes of Zappos, hey social trading desk/ad network X, please give me a way to tell you I already bought those shoes and leave me alone, or at least hit me up with some socks….

Obviously programmatic buying is not the only place where ad creative being served too often with the same repeating message can have negative brand impact. For example, to anyone working at Clear Channel/iHeartRadio, or at the agency for Supercuts, or Supercuts themselves, please for the love of all that is holy, switch out that exact same :30 audio creative that has been running in iHeart’s genre channels for now more than a year.

But one of the challenges with too-frequent re-targeting in programmatic is that by only focusing on that tactic, marketers are missing out on that much larger opportunity to find even more potential customers “top-funnel” or “mid-funnel” through brand-awareness advertising. It’s exciting that more people are following the lead of Kellogg’s Bob Arnold, and other smart folks there or at P&G, by leveraging programmatic channels for brand objectives as well, and hope more marketers, especially in CPG and Pharma, start jumping deeper into the pool.

But until then, for all performance-based advertisers, agencies, and trading desks out there, let’s please not abuse the privilege we have today to serve ads in a very targeted way and turn our audience completely off to our content and brands. We need to make sure our best laid (media) plans, and customers, do not “go awry.”

Matt Prohaska is Programmatic Advertising Director at The New York Times. Look for his column on the fourth Thursday of every month.