Programmatic Media at Core of Agency Reviews

North of $25 Billion in media business is now up for grabs, and the industry pundits are hedging their bets when it comes to their theories as to why.

It would be easy to simply take at face value some of the reasons marketers claim are catalysts for the insane number of reviews going on.  No doubt the failure to keep pace with digital innovation plays a role.  But please, people.  Let’s do a little reading between the lines.

According to this Forbes columnist, we matched all of last year’s volume in media reviews within a six-week period.  It’s unprecedented.  And when the pundits fathom a guess as to why all of this is going on, they parrot back the “keeping up with changes in the ecosystem” line.  Meanwhile, most of them mention specific industry trends that are giving agencies trouble.  Guess what?  Almost all of them have something to do with programmatic buying.

Transparency, ad fraud, viewability, bot traffic – these things keep coming up as themes in trade coverage of the deluge of media reviews (which AdWeek has annoyingly termed “Mediapalooza”).  Curiously, most client-side marketers who lend a quote to these stories point to overarching strategic or financial reasons for needing to make a change – cost-cutting through consolidation, lack of innovation, simplified process – reasons that holding company agencies are more than familiar with and have heard many times.

That’s telling.  The pundits and even the agencies themselves are having a day of reckoning, turning up their nose at the bed they’ve made, now that they’re going to be forced to sleep in it.

Make no mistake.  This is the price agencies are paying for faking it until they make it.  The term “trading desk” used to refer to a centralized, application-driven approach to programmatic buying.  Now, the meaning of the term has completely changed and now encompasses “centers of excellence” where poorly-trained programmatic buyers manage a mishmash of DSPs, private marketplaces and half-finished “proprietary” bidding and fulfillment tools.

When you take a deeper dive into how those things are structured, they deliberately obfuscate true media costs, the overall viewability picture, and even the environment in which advertisers run.  The reason for the murkiness is abundantly clear – it’s there to protect agency profit margins.

In harboring, if not outright encouraging, the facts around where marketers run their ads and how much they’re paying for them, agencies have abandoned their role as the client’s strategic agent.  They’re working for themselves now.  And in taking that approach, they’ve ceded their most valuable asset – the role of the strategic consigliere to their clients, putting themselves instead in the role of Just Another Media Seller with something to pitch to the client.

The message should be clear to any agency that’s taken this path.  You made your bed, now sleep in it.

Tom Hespos is the Founder and Chief Media Officer of Underscore Marketing, an integrated media agency focusing on health and healthy brands.