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September 28, 2015
Bloomberg Businessweek

Marketers thought the Web would allow perfectly targeted ads. Hasn’t worked out that way.

Businessweek coverRon Amram has been in the brand marketing business for about 20 years. In the 2000s he was media director for Sprint’s prepaid cellular group, mainly figuring out where the carrier should spend its ad dollars—print, outdoor, digital, or broadcast. TV was always at the top of the pyramid. A TV campaign was like “the Air Force,” Amram says. “You wanted to get your message out, you did carpet bombing.” But TV wasn’t cheap, nor did it solve “that age-old question: Half of my marketing is working, half of it is not, and I don’t know which half.”

About 10 years ago, not long after Google went public and Yahoo! was still worth upward of $50 billion, attitudes shifted. Digital search and display ads had the potential to reach TV-size audiences at a fraction of the price. “People thought it was going to change everything,” Amram says.

The euphoria escalated again around 2010 with the arrival of programmatic advertising, a typically banal industry term for what is, essentially, automation. The ideal programmatic transaction works like this: A user clicks on a website and suddenly her Internet address and browsing history are packaged and whisked off to an auction site, where software, on behalf of advertisers, scrutinizes her profile (or an anonymized version of it) and determines whether to bid to place an ad next to that article. Ford Motor could pay to put its ads on websites for car buffs, or, with the help of cookies, track car buffs wherever they may be online. Ford might want to target males age 25-40 for pickup-truck ads, or, better yet, anybody in that age group who’s even read about pickups in the past six months.

That’s a stunningly attractive proposition to advertisers: surgical strikes on a carpet bombing scale. Ominous for privacy advocates, sure, but nirvana for agencies, publishers, and advertisers. At long last, they’d know where every last dollar went and whether it did its job.

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