'Digital': Things aren’t as bad as many would have us believe

Spotify's head of programmatic and data ANZ, Dan Robins.
By Spotify's head of programmatic and data ANZ, Dan Robins. | 30 November 2017
Dan Robins

Six months ago I crossed the Rubicon (how apt for somebody in the programmatic space) from the light to the dark, or dark to light side of our industry, depending on which side of the proverbial river you come from. In that time, I’ve excitingly seen a wider view of our market than I had exposure to previously. Some things I’ve learned:

  • It’s very easy to end up drinking A LOT of coffee on the sales side.
  • Agency people really do work bloody hard. And they pitch, A LOT.
  • Marketers really are keen to learn more about the digital space and do really get excited by the “new”, but also question impact more than any.
  • I’ve loved getting to spend more time with those people I used to work with, or even compete against, scattered across the industry. There’s some really good people in our market.

When I look at the industry as a whole of course, it’s imperfect. There are questions over the supply chain and how much for the dollar goes to the source of content. I’ve seen actively opaque behaviour, first hand, from a handful. Measurement is still under-cooked with all too many still using outdated attribution methods. Tech costs are still being seen as taxes rather than value adds… and I could go on. But the one difference is there is clear action being taken from across the IAB, MFA and AANA, the agencies and advertisers to make progress rather than just talk about it.

See: OMD's Dan Robins joins Spotify to lead programmatic offering

Despite what many with an axe to grind would have you believe (and I appreciate I could also be seen as one with the oppositional axe to grind), all is not as bad in the digital advertising world as is often made out. Progress is definitely being made to mitigate many of the, though in actual fact minority, nefarious behaviours that blight the marketplace, while real progress is being made to improve measurement and prove efficacy of digital channels.

For me, a good way to look at the health of the ecosystem is with a simple equation:

Health = Supply + Demand

There needs to be positive output on both sides of the buy and sell marketplace, underpinned by trust between both / all parties. While by no means in perfect equilibrium, I feel real progress is being made across all three facets.

Breaking this down with some examples:


First off, we seem to have turned the corner in 2018 on viewability. For so long the stuff of conference and debate fodder with little real action, platforms and publishers are now making good progress in offering vCPMs and other in-view only pricing models.

Management against ad Fraud is also progressing well. This will always be a reactive battle given those that perpetrate have so much to gain and such low overheads. While still only limited to web environments (not app), the fast uptake of the IAB’s ads.txt initiative in Australia has been great to see and a real push forward to manage supply through only accepted sources, reducing fraud.

Coupled to this, Premium programmatic seems to have broken through – Private Marketplaces (PMP) to only buy from known, quality sources (rather than via Open Exchange), and Programmatic Guaranteed are now key engagement mechanics between buyers and sellers. Further, the recent uptake of header bidding to allow programmatic buys to compete with reserved buys points to programmatic moving towards becoming what it has always preached: the mechanism for brands to use data to decision over the value of a served ad, in some form of real-time. Publishers and platforms are moving away from programmatic inventory as their remnant (read: unsellable) supply, to selling it in the same way they sell reservations. Ultimately programmatic isn’t a channel (display), it’s a mechanic for automation and we’re slowing getting to that place.


Education in the space, so often bemoaned as a key holdback, particularly at the more complex / technical ends of the spectrum, is getting better and better, particularly on the advertiser side. We’re seeing more and more marketers not only attending conferences such at the Programmatic Summit or the IAB’s Measure Up, but also being comfortable and experienced enough to tell their own stories.

Fuelled by better education and better measurement, there is a growing appreciation for the adage “you get what you pay for,” and a rebalancing of the Price vs Quality equation. While yes, there is a long way to go to satiate the oft-blamed corporate procurement requirement for cost reductions and brands, agencies and publishers to do more, for less, there is a definite resurgence in the value of premium quality platforms and the value of digital-for-brand, over “digital” being mistaken for merely  blunt retargeting channel.

Finally, driven by the need to innovate to stay alive, the network agencies are responding. While not completely in operation yet, I’ve seen some seriously exciting innovation coming from within the agency Holding Companies – [m]Platform, M1 within Dentsu Aegis, and changes to agency structures such as programmatic buying being built into teams (OMG & Publicis) are all positive progress from the oft-maligned.


A breakdown in trust in any marketplace is a recipe for the end of the marketplace, and we’ve seen many, many column inches written on this subject over the last couple of years. While there is most certainly a large amount of distrust and negative contribution around, from many I’ve spoken to there is a feeling that green-shoots of rebirth are returning.

Front and centre to this is measurement of outcomes over basic media metrics. Approaches are by no means perfect, nor will be for a good time to come; however, we are now seeing far more brands (supported by agencies, publishers, platforms and vendors) getting to better understand the value media drives to their businesses. It’s this causal understanding, and being able to see which dollars drive value, which builds trust.

There was a long period where many sources would have you believe every brand in Australia was in the process of moving their media buying in-house in some form or another. While at the time, that was true and valuable for some, driven in many cases by a poor relationship with their agency and/or partners, there was a general need to wrestle back control as trust was dead. While the trend of brands building in-house trading teams for search, programmatic or other buying is still there, it is now far more collaborative as agencies have made their value clear, and advertisers have tested to find out what they can and can’t do alone.

Finally, and most broadly, there is an underlying sense I get of a return to excitement in our industry – “digital” (read: search, display and video) was for a long time the golden child of supposed innovation. The pace of change meant there was always a new and shiny toy to play with and get excited about. The transparency debate of the last couple of years took this away. With every new toy came an underlying perception of “this is just another rort.” Things are no less complex (even more so), but there is a feeling that across our industry people are starting to get excited again: this may be channels – audio and OOH having a resurgence driven by programmatic trading – or longer term visions such as the potential blockchain offers to instant payments, no errors and unified user data.

With all this in mind, it really does feel like we’re turning a corner as we head to 2018. Many of the answers to the on-going problems are being implemented around e.g. fraud, brand safety and better joining the dots between industry bodies to name a couple.

With only 60 or so days until the anniversary of Mark Pritchard’s now-in-every-article-and-presentation speech, progress has without doubt been made. There can be no resting on laurels, however. To push onwards, I do think we need to work on a better common language. This still too much “them and us” between so called traditionalists and digital natives. At the end of the day, it’s all marketing, with the aim of reaching the right consumer with a relevant message at the right time and place to influence an action, either at that moment or down the track. It’s the responsibility of the “digitals” help the wider industry better understand, and clear through many of the barricades built by buzzwords, acronyms and opaque behaviours. For the rest, embrace it. Come join the party. We’re making progress fast and you’ll love the ride.

By Spotify's head of programmatic and data ANZ, Dan Robins.

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