Find out why now is the perfect time to start programmatic display advertising.

Now is a great time to start programmatic display advertising for three reasons:

  1. Few companies are doing it, so competition is nowhere near as fierce as other forms of online advertising.
  2. Those that grasp the potential are doing very well indeed. Many of those doing it are not doing it properly; some companies simply buy media through Real-Time Bidding (RTB) platforms, without taking advantage of the optimisations available.  
  3. By finding an agency with transparent fee structures, you will be up to 90% better off than your competition before you even pass go. Many agencies are charging ludicrous fees, so find yours carefully.

There is plenty of hype about programmatic display at the moment, and rightly so, but it is a confusing landscape of technology and terminology.  So how do you break in to this new world?

What is programmatic display?

Programmatic display is a set of technologies that allow advertisers to place online display advertisements in front of potential customers while they are browsing publisher sites that carry the advertising.

It sounds like normal display, but the exciting thing about programmatic is that potential customers can be targeted on specific demographics such as their age bracket, salary, interests, job role, and their current internet browsing interest.  

Adverts can be placed at specific times of the day or on specific sites when these target users are online.  

Though the technology is complex, if you understand what you are trying to achieve, you can rise above these complexities and reap the benefits of programmatic display.

The essentials

You need a piece of technology that provides access to the inventory of advertising placements and allows bids to be set for your various target demographics.

This is called a Demand Side Platform (DSP) and there are many different models available.

They are pretty complex pieces of software and can be expensive, so generally you would engage with an agency that uses one of these rather than fumble through all the levers and dials yourself. 

The DSP and agency choice should largely be based on:

  1. The amount of online inventory they have access to.
  2. The plan they put together (i.e. their understanding of your target market).
  3. The cost for the service. Be very careful here to ask how much your agency pays for the clicks or impressions and how much they are going to charge you for the service of management and optimisation.  

It is very much like engaging with a PPC search agency, except for the fact that there is no standard AdWords interface for everyone to buy clicks.

Instead, there are numerous suppliers of this technology, each with varying levels of access to clicks. However, treat it like buying PPC via an agency and ask similar questions about your campaign optimisation.

Getting started

The optimisation potential for a campaign is huge and complex. Therefore, just like PPC, it is critical that the person or team optimising your campaign deeply understand your target market.

There should be a deep-immersion session to pass on this knowledge so be very wary of agencies that offer immediate set up.

The initial set-up job involves understanding the target market in order to build potential lists of target audiences. Analysing existing customer demographics can be helpful and your agency can even install site code in advance of the campaign to build up a profile of demographics about your current site visitors.

Be sure to set time aside to help with this immersion, as it will save effort and money later.

One thing to note is that even though you may think you thoroughly know your target demographic, programmatic allows you to experiment and determine if there are any other untapped profiles that may be valuable to you.

From this research, the agency will then build creative that appear to your target audiences. These can be static images, animated images, interactive images, videos, full page takeovers, in fact any type of advertisement you have ever seen online.  

Carefully check the messaging they are using and involve your brand or creative team in this process.


There are many levers and dials at the disposal of the optimiser. These include, but are not restricted to, the following options: 

  • Split testing ads.
  • Bidding up and down on specific audiences.
  • Segmenting audiences into more granular demographic sets.
  • Testing different site placements against each other (i.e. does one site work more effectively than another for specific audiences?).
  • Testing ad frequency.
  • Testing the time of day, or the day of the week, for response difference.
  • Showing different ads to people in different parts of the consideration funnel.

Combining all of these should be managed by an expert. In many agencies, because this is display advertising, it falls under the remit of the media buyers.

However, the level of statistical analysis and optimisation that is possible makes the job more suited to a PPC optimiser because they are used to the statistics and the types of optimisation levers and dials found in the DSP console.


Your results should improve every week. If they don’t, either the campaign is not being optimised or programmatic is not the right tool for the job.  

Expect to see improvements like this:

RTB conversions 

At the start of the campaign, liken the results to normal display advertising. You are showing your ads to a wide range of people, with little knowledge of who is going to convert best, at what time, on which sites, and so on.

As optimisation progresses, statistical clues appear and allow the optimiser to increase and decrease bids for different audiences. As you gather more data, you learn more about the perfect set of conditions to maximise your results.

In this instance we are maximising conversions but a host of other KPIs can be targeted.

The tech is complex, but the theory behind how it works really is not. Engage with a good agency, ask all the right questions and if programmatic is right for you, you will do very well before the masses get involved.

Ian Harris

Published 16 February, 2015 by Ian Harris

Ian Harris is the CEO and founder of Search Laboratory, and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (2)

Dipesh Shah

Dipesh Shah, Digital Consultant at Data Translators

Display is a fast changing landscape and from what i heard /seen the number of clients utilsising it to its full ability are a handful of them . The rest we can say don't understand and are more fearful of what programmatic will do to them not only from a branding view and i have seen some odd results as it has not been moniotored and optimised as it should have. But also clients are are anxious about the costs and this is where the tension with agencies is not helping develop a programmatic strategy for the client.

You can also talk about attribution / modelling but that is another long conversation / debate for another time.

The problem I see is either clients are trying to run before they walk or agencies don't fully understand the business and are looking to make a quick few bucks without being transparent. Or do clients have different agencies for different channels so there is line of communication of what the strategy is or what is being delivered as well.

over 3 years ago

Richard Foster

Richard Foster, Chief Commercial Officer at Intelligent Optimisations

This is a really good guide for companies looking to take the first steps into programmatic advertising; it is nice to see programmatic outlined in a simple and informative way.

On top of the valid points you raise I think it is also important for marketers to look at all programmatic options and decide whether embracing the next generation of machine learning DSPs might work for them. As the name suggests, machine learning is the automation of the prospecting and then optimisation of audiences for advertisers, all delivered in a real-time environment. For marketers looking to follow the steps outlined in this article and take a leap into the world of programmatic, machine learning DSPs allow for smarter decisions and better results by using ever-evolving algorithms; an outcome that I am sure all marketers want to see in 2015.

over 3 years ago

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