The question is not just about the art versus science of marketing. It’s also about business models and the nature of decision-making. Look at Amazon’s retail success. It’s a data-driven behemoth, whose algorithms and programmatic approach to business continue to power its prosperity.

Compare this to well-loved brands that have failed despite being redolent with stories and emotional connections, like HMV and Woolworths. Does this teach us we should submit entirely to the rise of the machines?

In digital marketing, the most obvious area of growth for a programmatic approach is in how display advertising is bought and delivered. With the rise of ad exchanges, underpinned with platforms and technologies that can talk to each other in real time, it makes a lot of sense to use programmatic approaches to drive efficiencies and optimise campaigns against desired goals.

But there are many other areas of digital marketing which are already programmatic, or becoming increasingly so.

  • Pay Per Click (PPC) search marketing has always been rules-driven but those rules have become much more refined and are increasingly governed by decision-making engines that take into account all sorts of real-time variables, both internal and external to the advertiser, from the weather to a competitor’s pricing, stock levels or the time of day.
  • Email marketing started off as ‘batch and blast’. It became more segmented and rules-driven. Now it is becoming ‘event triggered’, with personalised emails dynamically created in response to behavioural signals from the customer. It is becoming much more programmatic.
  • Social media may appear anarchic and unruly to many but it too is starting to be addressed more systematically. Processes and procedures are being turned into rules that are driving social media management platforms and enterprise tools to respond, often automatically.As with email, and often as part of eCRM, customer conversations and messaging has to be as personal as possible to be effective, but as programmatic as possible to be scalable and efficient.

Targeting and personalisation is the fourth highest priority for digital marketers in 2013 after content marketing, conversion rate optimisation and social media engagement, according to recent Econsultancy research.

Interactive experiences across all screens are becoming not merely responsive but programmatically personalised. Machine marketing is on a mission to pass its own Turing Test and appear human.

Q: Which three digital-related areas are the top priorities for your organisation in 2013?

Marketing automation was a hot topic for 2012 and continues to be so in 2013. The earliest adopters of marketing automation were in business-to-business organisations and, for a change, business-to-consumer marketers have a lot to learn from their B2B peers.

Shawn Burns, global vice president of digital marketing at SAP, was already talking of the ‘brain’, a decision-making engine that sits at the heart of SAP’s paid owned and earned marketing ecosystem, back in November 2011 at our FUNNEL event.

Burns explained that this brain controls what each customer experienced and why, across channels, selecting which content assets to show to optimise the journey from lead to sale through a ‘personalised nurture experience’. This may well be the rumoured Promised Land where big data and content marketing come together.

So where does this leave above-the-line marketing?

Where is the big idea that drives brand campaigns; where  is the opportunity for storytelling? It makes you wonder if we should all just go home and let ‘MarketingNet’ take control.

I believe the best marketing of the future will have to harness the power of a programmatic approach. But it still needs soul, it needs passion, it needs vision.

The art and the science of great marketing will be about combining both ideas and automation. You can already see this orchestration at play : the TV ad that is previewed on YouTube, announced on Twitter, aired on TV, then amplified via social media and email, with the value captured both reactively and programmatically by smart marketers, online and offline.

John Lewis did it successfully this Christmas. Its ecommerce sales soared by more than 44%. But this success was not just because of great digital execution, nor just its snowman TV ad.

It managed to deliver both the story and the programmatic efficiency to maximise effectiveness. Conceptually, this kind of marketing architecture, where the focus is on the customer experience rather than specific channels – where creativity and machine-driven optimisation happily help each other out – is not hard to imagine.

Executing it, on the other hand, is tough.

Great marketing of this sort will not only be able to amplify and harness the value of one’s own marketing. It will be agile and fluid enough to piggyback on what others are doing or seize on groundswells created by predicted, or unpredicted, events. Nike managed to perform impressively during the Olympics on most social metrics despite not being an official sponsor.

Having the right technology and people in place to react swiftly to marketing opportunities as they occur is clearly important. However, if you have an effective programmatic marketing layer in place then this gives you a ‘safety net’ that should operate 24 hours a day, that will itself capture some value before the marketing elite special forces arrive.

Automation is never going to be the only answer for marketing. I’d expect to see programmatic marketing to significantly increase in the coming years, for good reasons, but ultimately it will exist in a marketing ecosystem that is as creative and emotional as it is calculated.