Brand vs programmatic is an important balance, but not a delicate one. The trend of convergence between the different pressures of branding vs programmatic continues. This convergence is only encouraged as technology layers integrate with each other, creative options continue to become more varied and publishers become more open to new ways to sell and manage their inventory.

What does programmatic mean in this context?

Programmatic buying lets us analyse, manage and optimise our campaigns in real time, based on data from publishers, our own website and third parties. These buying mechanisms help us to reduce wasted budget quickly during a campaign, and help the campaign to run more effectively. This has led to programmatic conversations being exclusively about direct response, since it is so easy to see how it improves performance.

But direct response vs brand isn’t such a clear-cut distinction.

User journeys are messy

We’re very fond of envisaging a user’s path in simple terms: they get exposed to an ad we push to them, then once we’ve built enough awareness they get pull themselves to us, maybe via search, and once we’ve captured them we use email, retargeting etc to help them decide to convert.

But recent research has shown retargeting is the final click in the conversion path only 17% of the time.

Users rarely behave in such easily explainable ways. They move across devices, they see offline messaging, and they go backwards and forwards between touch points. Their path to conversion might include dozens of engagements with a brand, each for its own reason and each with its own timing.

Our traditional “branding” activity, full of high-funnel marketing like display is actually touched by the user multiple times. Our low-funnel direct response activity like retargeting will also be served to the user on multiple occasions.

In this way branding activity does more than building awareness, it reassures users throughout their journey. It reinforces our messages and it builds our credibility. In short, it supports the sales process. Our direct response activity does the same. If users are comparison shopping, search plays a role in helping them decide between providers and services. If users are waiting for payday before making a purchase, retargeting keeps brands on their shortlist.

To talk about branding vs direct response is to have the wrong argument, and to talk about branding vs programmatic by equating programmatic with performance, is similarly difficult.

Our buying principles aren’t as different as they seem

If we’re not talking about branding vs performance, we need to talk about branding vs programmatic’s buying differences in the context of how we plan.

Since premium inventory is often bought directly and committed, we often forget to apply the programmatic discipline. The data tracking principles of programmatic buying can still be used. We monitor engagements, reach and frequency, which audiences users were part of, etc. We can see how they behaved compared to one another and change our future plans accordingly.

Which begs the question: what are we optimising too, if not performance? Should branding activity include optimisation at all?

My answer? Yes.

There are plenty of metrics to help us track branding activity, from reach+frequency to roll-over rates, but more interesting is how users respond to our ads.

If our tracking tells us that ad A had a higher engagement rate than ad B, does that mean ad A should be served every time? The programmatic ethos defaults to agreeing with that, but we can do more.

If our traditionally bought media and our programmatically bought media all include real branding metrics, we can balance those against our brand positioning. If we’re running always-on ads against ads supporting a TV campaign, we can simply give those ads a default higher scoring to account for their broadcast support role.

Telling the right story

Programmatic also creates several new opportunities to talk to prospects and customers with a sequential message. By planning and tracking effectively across devices we can ensure that every message they see supports their position in their journey, building our brand credibility and message each time they are exposed.

“We’re on a march back to 1-to-1 marketing,” said Ben Sutherland, iProspect’s Chief Performance Officer and I agree.

Broadcast gave us the ability to reach prospective customers, but we can’t use broadcast to tailor our message to them based on their circumstances. Premium inventory and pre-planned brand-supporting creative doesn’t need to be the digital equivalent of broadcast. There’s no pressure for it to be a clear-cut choice between that and super-optimised, DR-only, efficiency-at-the-cost-of-all-else programmatic campaigns.

A fully personalised journey could and should form part of our branding message, always. The golden situation – where every touch point a user has taken helps inform their unique place in our messaging flowchart – already exists. Proper brand planning should include those flowcharts.

New customers are existing customers in our minds

When we talk to existing customers, we have lots of data about them in our CRM. We can ask them exactly what messages they want to hear from us, and speak to them accordingly. We know which products they are not customers of yet, and which ones are suitable. We know the likelihood of users upgrading from our default service to our premium service. We know how users in London will differ from users in Scotland.

We know this information explicitly about our existing customers. We can even ask them directly. But we know it implicitly about people who aren’t our customers yet. We know which of our customers they look/behave similarly to. We know how their geography, demographics, device choices, search patterns and browsing history affect which messages they respond to.

By treating new customers just like existing customers in our messaging flowcharts, we can ensure that we’re using the opportunities of programmatic to tell personalised stories to each individual, reinforcing the brand at every turn.

How do we deliver on this?

Firstly we need to deliver audiences at scale. Some of these audiences will be bought programmatically, and some will be bought through reservations. All of them need to be found first. CCS and other tools help us do people-first planning. Data is the driver, personalities are the deciders. By building well-structured models of our customers and our potential customers we know how they interact with the web and the real world. How they respond to broadcast and websites. How they live their lives and what messages/services are impactful for their day-to-day.

Only when we have these profiles can we start to plan a successful campaign.

This kind of world doesn’t happen by accident. Creating a programmatic team and letting them go wild will lead to only one end result: well optimised activity, limited in scope. By bringing the planning together we can create roadmaps that help us to leverage the power of our brand, executed well.

Alistair Dent

Alistair Dent


Alistair Dent, Head of Product at iProspect UK.