Why one media buyer is embracing programmatic linear TV

When it comes to video, viewers today have an abundance of choice. But way before video streaming in the living room became mainstream, an avalanche of new cable programming had fragmented the traditional linear TV audience almost beyond recognition. Americans went from having a handful of channels to having hundreds in a few years.

According to Nick Vernola, global director of media strategy at PHD Media, this is where new technology can help solve an old problem. He and his agency have been testing programmatic linear TV buying and finding that it's a great complement to traditional TV buying. I sat down with him to learn what a traditional media buying agency thinks about using programmatic methods to buy cable and broadcast TV.

When and why do you consider adding programmatic linear TV buying to the mix for a client?

Nick Vernola: We generally have a clear strategy for our clients around delivering a strong brand message during key moments that matter in pop culture or during a specific event that is coming to life in media. That’s everything from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the Oscars to the World Series. Those moments are easy to recommend and approve as they reach a lot of people in a very fragmented universe. Typically, they have to be consumed live and talked about live. So traditional linear TV still has this power in those moments.

There's only so much watercooler programming and live TV you can buy.

But we need to complement our plan beyond that kind of content to deliver the right level of reach and frequency to break through to viewers. According to Nielsen, only five of the top ad-supported cable and broadcast networks in the U.S. reached more than two million viewers in 2018. And only three of those reached more than five million. Beyond those, there are 16 networks that reached between one and two million — and then a very long tail of others who didn’t.

The challenge is that there’s only so much watercooler programming and live TV you can buy. Past that, it gets really fragmented. And the risk is that you start doing what we call “spray and pray.”

We think about programmatic linear TV as a piece of that larger puzzle. It allows us to easily extend our TV reach with the assurance that we will be addressing our core audience. This audience-first approach also ends up being much faster. We can build the campaign, get all the parameters set, and be live hours later if needed.

Programmatic linear TV advertising is still relatively new. How have you seen it evolving over the last few months?

We were pleasantly surprised that we were able to more easily scale without saturating audiences. Having direct access to the data throughout the campaign also makes it feel more like a digital campaign, where you can control for things such as frequency capping. To be honest, I was looking to see our latest tests fail. We had done programmatic tests several times in the past, and the audience just wasn’t there to the extent that we hoped it would be. And so we saw that people who watched the most TV were oversaturated. They were exposed 80 times. But we didn’t experience these issues in our latest experiments.

To be honest, I was looking to see our latest tests fail.

In your most recent programmatic linear TV efforts, what's one of the biggest benefits you're seeing?

The instantness of programmatic gives us more control. On the traditional side, inventory partners would typically share delivery insights on a weekly basis. If there’s bad news, it might be six days old, which doesn’t do much good. The planning team is then in a position to tell our clients something like, “The network promised us to try to overdeliver the following week.” It’s especially challenging if you’re trying to deliver on a specific push in a certain week with a completely different goal the week after. Having access to the dashboards ourselves, as opposed to working with vendors allows us to feel better prepared to make necessary changes to the campaign when it’s live and keep the clients up to date in a timely manner. Thanks to faster delivery metrics, which are readily available, we can optimize and adjust bids throughout the length of the campaign.

How will programmatic change relationships in the TV industry?

Access to the data empowers the investment and planning team at the agency to approach upfront and scatter negotiations with more information. On an almost real-time basis you can say, “I know we were in ‘This Is Us,’ but we didn’t address the households that have the richness of the particular audience we want to reach.” It’s a new layer to enhance our conversations with networks during upfronts and to refine how we approach the scatter market to fill out the rest of the year. As a result, it incentivizes our inventory partners to make more of their day than just primetime, sports, and morning compelling. All around, it just means good things for the space.

Programmatic advertising has historically been the digital team's territory. Why would a traditional media agency step into this arena?

We’re always trying to break down the barriers that define a traditional media channel and think about what is innovative, what is the consumer experience, and what is the connectivity to a brand’s needs before thinking about how to define the channel and which agency places a buy. We work hand in hand with our clients and digital counterparts to design working plans based on the consumer experience rather than on the size of the screen. If the objective is to reach a traditional TV-watching audience, then the traditional TV investment team is best fitted to answer that need with new programmatic tools.

We also want to ensure consistency and guarantee our clients that the overall linear campaign will be managed by people who know their business very well already. For programmatic to be successfully incorporated into our larger linear TV buys, it shouldn’t require more headcount or a task force team that doesn’t touch our business otherwise. This past year, PHD integrated programmatic, search, social, and marketing science at the account level. We all speak programmatic.

What do you see as the next frontier in programmatic linear buying?

Linear is starting to behave more like an online channel. So linear programmatic is bound to become a necessary element of all traditional TV plans. Inventory availabilities are rapidly ramping up, and I'm excited for the day we can start taking advantage of it to buy TV ads at an even larger scale.

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