From Manual Buying to Programmatic: First-Hand Learnings from the Google Media Lab

June 2015

Media Lab — Google's internal media agency responsible for planning, buying and placing media to advertise Google products — leverages programmatic techniques to improve efficiencies, build better creative and increase the relevance of advertising messaging. Emily Sears, Head of Digital at the Google Media Lab in EMEA, discusses the benefits in depth.

An emphasis on effectiveness

Globally, media dollars are shifting to programmatic. In fact, global programmatic spending is expected to reach $37.5 billion by 2017.3 Within Google Marketing, our goal is to have 60% of our global digital marketing spend bought programmatically. Although programmatic readiness varies significantly market to market and channel to channel, in EMEA our marketing teams have spent the past 12 months driving programmatic adoption. Through our efforts, we've seen a more than 450% increase year over year in the percent of Google's digital media being bought programmatically in EMEA. More importantly, we have gained invaluable insights into the advantages of using programmatic, as well as learnings that other advertisers can apply to their programmatic strategy.

Our greatest motivation for embracing programmatic is making our campaigns more effective. We have a lot of experience successfully leveraging digital media for direct response, but like many advertisers, making digital work for brand advertising is newer to us. Programmatic provides a suite of tools to help us do this. For example, we can now deploy more educated targeting by combining first and third party data and understand the true value of both. We can also manage frequency better. Instead of optimising to an average frequency across our entire buy, we can now turn off our ads when people have seen too many.

Perhaps the most powerful tool that programmatic brings to the table for brand marketers is the ability to optimise campaigns in flight. In the past, brand marketers did not have many meaningful metrics to measure the success of their campaigns while they were running. We have been using control/exposed survey methodology to measure incremental brand lift for several years; however, we usually can't get a statistically significant read on how the campaign is performing until after the campaign has ended. It's also difficult to cut this data at a granular level, such as by site, placement and so forth. in order to gain learnings on how to optimise our campaigns the next time we plan. With programmatic, we can now optimise in real time at a placement level to metrics that we know drive our end goal of brand lift, like viewability. We're beginning to explore other real-time metrics beyond viewability as well.

Greater operational efficiency is another benefit of embracing programmatic. The automation of the buying process means our teams spend less time and resource negotiating media buys, which they can then dedicate to strategy and innovation. Our goal is to build digital experiences that delight our audience and add value to their lives. As we become more efficient at executing our core campaigns, we can spend more time creating the stuff that's truly magical. Programmatic is helping us get one step closer to achieving that goal.

Making the shift to programmatic

Below are three key insights we've gained from our experience in optimising for programmatic success.

1) Creative excellence and programmatic go hand-in-hand.

Studies show us that on average, media is only about 30% of the equation when it comes to successful brand campaigns — approximately 70% of success is driven by the creative. We've been focused on establishing a set of creative principles and best practices to help our marketing teams design and build creative that has the chance to be impactful. We started with display, since that's where approximately 80% of our campaign reach comes from, but have plans to roll this out to mobile and video in the near future. We also rolled out creative pre-testing across EMEA earlier this year, which enables us to separate media performance from creative performance, and better understand why our campaigns are succeeding"_ or not.

The other key point to make is that shifting to programmatic has not limited us in terms of creative freedom. In fact, we're beginning to test high-impact formats like half-page units as well as tap into premium publisher inventory via private marketplace deals and programmatic guaranteed. Working closely with our creative agencies to help them understand this has also made a tremendous impact.

2) Publisher relationships are just as, if not more, important in a programmatic world.

There's a misconception in the industry that programmatic means that advertisers do not need to work directly with publishers, and that programmatic will harm publishers' businesses. We believe this could not be farther from the truth, as for us one of the most valuable components of our programmatic practice has been the more than 300 private marketplace deals we've set up directly with key publishers in EMEA. These enable us to secure more premium inventory programmatically — they also help our publisher partners to fulfill more yield and maintain pricing. To summarise, programmatic only works for us in a world where it also works for the creators of the content that our audience loves.

3) Data is great — but you need the right tools and the right people to use it well (and responsibly).

Through the use of DoubleClick Audience Center, our ability to manage and deploy data across every campaign is constantly improving. It's important to break down silos — our goal is to organise data around audiences, instead of individual products. Programmatic enables us to reach people effectively and efficiently, and brings us one step closer to being able to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time.

But tools can't do it alone — having people on your team who understand data and can make the connection between data and strategy is also key. Programmatic cannot be a discipline that lives on its own; it must be fully embedded into every part of the marketing process, from planning to execution. When all of these elements come together — good data, the right tools and analytical minds — you've got the recipe for success.

Optimise programmatic in five steps

In summary, below are some key learnings that could apply to other advertisers looking to optimise programmatic performance.

  • Understand the user insight first. No marketing campaign can succeed without solid user insight at its core. It's no different in programmatic — communications planning and strategy are just as important here as they are in direct digital buying and traditional media.
  • Focus on building great creative. Develop hypotheses and test them to understand what works best for your brand and your product. Focus on a single message rather than trying to do everything in one unit. Remember that most people see ads for less than one second — if they see them at all — so serving creative that is impactful in the very short moment in time that you have is crucial.
  • Employ in-market metrics that are meaningful for brand lift. Ensure that you are optimising to metrics that have a causal impact on driving your goals, like viewability. Don't be distracted by the rest — just because something is measurable, does not make it meaningful.
  • Support publishers as they make the shift to programmatic, too. In order for marketers to continue to be successful, we need publishers to continue to create great content that our audiences want to consume. Publishers stand to gain as much from programmatic as marketers do, so find opportunities to partner and help publishers discover how programmatic can add value to their businesses.
  • Education is key. We've spent the last year becoming much more educated about programmatic as a marketing organisation. For people who have less experience with it, the conversation is often about dispelling the myths: that it's only for direct response, that it's only "remnant" inventory, that it offers no opportunities for creativity" — and so forth. Our team here has really embraced it as an important tool within our media toolbox, and it's been exciting to begin to see the results pay off.

Watch the presentation below to hear more:

Listen to Emily Sears (Head of Digital, Google Media Lab) dispel three of the most common myths surrounding programmatic.
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