A Little Too Much Science Fiction

26 August 2014 | Blog

robotAn Online Spin column yesterday, “TV Buying and Selling In 2020: Science Fiction or Future Science?,” envisioned a world of completely automated TV buying, a mere five years from now. In this vision, marketers buy ad space across screens in bulk, setting ceilings and floors for a given audience and then letting automated exchanges deliver screen-agnostic ads. Only a handful of big advertisers would do “specialty” content buys tied into sponsorship and product placement.

It’s the kind of world that only an integrated marketing consultant could love, with mostly powerless inventory holders, agencies consisting entirely of programmers, and not a media buyer or planner to be seen.

It doesn’t seem terribly likely. There are a few crucial facts that are being forgotten:

  1. TV inventory is not the same as digital. Much has been made of the “infinite inventory” of the online world. TV, despite the many channels, is finite. TV is, impression by impression, far more valuable than digital, and requires different rules and more care.
  2. The TV ecosystem needs to benefit everyone involved. Unlike the digital world, TV inventory is under the control of a relatively small handful of players. Those companies are run by some pretty smart people, who have been carefully watching how programmatic has impacted the digital world. The RTB free-for-all that drove down CPMs isn’t going to happen in TV.
  3. Algorithms are great, but they need human intelligence behind them. We’re very much in favor of automation and intelligent audience sales. But we don’t think the role of the marketing planner is going to go away. As a new MIT paper puts it, robots still can’t compete in two very important areas: “People have ‘common sense,’ and they’re ‘flexible.’” Automation is incredibly important, but people will still need to be involved. Premium inventory will continue to be sold through long-standing relationships between experienced professionals. Context will continue to matter. Content will still be king. Technology is speeding up the process and reducing the friction, but no one already working in the TV ecosystem wants to disrupt a process that already works pretty well. We just want to make it better.

There will always be cries to blow up the old system and replace it with something completely new. But TV is an enormous business with the potential to continue to be both entertaining and profitable for a long time to come. Trying to cut corners now may temporarily benefit some of the parties. But unless the whole ecosystem benefits, any “advances” that helps one group by devastating the others will hurt everyone in the long run. Fortunately, those very smart people working in TV are implementing programmatic selling solutions that will benefit TV as a whole. And that’s better than any dystopian science fiction vision.