Is your programmatic working media actually working?

Where does the money go, and who gets what? This is the million-dollar question of Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency.

It strikes a chord with advertisers who want to know if they can get more of their top line budgets into ‘working media’. But for most advertisers there’s a way better programmatic question: Is my programmatic working media, actually working?

Where does the money go?

ISBA’s Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study highlights that publishers receive only half, 51p, of the average advertiser quid spent. The rest goes mainly on agency and tech fees and an “unknown delta” of about 15p that can’t be traced. Not even with the full collaboration everyone involved.

Fig. 1: The ‘unknown delta’ averaged 15%, but ranged up to 86%


Source: ISBA Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study, 2020.


Firstly, 51p may be the best publishers can hope for. We all want publishers to be fairly rewarded for their audiences, but assuming all the various tech providers who take a cut are adding value to the impression, why should they not be paid for the service they provide? They’ve already been negotiated down to wafer thin margins.

Secondly, the unknown delta probably isn’t worth finding. The study put it down to variations in currency exchange and data technicalities. There’s no suggestion that anything untoward is happening.

So rather than ask “What’s working media?” we should ask “Is the media working?”

Better questions:

What are you buying?

  • Only 12% of the thirty million or so impressions in the study data could be matched on the buy and sell sides. That means 88% of the time, you can’t work out what’s going on. That suggests that fraud is likely still a huge problem. It’s essential that any programmatic approach include both ad verification tools and a conscious brand safety strategy.
  • On average, each advertiser in the study appeared on 40,524 websites, over three months. That is very long tail of sites. It may provide for very cheap website retargeting, but if ‘you are the company you keep’, are these all really great brand associations? A defined and deliberate partner strategy makes more sense - even for retargeting.

What’s the role for programmatic?

  • What are you trying to achieve? If it’s prospecting or mid-funnel persuasion, please see the point above and reconsider your partner strategy. If it’s lower-funnel conversions, still see the point above, but also define a re-targeting strategy and start it with suppression audiences, i.e. who you are excluding from your campaigns e.g. recent purchasers. In all cases devise a frequency capping strategy, limit DSPs, think about a reduced set of partners with a potentially better impact.

Does it work?

  • The data and tech folks should be paid fairly, but that does assume that they add value. What is the ROI?
  • Have not just an attribution model, but also an attribution mind-set. Set benchmarks. Understand baselines.
  • The cleanest test of programmatic ROI may be found in turning it off. Either for a time period, or a location, or whatever you can make a like for like comparison against.

In summary

Of course it is relevant to understand what proportion of budget is going to working media, but assuming fraud and brand safety measures are in place, there is better value for advertisers in making sure their programmatic media is working.