I attended AdExchanger’s semi-annual Programmatic I/O conference last week to absorb the latest in industry talk and get a pulse check on the health and wellness of the programmatic ecosystem. This show was illuminating in that I found signs of both enthusiasm and beleaguerment in equal measure. It felt, in short, like a meaningful corner of the industry realizing it was growing up, for real.

I remember the early days of programmatic. They were heady. People like me believed, and I’d now say rightly, that we were changing the world. (Ok, changing display advertising – back then, anyway – but still.) It felt revolutionary. I, and many others, felt an almost religious zeal in transforming an industry.

But here we are, more than ten years in, and it’s time to take stock. It’s time to appreciate the good, recognize and address the bad and have some hard but important conversations about the evolving role of programmatic and the future of advertising more broadly –  in short, to acknowledge that we’ve made some good strides and learned a lot but to ask ourselves, “what should come next?”

So, the good. There was an entire conference track dedicated to AI, where the conversation graduated past, “it’s the future!!”, to, “What is it? What can it do? What can’t it do?” There were marketers on stage, like Nordstrom and Luxottica, who shared their stories of programmatic progress. There was more talk of the humans on the other side of the screen. Not in those words exactly, but there was a more explicit recognition that acronyms and real time decisioning are no good if consumers hate us.

And then there was the bad. In brief, I felt a general sense of weariness onstage as panel after panel discussed the truly annoying forces that plague programmatic – fraud, viewability, the “quality” question, transparency, an opaque and suspiciously crowded supply chain. And frankly, there still was not enough discussion about the consumer experience amidst the Ads.txt conversations.

I left the conference with so many questions, and happy to be back in my analyst seat to pursue them in my research over the coming weeks and months. Questions like:

  • What SHOULD advertising do? For marketers? Publishers? Consumers?
  • What does it really mean for marketers and consumers to have “conversations”?
  • Where do “programmatic” and “advertising” begin and end?
  • What are the right organizational and relationship models for managing programmatic?
  • What is the next rev of technology that supports the next rev of advertising? Is it time to start re-thinking our notions of what “ad tech” means?

Overall, I am excited about advertising’s future. But there’s plenty to dig into to make its potential match reality. I look forward to sharing research on these concepts and more!