CMO interview: Why programmatic actually matters to brand marketers

MediaMath's global CMO talks about the next generation of data-driven marketing, the role of marketing leadership and how she's proving the value of the marketing function

MediaMath global CMO, Joanna O’Connell, has spent the past 10 years evangelising programmatic media buying and its significance in making customer-led, data-driven marketing a reality.

“Programmatic is so much bigger than its humble origins, and it can’t be seen as a line item on a media plan,” she tells CMO. “It has to be a fundamentally different way of managing digital media – buying, optimising and measuring. That requires longer-term thinking and a higher level of strategic conversation. Programmatic is a new way of operating.”

O’Connell should know. Starting her career in digital agencies, she was exposed to programmatic early on while media buying for US-based bank, CapitalOne, and quickly became a convert. From there, O’Connell was put in charge of establishing the first programmatic buying practice inside Razorfish in 2008, creating a centre of excellence focused on driving real-time, data-driven marketing at scale.

She says it was a natural progression to then become a principal analyst at Forrester, researching, writing and talking about audience targeting and programmatic buying for three years before switching to trade publisher, AdExchanger, where she launched a research and consulting practice.

O’Connell became Mediamath’s first global CMO six months ago, closing the loop from early believer, client and influencer to marketing leader at the helm of an independent programmatic ad tech provider. She oversees a US-based team as well as regional teams across Asia-Pacific, EMEA and South America.

O’Connell caught up with CMO to talk about the skills and strategic focus needed by modern CMOs, why programmatic is such a game-changer for brand marketers, and how she’s combining storytelling and data-driven marketing in her latest role.

Programmatic has quickly become a buzzword. But what is it marketing leaders need to actually know about programmatic, versus what the agencies will do and deliver for them?

O’Connell: What really matters are the fundamentals of programmatic and what they allow a marketer to do. Programmatic is the automation of process and decisioning, powered by data, and driven by machines. At its most basic and at the core, it’s about automating a process that frankly wasn’t very efficient.

One of the things programmatic enables is machines that represent the buy and sell sides to talk to each other, taking the physical processing side out. That’s helpful. You still have a strong human element around thinking strategically about what you want to do, as well as pricing, but where there were previously lots of points of physical friction, these are now removed.

Much more interesting and powerful, however, is the automation of decisioning. In the old world, you’d get a package from a publishers consisting of a bunch of placements, and that’s what you got. In the world of programmatic, you as the buyer have a piece of technology acting on your behalf, making individualised, impression-level decisions driven by what you know about the user or the impression. The more intelligent you are with data, the better the job your machine can do for you. It allows a marketer to be strategic about making individualised decisions on how to communicate with users. It’s game-changing.

Even in the case where you have a more traditional buying arrangement, the buyer still has the ability to do decisioning and through data, becomes better informed about what they want to do. That’s the real power of programmatic – doing a smarter job of finding and communicating with audiences in all the places they are, at scale. And it’s being able to flexibly adapt as consumers change, so as they change, the message can change.

Should programmatic be perceived as a way of reducing the cost of digital advertising?

While it’s a more efficient way of digital media buying, the purpose is not to just do things cheaper. Yes, there is opportunity to streamline your technology stack, to make sure everyone in the value chain provides value. But the answer isn’t cheaper advertising, it’s more efficient advertising.

If I care most about achieving a high return on ad spend, then what I should focus on is making sure I buy the impressions of users with high response rates that spend a lot of money when they put something in my shopping cart. The only way to do that is to make more intelligent decisions about what they’re worth to me, and buy accordingly.

How are you seeing programmatic change the agency/brand dynamic?

Programmatic has been disruptive to the agency/client relationship. Some agencies moved fast into programmatic, adopting and getting good at it early, when their clients may not have entirely understood what is happening.

That said, as programmatic becomes more scaled and as brand marketers start to understand its potential to positively impact them, they’re asking more questions. For better or worse, they’re questioning the value of different parties they work with, including agencies.

Simultaneously, you’re seeing marketers seeing enormous value in first-party data. The better they are with that, the better they’ll do in the long run in terms of delivering good customer experiences and that’s a competitive advantage. Quickly grabbing onto the idea of owning and managing their data has been disruptive. Increasingly, brands are going direct to technology companies, picking the technologies they use, owning the relationship, contract, and driving the ship.

Along with that, we’ve seen a move towards brands wanting to own execution. That is an important question. To do this stuff well requires a serious commitment in terms of time, energy, resources and skills. That’s what agencies are good at and where they can help. They understand media, publishing, the concept of channel mix, and increasingly they understand technologies. Agencies can be great partners in strategy of course, but in execution as well.

I do think some marketers that have made moves to bring these things ‘in-house’ are really most interested in ownership of strategy, in data management, then execution is in partnership with a partner. But I won’t sugarcoat it, agencies have a long way to go in becoming experts in programmatic and some of them are getting burnt.

How does this impact the services agencies need to provide to brands?

What’s increasingly clear is when you’re serving enterprise-level clients, they need enterprise-level service. That means a much deeper, larger relationship, where you fundamentally understand their business and wrap yourself around them to help them think long-term about achieving business outcomes through digital marketing, and can help them get there. The agencies need to do the same thing.

As programmatic becomes the dominant way of media buying, will we see marketing tech and ad tech stacks and capabilities come together?

They totally will. And kudos to Adobe for recognising pretty early on that a proper marketing technology stack was both broad and cohesive. As an analyst, I watched Adobe acquire a range of interesting capabilities – a DMP, Omniture, video and search platforms, campaign management system – and right there, you have the conversion of ad tech and marketing tech.

A customer is a customer, a human is a human, and they don’t care if it’s a display ad or email, if it’s coming from the same brand it has to be relevant and connected to other experiences they’re having with that brand. The only way is via interconnected technology. What happens on your website or owned experience must necessarily relate to a display ad, or paid channel.

The question then becomes how do these worlds come together. You’re definitely seeing this happening. For MediaMath, the answer is to be wherever our customers are and enable them to use whatever technology it is they want to use. We went early to marketing tech leaders like IBM and Oracle to ensure our technologies could talk to each other, so what’s happening in email can be amplified by social or display. It doesn’t mean we have to be buy or be bought. We do acquire when it makes sense, but we’re just as comfortable creating integrations with the whole ecosystem.

With all this technology coming into the mix, how far do marketers need to go in terms of becoming technologists?

I don’t think the CMO needs to be a technologist, necessarily. The CMO has to have access to great technical people, and it’s an interesting to see the debate between CMO versus CIO and how those worlds are bumping into one another. You’re also starting to see the rise of the marketing technologist, chief digital officer, or someone in a centralised role thinking about the marketing technology stack and decisions writ large.

What the CMO needs to understand is data-driven marketing is the future, what that means, and how they thenorganise a team to deliver on that promise.

As MediaMath’s first CMO, what does your marketing strategy look like?

There are two things: One is the opportunity to create a strategic marketing function, the other is the challenge of educating the market about what our brand can offer. MediaMath is known as a demand-side platform [DSP] but isn’t really understood in much depth beyond that. In other words, it’s a great company with a messaging problem.

The most important priority is as a storyteller, helping MediaMath up its game and get credit in the market for the belief system that underpins everything we do, for the great work we’re doing for clients, and for the innovations we’re driving in the market.

The other role of the CMO is to be a revenue engine. I believe there is power in data-driven marketing to change business results. A huge, ongoing focus is to continually improve our efforts to be great data-driven marketers and a revenue engine.

What metrics are you employing to prove marketing’s worth?

One is around getting better credit for what we do in the market, and there are all kinds of metrics for that, such as making sure if we only got mentioned in research three times in 2015, we get five times in 2016. That’s not explicitly tied to revenue, but it’s critical to show how we’re moving the needle.

Secondly, from a more business standpoint, we are 100 per cent aligned with revenue targets. We have a deep understanding of what the sales team is tasked with accomplishing, we know what the folks in product expect to see in terms of revenue, and we’re focused on making those things happen.

Data has become the essential ingredient for customer-led marketing. How are you making sure you have a comprehensive data strategy in place so data can be used effectively?

It does necessitate some unglamorous work inside the organisation around understanding all the places in which you can touch a potential prospect or customer, making sure that data is clean, and depending on the stream, looking at ways to connect them together. It’s a lot of annoying process stuff. It’s not perfect - I don’t think it’s perfect for anyone - but it’s a huge area of focus. I also recognise there are lots of folks across the organisation that influence and help make that happen.

What changes have you made to the marketing function to reflect this data-driven, technology-fuelled approach?

The skillset in the marketing function is very diverse, but I have the right mix of skills to accomplish a very diverse set of tasks. Specifically to data-driven piece, yes we have those skills but there is lot of opportunity for mentorship there, and helping those thinking about the tools we use, data cleansing, lead quality and process with the sales team, and how we report on report our metrics.

What are your top priorities for the next 12 months?

Coming in, I spent time thinking about ideological battles we want to take on us company in 2016 and formalising them. We are taking these six themes we’ve defined and turning those into simple, POVs [points of view] that we disseminate around the company to use in a wide range of ways.

Firstly, there are those ideological battles I want to fight, such as the power of being a neutral player and what that allows us in the market and the benefits to the marketer. Another is the value of having a single platform in which many channels can run.

Also important this year is making sure people inside the organisation understand the value of marketing as a function, and how it helps them achieve business success. There’s lots of room to prove marketing’s value to a company selling marketing technology.

What are the top skillsets CMOs now need to be successful?

You must lead by example. You have to be a person with a huge amount of personal and professional integrity, and someone who practices what you preach. You also need to be a master negotiator to be able to work across an executive team that has a wide variety of goals, aims and mandates.

It’s also about being flexible and adaptive. It’s important to know that just because it worked that way last year, doesn’t mean it’s going to work this year.

And you have to be human – never forget at other end of the screen is a person. When we talk about programmatic, we talk about technology and data, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to help marketers create desire, loyalty and advocacy.

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