I’m one of three people on MRM’s Programmatic team. Not a lot of people understand exactly what we do or how we do it, but usually what I tell people who ask is:
You know how you’ll have a dream about a specific product and then you wake up and see an ad for it? It’s my job to show you that ad.
On the Programmatic team we build campaigns with very specific parameters set to buy ad space on websites all across the internet, in real-time, without the need for setting up private deals with those publishers. We utilize audience data (which we get from Google and about a million other data providers) to find the people most likely to engage with our clients’ ads. So, for the GRE we’ll target recent grads, webpages that contain the word “MBA” or “Career” (and thousands of related keywords), etc. For Latuda, we may want to target people who are up late at night playing video games and eating food, as these activities can go hand-in-hand with bipolar depression.
It gets much more granular than that “in the field.” This infinite complexity creates a gap between the Programmatic traders and the people seeing the ads. The general public doesn’t fully understand why they’re seeing ads that are so damn relevant to them, and that’s no accident. While we on the Programmatic team use our powers for good, it’s easy to abuse. As uncovered in the investigation into Russian election hacking, we know that Russia went and used programmatic channels to target very specific demographics and show them what’s essentially propaganda disguised as ads and Facebook posts. This helped weaken some centrists’ more liberal views and strengthen most conservative viewpoints to sway voters toward the right. This isn’t all they did, but this is what’s pertinent to this article.
To shrink this gap in understanding between the advertiser and the consumer (and thereby increase people’s understanding of what data is collected), the New York Times bought their own audience lists and served ads to people all over the internet. Not to get them to subscribe to NYTimes.com, but also to show them what kind of data is out there on you and me. The Times’ ads looked like this:
The live ads don’t have the blue text at the bottom, but that is there to show how we use disparate data points to uncover larger psychological and sociological trends. The ads can get even more drilled down, like this one:
Each of these blue explanations is derived from audience data that’s bought and sold billions of times every day on the Open Exchange, which can be thought of like eBay for ads all over the internet. New York Times bought ad space and audience data from data providers like Acxiom (owned by our own parent company IPG). Here’s an example of what Acxiom (and your friendly neighborhood Programmatic team) does:
Acxiom…makes predictions by comparing specific people to a much larger group. For example, it might predict whether you’ll buy an S.U.V. by looking at people who did buy S.U.V.s, then checking whether you live in a similar region, or whether you’re around the same age and share similar interests. If you’re similar, they’ll put you in a bucket that says you’re highly likely to buy an S.U.V.
For us, a lot of that highly personal audience data is anonymized (so no, I don’t know if you personally are about to buy an SUV even though I can show you SUV ads).
In the title, I refer to my own industry, and indeed my own job, as an “ethical tightrope.” The reason behind this is what makes this subject so hot. At MRM we use our data to inspire people to get their Master’s degrees (GRE), come to America (TOEFL), get life insurance (AAA), and improve their mental health (Latuda). We target people who can be helped best by our ads not just because it makes our KPIs look better, but because that’s the entire point of advertising; showing people how they can improve their lives. What NYTimes did that’s so hot is show the public how easily we can find out personal information about them based on seemingly innocuous points of data. And that this is just the beginning.
You might not be able to fully stop publishers from getting your data, but at least you know a little more of how it works, and why Programmatic is set to become a $69 billion industry by next year.
If that’s not hot as hell, I don’t know what is!