In this exclusive piece for ExchangeWire, Wayne Blodwell (pictured), founder and CEO, TPA Digital, reflects on an article written for this very publication nearly a decade ago, which has always stuck with him all these years later, and asserts that the controversial stance put forward actually still rings true today.
My good-friend and ex colleague Ben Downing wrote a seminal and (at-the-time) controversial opinion piece nine years ago on ExchangeWire to retire the planner/buyer role in media agencies. Ben wrote that programmatic would replace a lot of what a planner buyer did at the time – namely a tonne of admin – which is better managed by technologies, but that their actual planning role was of increasing value.
Ben was clearly very right in his opinion piece in 2013. In 2022 I’m here to claim that the programmatic trader is the modern-day planner buyer, and that their roles should be made redundant. However, just how Ben asserted that the planning capability was necessary, today, a trader’s capability and understanding are needed more than ever.
‘Do you know any good programmatic traders?’
A question asked many times over recent years; the skillset has been in high demand, but why? Well, programmatic traders understand the technologies, suppliers, and data which the majority of ad budget is now spent through and, owing to this high demand and short supply (because it’s still a newish field relative to all other fields), salaries have rocketed.
As someone who used to be a programmatic trader, the role sounds glamorous. Telling your friends you’re a trader is pretty f*cking cool. The reality though is that your time is often spent updating line-item pacing, applying something manually in the DSP, or fielding an annoying question from a client team member, who hasn’t bothered to learn the basics but thinks they know a lot.
What skills are now in demand, if not a trader?
Ten percent of a good trader is their ability to set up/adjust line items and field annoying questions, which can typically take 50% of their time. The other 90% is their analytical, technical and commercial ability - looking into data and observing trends that subsequently impact campaign spending. The challenge now is that a human can’t compete, for the most part, in the optimisation field, versus the incredible advancements made by machine learning in recent years. Machines can compute hundreds of variables for patterns 24/7; obviously a human cannot do this.
What tasks does a trader fulfil?
Whenever I read or hear about a company who will use AI to replace human jobs, I roll my eyes. I’m sure many of you do the same – it sounds so fluffy – a narrative being spun out of some venture capital pitch deck.
It’s also, largely, rubbish. Machines will not replace humans; they will serve alongside them – but how exactly? I’ve listed a handful of programmatic trader tasks and split them by human and machine – this is to highlight how the two can work in harmony. Often the case won’t be binary, but this is for illustrative purposes only.
Are humans doomed in digital media?
Absolutely not. I have a lot of friends who work in finance, an industry which is far more advanced in its application of machines yet, according to the US bureau of labour statistics, the demand for people is increasing, and finance will have 8% more roles between 2020 and 2030, as well as those roles demanding higher than ever salaries (above that of inflation). A large part of finance is growing and innovative (think fintech, crypto, digital in general etc.). Before you can use machines to help you, you need to create, explain, educate, and sell it in the right way.
As Ben said, a programmatic approach can free you. This time it’s not of planner buyers, it’s of programmatic traders – something which advertisers, who are considering in-housing or restructuring their agency relationships, should especially consider.