Human error is the hidden ghost in the programmatic machine

Bench's Gil Snir argues that when it comes to programmatic buying, agency transparency and ad fraud are not the real issue: the human factor is.

In the world of automated media buying, the performance of an adtech stack is closely scrutinised by both marketers and their agency media buyers. There’s a good reason for this – every kink in the chain wastes valuable ad dollars.

Yet there’s one part of the programmatic supply chain that receives little attention compared to the tech. This crucial part of the media buying process is known as an FHB, otherwise known as the fallible human being.

It’s no secret that every FHB comes pre-programmed with a healthy dose of bias that affects every decision taken. Even with something as automated as programmatic advertising, human bias finds its way into everything – from software algorithm code to strategic channel decisions and individual creative choices.

Two recent research pieces – the ‘Re-evaluating Media’ report by Radiocentre and last year’s ‘AdNation’ study conducted in Australia by ThinkTV – show just how much bias exists in the media buying community.

Unlike digital media, no brand safety tool can protect an advertiser against this most-sophisticated, yet highly fallible piece of biotechnology that is our brain.

Subjectivity and media buying, a 21st century love story

All of these biased choices then have a flow-on effect that the technology further amplifies and exacerbates. As a result, that shiny new martech stack is already tainted even before the proverbial wrapping is removed and the first campaign is launched.

While we all know that bias lies at the heart of human decision making, the real question is – how do you prevent it from negatively impacting digital ad performance?

Biases come in two varieties: conscious and unconscious. The former we are more-or-less aware of and can control, while the latter is more insidious, but both have an impact on the setting of marketing strategy and its execution.

In fact, if we were to run a thought experiment to estimate the cost of human bias in media buying, ad fraud projections would no longer sound as scary.

Where’s channel diversity training for marketers?

Because bias is an inherent part of the human condition, it’s not as exciting to point the finger at ourselves as it is to call out the failure of the latest Facebook update or some embarrassing artificial intelligence blunder.

It’s even harder to eradicate bias as that involves fundamentally changing who we are as humans, which is not something that can be fixed with a few lines of code. Unconscious bias, in particular, is a hot topic in the world of HR and hiring managers receive diversity training to ensure it doesn’t adversely affect the recruitment process.

But why isn’t there the equivalent of such training in media buying?

Why do marketers let the effectiveness of million-dollar advertising budgets depend on the whims of a lone media planner fresh out of university? Or for the success of billion-dollar brand strategies to be held hostage to the biases of a group of FHBs who may have a hidden agenda?

‘Bias safe’ advertising (or bust)

Using technology to ensure that advertising is ‘brand safe’ is now a mandatory part of taking any programmatic campaign live.

Given that the cost of human bias could potentially be just as high as – if not higher than – ad fraud, why don’t marketers have controls in place to make their advertising ‘bias safe’?

With the number of incentives dangled in front of media buyers to use certain channels or ad platforms, creating a ‘bias safe’ advertising environment should be every brand’s top concern.

Implementing such a framework will safeguard against media buying preferences that could be hurting performance. As marketing evolves to become more scientific and data-driven, advertising needs to keep up.

Science as shield against human fallibility

It’s clear that this is important stuff, and brands are increasingly borrowing what is termed an ‘agile methodology’ from the programming world. A flexible system where once-monolithic projects are now broken down into bite-sized deliverables, instantly tested against real user needs. Moving at a fast pace while eliminating personal bias by continuously incorporating user feedback leads to better outcomes, and in turn better marketing.

As marketing gets more complex with each passing year, my prediction for 2018 is that brands and agencies will need to adopt an agile framework to keep pace. We’ll never become less fallible as humans, but science can ensure that our biases remain in check.

It’s time the mad men and women of the media world added lab coats to their coat racks.

Gil Snir is chief commercial officer at Bench.


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