Since the first banner ad was served in 1994, digital media has been on a steady course of evolution.

In the past 15 years, the ways in which digital media has been bought, sold and measured changed at a reasonable pace, making it fairly easy for advertisers and publishers to keep up with the latest trends. However, the last six years, specifically, have seen a rapid shift in the digital media ecosystem.

New technology-based solutions have continued to propagate in an effort to provide buyers and sellers with more efficient and effective ways to buy digital media, and the explosive growth of the Internet has provided publishers with an unprecedented amount of ad inventory.

To manage the massive scale of this digital adverting jungle, new technologies are now easing the process of buying and selling advertising through automation or, as it’s termed today, programmatic.

Providing Scale, Insight

The true value in programmatic isn’t in the automation, but in its ability to provide scale and insight. It also provides a means to merge together massive amounts of data from disparate sources, empowering marketers with an almost endless supply of information to communicate with their target audiences.

While all of this technology is remarkable, it can be overwhelming. In a world of artificial intelligence, algorithms and machine learning, how is the average marketer supposed to keep up?

Because of the complexity of programmatic, there has been some reticence by advertisers and publishers to fully embrace it. For them, it may seem easier to stick with what they know, but that is a shortsighted proposition. The future of advertising is programmatic. And the future is here.

So how does a marketer begin to break down, understand and leverage the advantages that programmatic provides?

Initial Step

First, marketers must recognize their organizational strengths and weaknesses, and determine if their teams have the tools and know-how to tackle programmatic in-house.

Programmatic advertising programs are highly technical and analytical, and the individuals who manage them are uniquely skilled to pull the right levers and make the right decisions on behalf of a brand. Weigh your options and consider if your in-house team is — or could be — savvy enough to deliver on your omnichannel business objectives. You may need to find an outside partner to help you navigate this constantly shifting landscape.

Learning Opportunities

Once you get into the game, think about what’s realistic for your brand.

American Express recently drew considerable attention to programmatic advertising and its progression by issuing a request for proposal (RFP) indicating the company would like to evolve its digital ad spend to 100 percent programmatic. The company later acknowledged this to be an exercise in innovative thinking — and noted the change  won’t happen tomorrow.

American Express understands real change takes time, but by putting their programmatic stake in the ground, it is establishing itself as a forward-thinking advertiser. It knows there’s significant change coming in advertising and it is stepping up to the challenge.

Your brand might not be American Express, in size or stature. But this company’s declaration is a clear signal that change is coming, and if you don’t act fast you could be left behind.

Get Prepared

There are a few simple things advertisers can do to prepare for the programmatic world and to optimize really smart, targeted digital campaigns. Breaking it down in five easy to follow steps, here is how an advertiser can raise its programmatic game:

  1. Data — Knowing what data to leverage is key to programmatic success. Each campaign should drive results that make your data set smarter and more effective for current or future campaigns.
  2. People — Programmatic is not automatic. Engage with professionals who can analyze your data and solve your digital marketing challenges, not just execute campaigns. Your partners should understand your goals and advise you on how best to optimize performance to meet them within your budget.
  3. Technology — Technology is the backbone that makes programmatic possible. When evaluating partners and platforms, don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. Get a grasp on a partner’s media footprint and inventory sources. Your campaign success depends on reaching the right audience.
  4. Creative — Don’t set it and forget it. Optimize your campaign performance with a stable of creative that you can test, test, and test some more. Today, creative can’t be one size fits all. Having the right creative is critical to deliver maximum performance.
  5. Analytics — Use real-time analytics optimized by real people to ensure maximum campaign performance. The information uncovered in analytics creates a more robust data set to keep feeding the campaign continuing to make it more efficient and effective.

Following this basic outline, marketers can jump in the programmatic water and get wet. Programmatic is like a rising tide: Advertisers need to learn to swim quickly or face an uncertain future.