The insider’s guide to choosing a programmatic buying platform


targetswitharrows_ss_1920Readers of Marketing Land are surely aware of the opportunity with programmatic advertising, whether from the excellent MarTech Landscape Series or your years of experience. 

The benefits of programmatic are clear: Using data and technology increases efficiency and improves campaign performance. The next big question, though, is how to actually do it. When you’re ready to commit to programmatic advertising, what platform should you use? This is a conversation I’ve had countless times in my role at Google.

It’s a conversation I’ve had so often, in fact, that I’ve developed a set of questions to help you decide what to do. For our customers, these questions assist them to decide between the Google Display Network (GDN) and DoubleClick Bid Manager (DBM), but the principles apply to any programmatic advertising solution — from turnkey platforms to customizable platforms.

Now, I want to start off with a very important caveat: The answers to my questions aren’t binary. They all exist on a sliding scale. If you’re an advertiser looking for a turnkey ad solution, you may want to focus on a platform that is simple and easy to implement. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for more customization, you may want to pick a platform with features that give you, the advertiser, more control.

This distinction isn’t always black and white.

Understanding which features (and what level of control within those features) are true necessities for your business should ultimately determine your course of action.

Here are some questions to help you determine where you fall on that sliding scale.

Question #1: How many inventory providers do you plan on using?

There are a lot of options out there. Seriously. If you’re planning on cobbling together a bunch of them because you want to access many different inventory sources, a customizable platform (usually a Demand Side Platform like DBM) is probably the way to go.

Some things that seem minor, like getting used to where everything is in the user interface, can add up and become huge benefits if you’re currently buying programmatically across a bunch of providers. Consolidating all those different inventory sources under one platform has a number of perks:

  • streamlined workflows;
  • single view of a customer across digital media buys;
  • universal frequency caps; and
  • cross-platform measurement.

Go with a turnkey platform if it’s not imperative to have detailed control over the inventory you’re buying. Find out what controls are available, and if you’re happy with what is (or isn’t) offered, you might have found your provider.

Consider a customizable platform if you want to create your own unique pool of inventory by combining different sources and then have detailed, scalable control over that inventory.

Question #2: Where do you want your ads to show?

Sometimes you can make the decision to use a turnkey or customizable platform based on a question this simple. If you simply want relevant impressions (viewable impressions, ideally), then a turnkey platform can get the job done nicely. But if you have your heart set on a certain placement or publisher, a customizable platform might be the best way to arrange that deal.

For example, I know that we work hard to help both GDN and DBM users access high-quality inventory. But if you’re looking for deals with a very specific placement, DBM is often the only way to get that. The GDN has a lot of the features of a customizable platform, including things like access to third-party exchanges, but you can’t use it to manage 1:1 programmatic deals with publishers like DBM does.

Depending on other platforms you might be considering, there are some important questions to ask:

  • Are the potential placements high-quality?
  • Can I see performance stats for the sites my ads are showing on?
  • Am I getting a good deal on the impressions I’m serving?
  • Is there a chance to grow my reach if my performance is good?

Customizable platforms, like DBM, offer the ability to do direct deals with individual publishers. You may get additional control and transparency in performance on those placements, and they also might be of a higher quality in general. For example, something like a Wall Street Journal home page takeover wouldn’t be available on a turnkey platform (or even an advanced turnkey like the GDN).

Go with a turnkey platform if you’re fine with a general pool of inventory, as long as that inventory meets your performance goals.

Consider a customizable platform if you want direct deals with certain sites, and if you want more control over the sites on which your ads can appear.

Question #3: How serious are you about audience targeting?

I know that the knee-jerk response to this question is always going to be “super-duper serious.” But to be honest, there are varying degrees of “super-duper serious.”

Data is the engine of any programmatic strategy, and there are some cases where an efficient engine will get the job done. Your first-party data, the stuff that you collect yourself, is almost always the starting point of a great audience strategy. This is the type of information you get from Google Analytics or a customer relationship management (CRM) system. Use these insights to create remarketing lists that, even if simple and straightforward, can get the job done.

But customization of your audience lists can get really detailed. You can layer on robust third-party data on top of the data you already have.

For example, in DoubleClick Bid Manager you can onboard a list of existing loyalty card-holding customers, gleaned from your offline CRM system. Then you can enhance that reach by supplementing with third-party data segments of users who represent similar demographics and affinities (using the Audience Composition Report). That’s just one example of a more detailed audience that you can create for very specific purposes.

As I’ve mentioned before, customization will vary by providers. For example, the GDN falls somewhere between turnkey and customizable when it comes to audience targeting. You can use your own data extensively on the GDN, like you can in many turnkey platforms. The GDN can also incorporate your data from Google Analytics or a CRM system. The nuance is that DBM has over 35 third-party data providers, while the GDN focuses primarily on its own proprietary targeting offering.

Go with a turnkey platform if you think your own audience data (combined with whatever custom segments your platform might offer) will get the job done.

Consider a customizable platform if you have some serious insights about your users and want to supercharge them with insights from third parties.

Question #4: What tools do you need to hit your goals?

This question doesn’t really break down as cleanly as the others. Across platforms there will be different tools whose usefulness will ultimately depend on you and your campaigns.

The Google Display Network places more of an emphasis on automation to help you find scale while still aiming to hit performance goals like CPA or ROI targets. DoubleClick Bid Manager and most customizable platforms focus on CPM buying and more fine-tuned controls (while still layering in automation). Both approaches can get you where you want to be, but it starts with knowing what you want and asking what you’ll need to get there.

Also, does your provider have tools in place to ensure viewability or to prevent fraudulent clicks? It’s something we take very seriously at Google, and I know that there’s a long way to go in the programmatic industry as a whole. What tools exist to ensure that you’re getting impressions that are actually valuable?

Questions about measurement methodology, the level of reporting insights offered, transparency into placement performance and clear fees/markups are also important. Although they might not be tools in the traditional sense, they can be integral in helping you decide whether or not that platform is a fit for your business.

Go with a turnkey platform if you want scale and ease of use.

Consider a customizable platform if you want to fine-tune controls across all of your campaigns.


Programmatic can be confusing, so deciding on a platform can seem more daunting than it actually is. Ask yourself the questions above and decide which of these answers are the most important to you, and at the same time think about where your needs might fall on that spectrum from turnkey to customizable.

It’s very possible that a customizable platform might be the answer to your marketing prayers, but it’s just as likely that something toward the turnkey end of the spectrum could help drive your business toward its objectives in a simpler, low-overhead way.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Brad Bender is the Vice President of Product Management, Display & Video Ads at Google. He oversees product management for the Google Display Network, DoubleClick Bid Manager, DoubleClick Campaign Manager, and other emerging display advertising businesses. Brad is a frequent guest speaker at industry events and conferences around the world and has been cited in Ad Age, Business Week, and The Wall Street Journal, among many other publications.



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