How “programmable” will dominate the 2020 Olympics

by Andrew Eifler, VP Product, Advertiser Technology Group, AppNexus

Since the first modern Olympics played out in Athens in 1896, the Games have been a space for brands to compete against each other – via sponsorships, tie-ins and promotional messaging – in hopes of winning the attention of a global audience.

Moreover, the Olympics have also become a venue where different media technologies vie against each other for ad-spend. Digital media –over two thirds of which is programmatic in major markets – has risen to become one of the two premier formats marketers use to engage Olympic audiences. Only broadcast TV advertising retains a slight edge in terms of its audience size and overall revenue.

For now – at least for this year’s Olympic Games in Rio – all seems business as usual. Broadcast remains king of all ad media, just like it has since 1954.

But that’s going to change. A recent study by eMarketer found that digital ad-spend will narrowly surpass broadcast ad-spend by 2017… before leaving it in the dust, by the year 2020, when broadcast television will account for merely one third of all media advertising.

Given the rapidly evolving digital landscape, I’d argue that digital ad spend could grow even faster than eMarketer predicts. In fact, programmatic technology is transforming in such a way that three years from now, I don’t think we’ll even call it programmatic anymore. The future is programmable.

What is the difference between programmatic and programmable?

Programmatic is like that old Blackberry from 1999: it took the boundaries of what was possible with phones to new levels and introduced new functionality no one had seen before. But a vintage Blackberry is hardly a match for a modern iPhone, which has all the capabilities of a Blackberry, as well as millions of apps that allow consumers to “build off its platform,” customizing their phones to fit their individual lives and needs.

Just like the iPhone lets developers write apps, programmable technology enables developers to customize the functionality of their advertising. Here’s a small taste of what programmable advertising could let marketers do in this year’s Rio Games.

Take, for example, Nike’s sponsorship of Team USA basketball superstar, Kevin Durant. Durant is, without question, one of the most accomplished and widely recognized basketball players on Earth. If you’re a programmable marketer for Nike, and Kevin Durant suddenly – in real time – scores the winning shot and vaults Team USA to victory… you have a lot of instant, customized options at your disposal.

You can serve a custom video creative to his fan base in Oklahoma City, OK that shows highlights of Durant’s long career with the Oklahoma City Thunder, culminating with a video clip of Durant’s winning basket for Team USA in Rio – a basket he made only a few seconds ago. Or you can serve a mobile banner ad to Durant’s new hometown of Oakland, CA, where he’ll be playing as a Golden State Warrior this Fall, one that shows a picture of Durant sinking the winning shot and that features the tagline, “Just Done It. See You in October, Golden State.”

With programmable marketing, all this is possible. By leveraging customized algorithms, marketers can begin targeting individual consumers as they make their way across different devices and media formats. Doing so lets them serve relevant ads in real time – to real people. Not broad audience segments.

In the programmable age, marketers will be able to reach their audiences with customized messages and unmatched precision, and their data will be their most valuable asset. In order for brands to maintain control and ownership over this asset, it is critical that programmable algorithms are proprietary and portable. In other words, marketers’ algorithms should be their IP, and they should be able to plug them into different platforms. Otherwise, black box systems will control how marketers interact with their customers, leaving them vulnerable to their technology partners and competitors.

All of this leaves broadcast advertising trailing in the dust. It operates on the pre-planned assumptions of human media buyers – without the extra speed and agility of artificial intelligence. Marketers and media planners in primetime or cable can’t simply reconvene around a whiteboard and readjust an advertisement so that it matches the immediate circumstances of someone watching a broadcast television commercial. Sorry, but that ad slot has long since been paid for – and it’s already on-air.

Don’t let broadcast television’s dominance at the Summer Games in Rio fool you. Tokyo’s sci-fi skyline already looms on the horizon.


  • AppNexus is the world’s leading independent ad tech platform. Building on top of the AppNexus open platform, our customers maximize yield, monetization and campaign effectiveness. As customers’ technology requirements change, we power their evolution and help them to scale, pivot, and grow.
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