Taking the ubiquitous programmatic ad-buying model, attaching that to the biggest talking point in digital publishing at present, native advertising, it would only seem logical that your end result would be either the former or latter version 2.0.

‘Programmatic native’ is the basic addition of a rapid-growing ad format and the near standard way of purchasing online inventory – a hybrid which has sprung up over the last year, ready to give publishers more food for thought when it comes to their site monetisation.

It’s actually hard to explain why something so up-to-date in terms of its core offering would take so long to break into the mainstream. But it’s here and probably will be for some time yet.

Some of the more interesting talking points linked to programmatic native are around current levels of adoption and how much of the $58.6 billion spent on digital advertising this year it will seize. Because the figure, based on current levels of usage, is probably lower than many might be led to believe.

Released on Wednesday (July 15), a survey of representatives from the top 20 UK media agencies including Maxus, Mediacom, Carat and Havas by native ad group Adyoulike revealed that a full 100% see programmatic native as having strong potential. It’s certainly good news on the awareness front.

The revelation caused Adyoulike MD Francis Turner to brand programmatic native as a “massive opportunity” while predicting budgets to “skyrocket” once creativity and relevance were instilled in campaigns.

Actual adoption and to some extent trust of this is some way off, however. Just 8% of the money spent via agency trading desks is being dedicated to programmatic native, which is a fair distance off native units in general on 18%. Somewhere, it seems, there are barriers delaying the breakthrough of something that should be 2015 all over.

The missing link

Commenting in the report, Turner cited the OpenRTB 2.3 standard for native ad units being traded in real time as key to allowing naturally-fitting placements to be delivered through programmatic and at scale, thus aiding their ability to take a greater chunk of digital spend.

To take a step backwards, it appears that part of the problem is in a discrepancy between the main benefits of programmatic selling and native advertising.

Programmatic involves the use of software to purchase and sell advertising without any of the negotiations or manual insertion required by other methods of exchange. Native on the other hand refers to an advert that takes the form and function of the page on which it is placed. Customisation is prevalent with native formats, and that refreshing aspect of having ‘something different’ appear on the page appears to be going down well with readers.

In short, one is machine-based, while the other uses a vital level of human awareness to find the best place for an ad on a publisher’s website.

Where this creates problems is in having a native campaign do exactly what it’s supposed to: take in as much as possible about the environment on which it sits, including the content it supports, to provide a seamless link between editorial and advertorial.

Because how does a machine recognise that something isn’t ‘on brand’?

Fortunately the experts are on the case. A spate of native ad groups have started to hire staff that work solely with programmatic in order to pounce on the “massive opportunity” early doors.

Andy Smith, the new head of programmatic at native ad specialist Vibrant Media, explains the situation at hand:

“The offline negotiation and customisation commonly associated with native ad campaigns is no longer needed with programmatic native ad campaigns. Whilst that’s one of the greatest benefits, it also poses as one of the greatest challenges.

“With programmatic native ad campaigns, the industry is not only delegating the pricing and buying of campaigns to computers, it’s also delegating the responsibility for ensuring the nativity and relevance of ad campaigns to computers.

“However sophisticated – and the tech behind programmatic campaigns is extremely impressive – computers are just machines. Right now, only a few native ad formats can be programmatically placed in a manner that truly complements the editorial environment in which they sit, to fit naturally and relevantly within editorial pages, allowing consumers to experience a non-intrusive brand experience.”

Accounting for issues

Where Andy’s concerned, the solution lies in adding a bit of complexity to something that has already removed a great deal, and providing brands with an extra few layers of safety while adoption grows.

Vibrant’s ad formats are targeted on contextual relevance as well as the user’s own behavioural data, which the company believes can inject self-awareness into the format. At the same time, to quell any concerns about how machines go about their business, everything is ran through a safety mechanism to prevent ads from being placed next to non-brand enhancing content.

Vibrant is also having to look into growing concerns about the viewability of ads that are traded through the programmatic model. It’s something that the model’s own forefathers will have been made well aware of, and long before some of the big agencies and brands entered the frame.

“Programmatic campaigns really started out by running on publishers’ ‘remnant’ inventory – which is what it sounds like; inexpensive online real estate that doesn’t get seen, either because it’s on pages which aren’t often visited or they are served above or below the fold,” Smith comments.

“More attention must be given to the viewability of ad formats chosen for programmatic campaigns.”

Considering the sudden influx of private ad marketplaces that are now priding themselves on trading placements that are 100% viewable and rid of fraud, it will only be a matter of time before those behind the programmatic platforms take note. It does of course raise a valid point about the detection of something that is largely machine-led, although human intervention is never far away.

As Andy states, programmatic is not 100% about the “blind buy”. There are real people behind the screens that can change where an ad is being seen. But part of the luxury of programmatic and real-time bidding is that ability to hand things over to the computers – to have everything exchange at the fastest pace possible in order to capitalise on those special yet increasingly brief moments online.

Yet in things like native, it’s clear that programmatic – set to be worth $32.6 billion by 2017 – is not rid of flaws.