In previous years, programmatic vendors made wildly ambitious claims about their technologies and capabilities, confident that no one could counter them.

This was due to the fact only internal (and sophisticated) operators could use these platforms. Today, with the rise of greater transparency and self-service access, most vendors (the genuine ones) are making themselves open and allowing all customers operate their platform. This, in many ways, is the ultimate end game for those calling for an open and measurable programmatic landscape.

Now marketers no longer have their hands tied. They can choose from a wealth of options when using programmatic, from the least hands-on to doing it themselves. And regardless of the desired outcome, whether it’s ROI or brand awareness, the choice is highly important, and one that rightly remains a contentious issue within this industry.

There are still great benefits to the managed service; it’s the least hands-on approach, where it is the tech partners’ responsibility to decide which tools, products, and first, second and third party data to use. It is a seamless process executed by people who are fluent in the technology, and therefore able to roll out campaigns with ease.

In contrast, there is the much-debated option of bringing ad tech in-house. It is unbeatable in terms of transparency and control, given that marketers can see end-to-end what is going on and where their budget is going. They can control both the marketing and the acquisition funnels and retain the ownership of their first-party data.

The dilemma

However, both these options are not without their challenges. Managed service makes it harder to gain a holistic view across all the different channels deployed by the marketer, and this, in turn, makes it harder to figure out what is working and adding true value to the marketing plan.

On the other hand, bringing ad tech in-house may be an option for marketers determined to learn the ins and outs of programmatic. But this means by default there will be an element of trial and error as they implement new strategies and test out new data sets.

New skills will need to be found, and in many cases recruited. Even big advertisers who brought digital in-house years ago, like search and social, are discovering it is not an easy process to bring together platforms and skills required to operate programmatically. One reason is that technology develops at such a rapid pace that doubling down on one programmatic provider means missing out in some cases on the most recent developments and launches. Once the technology is embedded into an organisation it is often hard to unwind. Also, agencies add huge value to brands, given their experience of managing multiple tech vendors across multiple channels and sectors.

Marketers with a good grip on technology can aggregate all their learnings into a single point, and rather than relying on back-and-forth communication between brand and provider, they can design and refine their own campaigns implementing these learnings with intuitive, easy-to-use software.

Importantly, in the fight against the duopoly of Facebook and Google, taking programmatic in-house offers a first-hand understanding of what is working and what is working transparently. These merits should, of course, be judged against the brand’s objectives and ambitions, combined with the size of its team. One key challenge is recruiting the right staff with a unique set of skills, such as data scientists, campaign managers, and campaign optimisers, who must work together in an omnichannel approach.

The other big question mark is the technology itself. Only by carrying out a thorough audit of the tech can marketers ensure it will suit their requirements for at least two to three years, and therefore eliminate the need to constantly retrain staff on new software and user interfaces. Part of this auditing process is simply asking potential providers the right questions: how complex is it to use? What will the solution deliver for them in terms of marketing metrics? How long will it take to set up, and what will the process be? Are the claims of the provider backed up by customer testimonials? Happily, though, choosing the self-serve option means media agencies are still on hand to help make decisions, appoint a vendor and manage the transition.

Programmatic is no longer a black box. Tech vendors in today’s landscape are working to provide brands with a range of tools so they can pick exactly what suits them, whether they want support from their tech partner or feel ready to do it alone. At least marketers now have choice on their side. What was once confusing and opaque is now open and transparent if you pick the right vendor who is willing to allow you to drive their platform.