Buying display media in advance or in real-time: What you need to know

Where should you be investing your marketing resources? Columnist Grace Kaye explains the ins and outs of programmatic to help you understand which buying model is right for you.

ss-teach-learn-thinkOnline display marketing is confusing. It’s a never-ending list of platforms, funnels, features, acronyms and measurements to get your head around. To make matters more complicated, a new type of buying has risen in the past decade that lets you purchase ad space in real-time: programmatic buying.

Before you dive into the online tutorials and start on-boarding programmatic for your marketing team, let me give you a quick summary of what it is and some guidelines to help you determine whether it’s worth your investment.

What is reservation buying?

Reservation buying, or direct buying, is the traditional way of buying media. It’s basically where you speak directly with a publisher and “reserve” a minimum number of impressions in advance for a specific run length at a predefined price — just like how you would buy media offline in print and TV.

What is programmatic display?

In programmatic buying, instead of speaking directly to a publisher, you buy ad space via a Demand Side Platform (DSP) such as MediaMath, AdRoll or DoubleClick Bid Manager. You use the interface to set what type of ad space you want to buy, and when an ad space becomes available that meets your criteria (such as what device, time, day, content), you enter an auction, and the highest bidder serves the ad.

This all happens in real-time on an impression by impression basis, while a page is loading.

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Programmatic buying model.

How do they differ?


Real-time changes vs. booked impressions

Buying ad space programmatically means you buy ad space on an impression-by-impression basis. This means you have complete control of your ad buying to optimize appropriately in real time.

If one type of targeting is underwhelming, you can pause it, and if you discover a specific niche that is working well — e.g., tablet targeting between 7 pm and 10 pm — then you can expand that targeting.

On the other hand, buying ad space via reservation means you have a different type of control. You can guarantee a certain number of eyeballs will see your ads and that your ad will always appear on a specific page for a predefined running time — e.g., the homepage of Time Out.

Which you choose depends on whether you want the flexibility to progress a campaign using real-time optimization or whether you need the security of a guaranteed appearance on specifically chosen sites.


Auction-based vs. publisher relationship

Buying ad space programmatically means display is bought using an auction, and so the cost is always at market price. This free-market approach usually means ad space is cheaper than other methods.

In comparison, buying ad space via a publisher costs you in terms of time and energy to liaise, negotiate and maintain publisher relationships. Programmatic buying cuts out that middle man and means you aren’t at the mercy of the publishers who take up time and effort but also could be charging higher amounts for ad space.

The only downside is that you must be flexible when buying ad space programmatically as you won’t be able to have a confirmed number of impressions for a confirmed price.

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Programmatic vs. people-based buying.


Content-focused vs. User-focused

Traditional/reservation/direct/advanced buying is where we choose specific sites that we want our ads to appear on, usually because they are appropriate for our brand and target audience.

Buying specific sites through programmatic is possible, including via private marketplaces, but what’s really is cool is that we can target the user as well as the content. This happens via third-party data providers, such as Google, BlueKai, Visual DNA and Exelate, which group people together based on their online user behavior and allow you to bid for specific groups for a small fee.

This is advantageous as it means we can focus on who we are targeting rather than waiting for that target audience to visit a specific site. This means you save money by only casting your net to people who are highly relevant to your brand on affordable ad space rather than having to wait for those users to visit a handful of relevant sites.

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Audience vs. content targeting: Icon made by Freepik from

Inventory availability:

But reservation buying is the only place to buy premium ad space, right?

You may be thinking: yes, programmatic is data rich and an efficient way to spend your marketing budget, but you won’t be able to reach those premium ad spots. This was once a fair opinion as reservation buying is known for being the method to purchase high-traffic, high-impact ad slots such as homepage takeovers and skins.

Meanwhile, publishers have historically used programmatic to sell off the inventory they couldn’t sell in reservation deals. Therefore, programmatic has the reputation as the arena to buy cheaper — but less impactful — ad space.

However, the benefits of programmatic, such as the real-time data and the ability to buy and sell inventory without the middlemen, means that premium inventory has slowly become more available in the programmatic space. This has been via the private marketplace, and more recently, buyers have gotten an option to buy premium inventory via programmatic guaranteed (also known as programmatic direct).

Where previously you might have missed out on premium ad space, with the rise of programmatic guaranteed and the private marketplace, this is becoming less of a barrier.

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Inventory type available.

So, what buying model should you use?

It comes down to what working model you are prepared for; if you need the control and certainty that media plans can provide, then stick with that traditional buying method.

However, if you want to run display campaigns where you can save time by using a platform rather than liaising with a publisher, can spend your budget efficiently through optimization, and have real-time data for reporting and insights, then programmatic is exactly where you need to invest your marketing resources.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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