For decades, science fiction writers and Hollywood have delivered tall tales about artificial intelligence originally designed to take over the mundane tasks for humans eventually launching attempts – sometimes successfully – to take things over. And through it all, the hero of the story must rediscover the humanity inside him or herself in order to prevail.

In the programmatic advertising space, we’re in the expositional flashback phase of that tale, where the technology is developing, and the humans involved haven’t yet fully realized the true potential – or calamity – in what lies ahead. I realized this while speaking on a Client and Agency Panel at Conversant’s Annual Sales Conference (who should be commended for bringing client and ageny-side people on board to give our point of view). Programmatic buying is at it’s tipping point, where it’s about to become mainstream (even print is getting in on the action) and deliver on it’s promise of automating much of what used to be solely a human decision: when and where to insert an ad in front of an audience.

But as powerful of an automation tool as it is, there are still three essential human elements that need to remain well, human, for programmatic to be truly game changing:

Goals are intrinsically human, and should be communicated by them

In the movies, the robots always have the simple goal of eliminating the humans (which is a bit preposterous when you think about it, because what will they do once they win?). But we as marketers have much more complex – and often conflicting – objectives. And whether you’re working with an agency trading desk or a managed partner solution, those need to be effectively communicated to the team managing the buy. You need to clearly prioritize goals, and provide or agree upon KPI’s by which you’ll measure those goals. And in speaking with many people on all sides of the programmatic buying landscape, the best way to do that is through human interaction: in-person meetings to define goals, memoralized in writing with a brief, RFP, or plan that acts as the guidelines for your campaign. The computers can’t achieve your goals until you tell them what they are, and how to prioritize. And if everyone on your team isn’t in lock step, the computers will be confused.

Machines make choices. Humans make decisions.

Machines understand the if-then logic of rules, and choose whether or not to bid on a specific user far faster than any human can. But they can’t make decisions unless you provide them with the logic to guide those decisions. You need a smart human to set the rules of the bidding structure based on the objectives, with very clear logic to prioritize multiple KPI’s. As the data accumulates, and the algorithms adjust their bids to hit your goals, you’ll need a human to review the data to look for patterns and set up new rules, and new logic, to enable the machines to make better choices over time. Many platforms are set up to learn over time and create their own new rules, but they need humans to review to decide fi those new rules are achieving the right objectives.

­Don’t forget the creative side

Most people involved in programmatic buying are probably left-brain brain people, crunching numbers to see patterns and using logic and reasoning to come to conclusions. But don’t forget that the consumer you’re reaching is human, and will most likely act based on an emotional trigger that happens to be very well-timed by your programmatic buy. So as you adjust the rules of your bids – the timing, the segment targeting, the sequences – make sure you’re working side-by-side with the right-brained people – your creative – to make sure the messaging speaks directly to that moment in the consumer’s path to purchase. Computers can optimize our buys, but they can’t write copy to appeal to our emotions.

 

Which brings us back to our science fiction story. During the climax, when the audience is sure the machines are going to take over (which by many media prognostications, programmatic should take over soon), some emotional tie to humanity – a love interest, the future legacy of a family, etc. – inevitably gives the main character the motivation or the knowledge to defeat the onslaught, and go on to rebuild and live happily ever after. Programmatic buying fits snugly into this fairy tale: if we fully realize the importance of the human side to it now, we can harness it to produce some pretty amazing results, and truly revolutionize the way we plan and buy media – both digital and traditional. And the machines will work for us, not the other way around.