Programmatic v. Direct: Which Advertising Method is Better?

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According to eMarketer, 86.5% of the total US digital display advertising market is expected to be done through programmatic advertising in 2021. If most digital advertising is done programmatically by an overwhelming majority and direct advertising is slowly fading away, then why should marketers even consider direct advertising? Well, the answer to that is not as black and white as one might think. 

Direct advertising may have limitations compared to the marketing monolith that is programmatic advertising, but it still has considerable advantages that tend to be overlooked. Should you completely throw away your ad spend intended for programmatic advertising in favor of the road less traveled? No, but you should consider both advertising methods despite what the majority of marketers tend to implement within the advertising world dominated by Google and Facebook Ads. 

Programmatic advertising and direct advertising in the modern marketplace may feel like a David vs. Goliath-esque clash, but reading between the lines may suggest otherwise.

Digital advertising has never been a “one size fits all”. It will continue to change, revolutionize, and reinvent itself as marketers struggle to adapt to those constant changes. 

But let’s be real here, programmatic and direct advertising: which advertising method is better?

Defining the Methods

Programmatic: Programmatic advertising is the process in which advertisers purchase ads through an automated auction formally called real-time-bidding (RTB). This process is quick and requires minimal effort from the advertiser besides setting preferences, parameters, and requirements ranging from price maximums to targeted audiences. The process is largely automated and can become as complicated as one’s heart desires. 

Direct: Direct advertising is the process of selecting a publisher, negotiating the right price for an ad to be placed on their website, implementing the ad, and reviewing the results. Direct advertising and media buying is people-centric and traditional compared to programmatic advertising. These may include native advertising, large banner ads, or even email marketing campaigns. 

What’s Better for Consumer Targeting?

With the use of geo-targeting, similar audiences, Facebook Pixel, consumer interests, and the myriad of advanced advertising tools, programmatic is far superior in the realm of consumer targeting. Direct advertising takes a more ambiguous advertising approach by using basic ad space implementation without the extensive specificity that programmatic strategies employ. Simplified and direct marketing may have slight advantages depending on the end goal of a given ad campaign, but programmatic advertising is the far better option when considering consumer targeting.

The answer: Programmatic advertising. 

What About Optimization?

Well, what about it? Optimization in real-time better caters to programmatic advertising significantly. Google and Facebook Ads offer advertisers the tools to continually optimize their display, search, or video ads efficiently and effectively while using artificial intelligence. Direct advertising operates under a fixed time frame and fixed parameters which limits optimization that may be needed during the ad campaign life cycle. 

The answer: Programmatic advertising.

Which One Offers the Better Price?

This question is not as easy to answer as price can be a subjective topic to cover depending on the specific company and the overall ad campaign end goal. If a company wants to advertise online for the cheapest price possible with the minimum amount of effort, programmatic advertising is the way to go. If a company wants to spend significant amounts of money on premium advertising space to promote their product or service, then direct advertising may be the best option. Paying a premium price certainly has its benefits when attracting more, long-lasting consumers, but for companies with meager ad spend budgets, less is more. 

The answer: Both. 


So which advertising strategy is better overall? From a generalized point-of-view, programmatic advertising looks to be the true winner. From in-depth consumer targeting to real-time optimization, it truly is the better option for most marketers. 

Now we should not disregard direct advertising as some form of obsolete marketing reminiscent of old-timey cigarette ads from the 1960s. Rather, we should look to utilize direct advertising as a unique and personable form of marketing. It can be advantageous when managed adequately. 

Whether you are on Team Programmatic or Team Direct, both ad strategies are useful in their own ways. It is not necessarily a question about which is better overall as if it is some form of marketing Olympic competition. It is more of a reflective question to ask oneself considering your own advertising goals and capacities – “which is better for me?”

It is entirely possible that people should be asking a much better question anyway – why not both?

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