The “Mad Men” Years Are Giving Way to the “Math Men” Era

“Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing … It’s okay. You are okay.”

Don Draper, “Mad Men,” Season 1, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”

I wonder what Don Draper would think today when the 23-year-old digital media buying whiz quips back, “Maybe, but let’s load it up into the system, along with 5,000 other versions of copy, and measure how many Facebook ‘Likes’ it drives within our target demo.”

I love the “Mad Men” version of the ad business. The storytelling. The simplicity. The glasses of scotch at 10 am. But these days in digital, it feels like the Math Men media buyers (with their terabytes of data) are taking over for the Mad Men creatives. It may not make for great TV drama, but they’ve got the performance data to prove that it’s their turn in the driver’s seat.

For years, digital ads were bought and sold by young media buyers from ad agencies and smooth salesmen from online publishers and networks, sealed over the modern version of the “three-martini lunch.” But with the steady advancement in online advertising technology over the last ten years, the geeks — I mean the Math Men — have gained the upper hand in determining how to spend these digital marketing dollars. Today, ad buying and selling is automated across nearly every digital channel, driven by complex algorithms crunching terabytes of data, all employed to meet rigorous ROI objectives — typically measured by new customer acquisition, profit margin, or revenues.

It all started in search, where Overture introduced (and Google perfected) a keyword ad marketplace for search pages. We take that marketer proposition for granted now, but it was heretical at the time — only pay us when a user clicks on your ad (versus every time we show your ad), and you decide how much to pay for that click (versus the same price for every advertiser). And sophisticated marketers took full advantage by leveraging technology platforms from Math Men companies like Efficient Frontier to maximize the efficiency of their search ad spend across millions of keywords, bids and text ad copy.

Since then, several major advances in advertising technology have further enabled the Math Men:

  • Six years ago, Right Media introduced the first ad exchange for display ads, enabling the Math Men and their algorithms to buy and sell banner ads and skyscrapers across the Web. Google subsequently perfected the display exchange via their DoubleClick acquisition as well.
  • Three years ago, Blue Kai introduced the first ad targeting-data marketplace, enabling the Math Men to leverage anonymous audience targeting data to further enhance marketers’ campaign performance.
  • A year ago, Facebook launched its own ad platform API to enable Math Men and their algorithms to bid for Facebook ads based on user attributes. It seems likely that Facebook will eventually extend its monetization platform to third-party publishers, similar to what Google did with AdSense, as Facebook already has a strong distribution foothold via Facebook Connect.

It feels like we are witnessing the tipping point in digital media buying. Measured by dollars or by impressions, greater than 50 percent of online advertising is bought via APIs today (granted, most of this is still search). In a few years, I believe that 90 percent of all digital ad impressions, and more than 75 percent of digital ad dollars, will be bought and sold programmatically.

As we witnessed with search marketing, once a) marketers get a taste of the increased spend efficiency offered by these emerging platforms, and b) these platforms (and the associated marketer tools) become sufficiently easy to use, the dollars will flow, and quickly. The Math Men at Efficient Frontier are leveraging these display, data and social platforms to deliver superior ad spend performance for marketers across all digital channels today. It’s no longer just about search.

And the Mad Men are taking note. In the last few years, the ad agency holding companies have rolled out their own technology-driven digital ad “trading desks” to help their clients take advantage of these ad trading platforms. I wonder if they’ve replaced the scotch in the mini bars with the Math Men’s drink of choice, Red Bull.

Chris Moore is a partner with Redpoint Ventures and has been enabling the digital Math Men with investments in Efficient Frontier, Right Media, Blue Kai, Auditude, Inadco, Extole, Intent Media and eBureau. Follow him on Twitter @Redpointvc and @Moorski.

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