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The Evolution of Programmatic Media Buying

Like almost anything in marketing, media buying started with a traditional processing method modified by technological advancement to be more efficient and effective. It’s the evolution of the digital world replacing the old way of doing things by incorporating automated computer capabilities over manual handling.


This isn’t to say the people behind the automated process are no longer needed — a mix of both is essential — but programmatic media buying optimizes the most important aspects of your purchase: ad spend, impressions, and reach. This is why programmatic advertising is rapidly increasing among digital advertisers — rising from 76% of digital advertisers allocating their efforts to programmatic advertising in 2019 to 83% by Q2 of 2020, according to research done by MediaRadar.

To provide you with a more thorough understanding of modern-day programmatic media buying, here is where it started and how it has evolved over the years.

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Direct media buying is, in the simplest terms, “The Old Way” of doing things. It consists of finding the right publisher, literally picking up the phone or communicating through email, going through negotiations, purchasing ad inventory, and serving a given ad on the publisher’s website — all done manually.

This means heavy amounts of human interaction, manual audience identification, manual bidding, manual campaign reporting, and more. The entire process becomes a long, drawn-out ordeal vulnerable to lost opportunity cost and a higher margin of error.

Some hands-on advantages:

  • Direct relationships — Working directly with the publisher’s team can come in handy if you have built or are in the process of building a strong relationship with the publisher and team. The closer you are to them, the better positioned you will be to receive premium ad placements that others may not even be offered or even aware of.
  • More flexibility — By this, we mean there is more leniency on the media and file sizes of your ads with some unique circumstances even leading to spaces that can take up an entire screen (in best-case scenarios). Programmatic is a little more restricted in this area since the market is more saturated with opportunities.

The disadvantages of direct media buying:

  • Time-consuming — The entire process is done manually, so time is taken up by back-and-forth emails, calls, etc., with negotiations differing by the publisher and ad placement.
  • More expensive — Your ad placement is customized, so it costs much more than a programmatic buy.
  • Limited reach — Direct relationships sound great in theory, but there are only so many you can keep up with. Needing to have a personal relationship or even just person-to-person contact significantly limits the number of different placements you can get (i.e., limiting the potential of your ad reach).
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Programmatic display ads date back almost 30 years ago — in 1994 — when the web’s very first banner ad made its debut on the internet and experienced massive success early on as people frequently clicked because they were intrigued by the new concept. 

The banner in question went live on as a part of AT&T’s “You Will” campaign, reading, “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will.” The campaign spoke to the technological advancements ahead and the highly-anticipated and limitless possibilities of the future.

For instance, other parts of the campaign premiered questions asking if you ever used maps on a car’s dashboard, tucked your baby in from a phone booth, borrowed books from a library a great distance away, etc. — all with the final promise that “You Will.”

According to LeadCrunch, the “banner ads click-through rates used to average between 40-50%.” This means that “half of all people who saw the banner ad actually clicked on it.” A concept that is quite literally unimaginable nowadays but paved the way for the programmatic display ad experiences we’re familiar with today.


Think of it this way: all of those manual tasks from before are now automated, ultimately simplifying the process and cutting out any unnecessary time and costs. The advantages and opportunities of programmatic media buying are wide open and within your reach. 

You have the capability to experience real-time bidding at a rate that is four times faster than an ordinary blink of an eye and customized to win impressions that are uniquely based on your audience and their behavior, interests, and other consumer data. 

It’s no wonder the programmatic outlook is only getting better by the year — there is so much potential yet to be tapped. eMarketer says, “US programmatic digital display ad spending grew more than 10% in 2020 and will rebound to 24.1% growth in 2021.” Additionally, they say that programmatic ad spends on CTV will see a significant rise, as much as 52.9% growth in 2021. And it won’t stop there.


It’s a saying for a reason. The ‘old ways’ may set the foundation for what we have today, but there’s a reason they’re considered the ‘old way’ and not the ‘current way.’ Times are changing, especially in the world of advertisement, and the need for programmatic media buying is essential to surviving the aftermath. Taking advantage of the opportunity now ensures you don’t fall behind later. Our team at Strategus knows this and has already been integrating programmatic media buying into campaigns. There is no room in marketing for nostalgia or staying safe — which is why our strategies are based on nothing but the latest and most relevant data in the industry.

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Andy Dixon is a seasoned Content Writing Specialist at Strategus, renowned for his expertise in creating engaging and impactful digital content. With over a decade of experience in content creation, Andy has honed his skills in a variety of niches, ranging from technology and marketing to education.

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