Ayman Haydar, CEO of programmatic marketplace provider MMP World Wide, explains how the region is finally embracing programmatic the right way.

How has the programmatic landscape evolved? 

For the last three years, we’ve been working – both as a business and, to a wider extent, as an industry – on really simplifying the process, dispelling any long-held myths (“It’s just a way to buy cheap, unwanted or remnant inventory online”) and setting the record straight on what programmatic advertising actually is.

Programmatic matters. It’s no longer new or a nice-to-have – it’s essential. It’s not just about driving traffic anymore, it’s moved beyond that. Now, it’s about creating tailored, engaging and relevant creatives, served on a hyper-personalized level to the right person, on the right platform and at the right time. Engagement provides the initial benchmark for success, allowing for adjustments and optimization to happen in real-time. It also gives us the ability to achieve unique reach and save on duplication.

We’re also seeing brands switch gears from the public ad exchanges to their more privatized counterparts, in an effort to mitigate brand safety concerns. This shows an important shift in recognizing the key role that the private marketplace has in the ecosystem today, both from a user and brand safety perspective.

Where does the MENA programmatic market stand today?

Prior to covid-19, the programmatic scene looked like this:

  • Between 2018 and 2019, figures from the World Advertising Expenditure Summary showed digital ad spend increased by 6% in MENA, accounting for 39.3% of the total regional advertising spend.
  • In 2020, 69% of all digital media would trade programmatically, according to Zenith’s Programmatic Marketing Forecasts 2019. The total amount spent programmatically would rise to $127 billion in 2020 and $147 billion in 2021, when 72% of digital media would be programmatic.

We might see a little change in the above, but what most likely will happen, considering the huge increase in Internet usage, is shifting budgets from other mediums into programmatic.

What factors have driven the growth of programmatic in the region? 

We’ve seen more transactions through private marketplaces, as programmatic (finally) moves from being a buzzword to a key component of digital strategies.

The conversation surrounding data is changing as well, as the focus shifts from how it is collected to how it is used, helping to minimize the negativity associated with data misuse and prove its value in digital advertising today. Publishers have also taken a more active role in understanding the digital ecosystem and its advantages, as well as working on upgrading their infrastructure to become more compliant.

Finally, there has been an uptick in talent interested in understanding and leveraging programmatic right now. We’re not there yet, but it’s a work in progress and it will continue to evolve as the division of labor shifts between humans and algorithms, changing the programmatic talent pool overall and adding more job opportunities rather than taking them away; we just don’t know what they will be yet.

What are the challenges and opportunities for programmatic in the region?

At the pace in which digital communication is changing, there will always be challenges and areas that we, as an industry, need to take alternative approaches to address. It’s an ever-changing landscape which requires constant learning and adaptation to ensure we’re keeping pace, and in some cases, [remain] ahead of the curve.

Talent, as I mentioned earlier, presents as much of a challenge as an opportunity. There is a slow shift in what is being taught in schools to prepare for a future where careers will be different. The academic skills once valued need to give way to cross-border experiences that will allow the employees of tomorrow to adapt to any role within an organization and not just be qualified for one job. It’s not just about tech either; it’s about critical thinking, creativity, communication all rolled into one.

We’re also actively working on changing publisher mindsets to think programmatic-first, which is a challenge in a region so used to traditional methods of advertising. There’s also a question mark over the market’s ability to handle this shift. Publishers will need to work with the right partners to challenge and guide them in this transformation, accepting that becoming better digitally won’t just happen overnight, it’s a transition.

Opportunity wise, there’s still a lot we can tap into in terms of new mediums; audio, TV and outdoor are yet to evolve programmatically. The increase in Internet usage (both on a global and local levels) and improved Internet speed will allow us to play with new formats that can be viewed on-the-go; welcome to the era of limitless creativity. Also, expect to see the significance of data linked more to a brand’s ROI, as context and relevance become even more important in engaging with the ‘connected consumer’.

Talking about data, what is its role in programmatic? 

Data is the most lucrative currency we trade in today, and with that comes certain challenges, especially amidst the rise of ad blockers, further regulatory scrutiny (GDPR and CCPA for starters) and the continued duopoly dominance disrupting the landscape. There’s a fine line to walk between privacy and personalization, but for our part, we need to show the ‘value add’ that good advertising can yield, which is no easy task considering the consumer mindset right now; they are demanding, unforgiving and intensely distrustful when it comes to sharing their data.

The conversation will always shift back to this and how we, as ad tech companies, publishers, advertisers and marketers alike, use it. It isn’t about invading personal lives – we don’t care about that. Instead, we want to use the right kind of behavioral data to classify audiences and then target more effectively. It boils down to making users aware of this bargain; you allow us access and we will serve you with content that is tailored, relevant and useful to you. As user education improves and this ‘exchange’ becomes more commonplace, we’ll start to look at bridging the gap between online and offline more effectively, enabling further personalization opportunities.

How will AI drive change in the programmatic arena? 

We talk a lot about AI as though it is the answer to every problem, and often at the expense of the human element. My view is that there needs to be cohesion and collaboration between all parties to enable greater efficiencies and success in our industry. In the future, it’s going to be more about the division of roles, playing to each other’s strengths (algorithms optimize faster; humans ensure context and relevance) and working together to achieve the most effective outcome.

AI sits at the core of programmatic advertising; it allows us to analyze, interpret and anticipate in real-time to improve the user experience overall. Make no mistake, it’s the engine of the ad tech industry, and it’s constantly evolving. It’s moved away from something that was once viewed as an ‘automated offering’ to something that is enabling new creative formats and encouraging innovation at every turn. As a result, AI is rapidly transforming the advertising industry, and to an extent, the wider media world; our job is to keep up with it.

AI is fundamentally altering the way we live and work in the world today, helping us to advance our thinking and become pioneers in our relevant fields, and our industry is no exception; we’re all aiming for a frictionless society in the long-run, but only if we utilize AI and associated technologies without fear.

Interview with Ayman Haydar, CEO of MMPWW
by Nathalie Bontems, Communicateonline.me