Wed 15 Apr, 2015

The Programmatic Skills Gap: Why Talent Trumps Experience

Before we get going, we should settle on a definition of programmatic. Defining programmatic advertising is the subject of much debate, but for the purpose of this article, we will take it to mean digital media traded through software which automates at least part of the buying and/or selling and/or optimisation process. This probably isn’t perfect, but it will do for now (note to self: future article on the definition of programmatic)

The rapid rise of programmatic advertising is changing the face of digital marketing. It is estimated that in 2014 programmatic accounted for nearly 50% of all digital display advertising. Advertisers and agencies alike are scrabbling to stay ahead but there’s a shortage of skills in programmatic.


In reality this is not new and it’s surprising that so much is made of it. Isn’t this the same industry that went through the rise of Search and Social? When AdWords took off, did we have a steady supply of people with AdWords experience? Of course not. So why is this any different?

Looking at the law of Diffusion of Innovations (as in the book Crossing The Chasm), programmatic buying, driven by trading desks, is just now emerging from the early adopter stage into the early majority. If we then look at the building of in-house programmatic teams and tech, it’s much earlier; barely into the early adopters. Given its early stage, it’s entirely consistent that there aren’t many people who have spent any meaningful period of time wrestling with its complexities.


So how do we deal with this lack of experience? You want to start building out a programmatic strategy; enter an area of the industry that is barely more than a couple of years old. Let’s get pragmatic.

Back in the dark old days of 2010, I was the first commercial hire at a company called Techlightenment, to work on their Alchemy Social product. Alchemy was the first Facebook Ads API partner, and we licensed our Facebook ad management software to agencies and advertisers and provided managed services on the side. As much as I would’ve loved to build my team up with experienced Facebook advertising professionals, this simply wasn’t an option — they didn’t exist yet.

Instead, we focused more on transferable skills and as a result, the backgrounds of the team were many and varied; an Account Strategist from Google, a Data Analyst from KPMG, a Market Analysis Executive from a furniture designer, a PA from Mediacom, and a graduate fresh out of university, to name a few.

They all shared common traits that are very similar to the skills outlined in that first batch of job descriptions above: strong analytical skills, good with numbers, a willingness to be collaborative and get the job done. A number of them also had good grounding in related fields, particularly Search and display advertising.


But how did we make up for our lack of Facebook experience? We made sure we documented our channel learnings religiously, and developed quality new hire training and onboarding procedures. We employed strong managers who were able to guide new hires through the steep learning curve. We gave people ownership of different areas and encouraged testing and innovation.

Not every hire was successful, but the sum of the parts made for a very strong team and the business really took off; Alchemy Social went from $0 to $2M+ SaaS annual runrate in double quick time and Techlightenment was sold to Experian in 2012. Looking at the team now, the majority have grown within the industry and are doing very well for themselves. They are much sought after now because they have great experience.


Don’t limit to years of experience. If you kick off your search in programmatic with “minimum 2 years experience”, you are going to drastically reduce your pool of candidates. Look instead for people who are on the up, hungry, hard working and have some experience of successfully entering new fields.

Invest in training. If you find yourself saying “I haven’t got time to train people” then have a think about your management capabilities. Training doesn’t mean doing it yourself. Have a look for relevant courses, for networking events to send your staff to or for relevant industry conferences.


There is not a programmatic skills gap; there is simply a lack of programmatic experience. The field is simply too new. In dealing with this fact, it’s important for advertisers and agencies to accept this and be creative in finding solutions.

Those who can bridge this gap effectively, by focusing on hiring people with transferable skills and creating an atmosphere of learning and creativity, will win. And they’ll save money to boot — as we all know, experience in digital and ad tech comes at a premium!