Dobson is the executive chairman at the Exchange Lab, a media technology company that specialises in programmatic advertising. Simply put, programmatic is an automated way of buying digital advertising which, given the scale of the medium, is increasingly difficult to manage manually. Digital ad space is made available on platforms such as websites and apps, and then advertisers bid for that space, with the winning ad being placed on the publisher’s website in seconds. The Exchange Lab is an independent company that performs this service using a unique piece of technology it invented called Proteus that allows campaigns to be set up and modified in real time.
“The old way of booking ad space is that you figure out your plan, you book it and then you sit back at the end and say: ‘Well, that worked.’ Or: ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ Whereas with programmatic we’re looking at a campaign all the time and making changes to it, so if it isn’t working at the beginning then it’s certainly working by the end,” says Dobson.
Dobson estimates that there are 50 billion ‘impressions’ woldwide every day – an impression means a set of eyes that sees a digital advert or a website. Theoretically, that means there are 50 billion separate events available for advertisers to buy. Every day. “But how the hell do you decide which to buy and how do you buy them? You can’t do it manually. You have to have a system,” he says.
In many ways, programmatic is comparable to the financial systems that buy currencies, stocks and shares in real time. Listening to Dobson explain some of the Exchange Lab’s capabilities is certainly hugely impressive. It can also be quite terrifying.
“To give you an idea of how quickly it works: we have a product called TV Sync and that’s quite clever,” he understates. This involves devices such as iPads being able to “see and hear” audio cues from adverts showing on their owner’s TV and then transmitting that data to the Exchange Lab. “So we realise there’s, say, a Peugeot ad on the TV. We also realise there’s an ad space on this particular page on the iPad. So we bid for that space and then we place an ad on the iPad that’s related [to the one on TV]. And all that can happen in less than half a second.”
He also cites a recent example when Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away. As a mark of respect, Singapore Airlines, which is an Exchange Lab customer, stopped all advertising. “We can stop them advertising by pressing a button; take their ads off every site that they’re on. Imagine ringing them all up or emailing them. It would take you two days,” Dobson says with a laugh.
Large organisations such as the BBC are beginning to put their faith in programmatic because, according to Dobson, it is helping them gain advertisers that they didn’t even know were in the market. And it is already estimated that more than half of the digital ad space in the US is traded programmatically, a figure that is expected to hit 80% in the next three years. Dobson is confident that it will be “no different in Asia”, where the Exchange Lab began operations about a year ago in Singapore.
“We’ve only been here for 12 months and the landscape is at the very beginning really. But what’s been good for us is that we’ve been helping the market understand what programmatic is,” he explains. “We’ve got a completely neutral view of the market… so we’re able to almost be more of a consultant to clients that are getting their heads around it.
“We’ve got our base in Singapore but [from there] we’ve also sold in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, even Australia. We’re not in Australia, but we don’t have to be… It’s all about data and as long as you’ve got access to the data you can be an expert in a market without actually being there.”
Currently, Dobson estimates that less than 10% of advertising in Asia is bought in this way, but he thinks it will accelerate very fast, with the world levelling out in five to ten years, when “the vast majority” of digital media advertising will be bought programmatically.
“When there is so much [digital ad space], it has to be done in an automated fashion. There’s no other way,” he says. “Which is why most of our clients are desperate to learn about it. It’s coming and it’s something you need to get your head around, because if you don’t then someone else is going to.”