Chris has an adventurous spirit. He loves the vibrancy of people and culture interacting together as he sees every day in San Francisco. Walking down the streets, meeting experience after experience, intrigues him.
This same adventurous spirit is what lead him to work with Sojern, a data-driven travel advertising platform, as the vice president of product and account management.
Given his robust experience in demand-side platforms, data management platforms and other pieces of the programmatic puzzle, we thought he would have a great deal of insight to share with you.
PA.O: What triggered your interest in the programmatic space?
Chris Smutny: Right out of school I joined a search engine optimization company in the pre-programmatic space. Search was like the early programmatic. Display was still being traded very traditionally. However, in SEO people were on the cutting edge. I worked in SEO for four years, and then I thought it would be cool to do more.
[In search] you can update your ad copy and change it in various ways, but you still can’t customize the conversation between you and another person. SEO had some of that foundation of programmatic in it, and so, after working with Yahoo, I went to a company that had a stronger display advertising footprint. That company then evolved a programmatic capability.
I joined Sojern and saw the big pull of traveler data.
Originally, Sojern put ads on printable boarding passes. If we know you are going to come to San Francisco from Dallas, we can show you an ad that’s relevant. We can send you a special deal for something in San Francisco.
What is so interesting and exciting about programmatic for me is that you can personalize the conversation – I always enjoy one-on-one conversation over talking to a big group. For so long, marketing has been about broadcasting the message to everyone. Let’s break down each segment and talk to the individual. Even if you and I are neighbors, we can be very different.
Some things are more relevant to you than they are to me, and vice versa. But, we can even go past that basic gender split and look at our hobbies. The power to connect to the consumer with programmatic and data is unparalleled.
PA.O: How do you create a dynamic message without having it look like a template?
Chris Smutny: Through programmatic, you still have templates at the core. You can’t draw every ad on the fly. You still have to do template work, but you can make it look personalized if you go deeper and try to make variations. The more you know about the consumer, the more customizable elements you have and the less your ad feels canned.
When we do dynamic creative, we pull together several core pieces of information about the consumer. We might have some prior information, like whether they like high-end hotels or corporate-like lodging. Then we pull more information from their hotel preferences that can profile that consumer. Putting this information together, we are able to change some of the copy so that it’s more focused. For instance, let’s say we see that the user has a party of four. So, we might show them content that better aligns to a family traveler. We send a picture of a pool with two beds and more family-focused content.
PA.O: How has programmatic disrupted, or completely changed ads?
Chris Smutny: I would argue that user-generated content and social sharing might have been the bigger disruption than programmatic. Have you been to Denver? If you stay at a hotel there and want to find a good restaurant for dinner, who do you trust for a recommendation?
Do you trust the concierge or Yelp?
Believe it or not, most people would say Yelp. I think one of the biggest things that has impacted travel, is if you asked that question 10 years ago, people would say “What in the world is Yelp?” and chosen the concierge.
Today people trust sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp. People are willing to trust a crowd of total strangers over someone they met at the hotel.
I think this has had a huge impact on the travel industry and decision-making process.
Programmatic allows the traveler to have a more direct conversation with the vendor. I no longer go to a travel agent – I go to Trip Advisor. People will put the Trip Advisor comments around our ads. I think that programmatic gives marketers the ability to better respond to these consumer trends.
PA.O: Where do you draw the line between a travel recommendation and an ad?
Chris Smutny: I don’t know exactly where you would draw the line, but I do know some things definitely cross it.
I have a real problem with sponsored content and sponsored stories. I think those cross the line. A big example of this was a piece written by Christian Science in The Atlantic. When it was first published there was no disclaimer that this was a paid piece. When you go to The New York Times mobile site, you will see pieces that are barely identified as sponsored content. I am not confident that my mom or grandmother would know that this content is just an ad. I think that definitely crosses the line.
PA.O: What are the biggest opportunities in advertising?
Chris Smutny: We need to take the conversation from device to device.
If we are emailing, then chatting on Facebook and later, start texting, wouldn’t it be odd for you to have to restart the conversation every time? You would say our relationship was really bizarre, however this is what we do every day with advertising. We should not restart the conversation on each medium, but have a consistent conversation.
Programmatic is really going to help advertisers have a consistent conversation across devices. I think this is an incredibly important piece of measuring the impact of different marketing devices, media and platforms.
When they make the purchase decision, they are on the computer. If all you are doing as a marketer is saying hey, the conversation happened on the computer and that is where I am going to focus, you miss the activity on the phone and tablet. It’s important to have cross-device point of view.
PA.O: What is the future of the programmatic space? Where do you think we are headed?
Chris Smutny: People don’t just dream in their sleep. In travel, people dream on their tablets. We will see people do more “dreaming” when they are watching TV on their couch at home.
As far as my dream for the future, I hope that we no longer have problems with privacy and trust in programmatic advertising. I hope that we will find a way as an industry to balance privacy and responsibility in a way that sends good, powerful messages to the consumer without being negatively manipulative.