Programmatic activation experts: redefining versatility

Despite algorithms doing heavy lifting we still need real people, says Spark Foundry's Azad Ali

Even to those in the media industry, the duties of a programmatic activation role can seem like a bit of a mystery.

The skillset required are incredibly varied and encompass a wide range of professions. Sometimes working in programmatic can feel like doing multiple jobs at once, for which transferable skills from other industries can be very useful. Below are some cherry-picked positions to give an idea of the many skills a programmatic trading role involves.

Financial trader

An obvious connection, but managing multiple portfolios, analysing the market and aiming to garner the best return on investment is all in a day’s work. No doubt it’s where the title of ‘Trader’ became popularised as a job title of a programmatic professional. 


The programmatic ecosystem is inundated with acronyms and nonsensical jargon. It becomes the duty of traders to understand the technical terminology before communicating it back to colleagues and clients in a digestible manner. 


Activating campaigns can be tricky at the best of times, but even more so when launching with a new vendor or applying targeting for a new campaign. Developing hypothesises can aid in determining the impact of applying certain levers. The conclusion of the experiment can often determine whether activity is worth pursuing, or if further tests or optimisation are required. 


Troubleshooting delivery issues is part and parcel in the day of a programmatic professional. Whether it concerns inventory deals, creatives or targeting, finding a resolution requires channelling our inner Sherlock Holmes. There’s always something new to throw into the mix, so the imaginary magnifying glass makes for a frequent ally in solving mysteries.


Making improvements to underperforming campaigns requires a cautious approach. Optimisations can do wonders to help the performance of an ailing campaign. The correct course of action can only be taken after a thorough assessment of the symptoms. Much like prescribing medicine, the precise optimisation required and the regularity in which it is administered is key to the long-term health of a campaign.

Wedding planner / Architect

Working in programmatic means combining with people to implement grand ideas. No matter how unreasonable deadlines are, or how tight the resource is, finding a way to bring a plan to fruition is all part of the excitement. There may not always be the time to stand and admire the outcome, but every activation is a great achievement.

Dragons Den investor

Media owners, creative solutions and technology platforms regularly find themselves pitching brilliant new solutions. However, it’s important to be pragmatic in selecting what we put our finite time and resources into. As much as we’d like to, we can’t test every single solution at our disposal. And in return, equity can often be offered in the form of lunches, water bottles and stationery! 

Creative writer

It’s not enough to just ensure campaigns perform well, developing a story around why it performs (or doesn’t) is also imperative.  This can help clients understand the insight behind the data and thus make more informed decisions. It can also be used to build a narrative to better guide optimisations and strategies to be built throughout the campaign life cycle.

Whether it’s connected TV or digital out of home, media channels are increasingly becoming programmatically accessible. Not only does this keep the role exciting, it means programmatic activation experts need to be subject matter experts in a hugely varied media landscape.

Additionally, I don’t expect any AI, machine learning tool or algorithm to replace any traders I’ve ever hired. Algorithms will do the heavy lifting but the nuanced decision making, gut feeling and qualitative analysis that can turn a good campaign into a great one cannot be programmed; we still need real people for this. Good algorithms exploit trends, whilst good Traders identify, quantify and capitalise on outliers in the data.

The ecosystem keeps programmatic activation experts constantly on our toes and the varied nature of the role means it’s almost impossible to get bored or have learned it all.

Featured image: Hamid Tajik / Pexels

Azad Ali, Head of Performance Insight, Spark Foundry UK

Azad Ali is Head of Performance Insight at Spark Foundry UK, using data and insight to form a holistic approach to digital performance marketing, as well as heading up the Programmatic team. Azad has 11 years of experience within the programmatic and digital marketing space, working across agency and independent trading desks. Azad was named one of The Media Leader’s inaugural Future100 2022 & Publicis Media’s Change Maker 2021, he is a member of MEFA (Media For All) and is also one of the co-leads for a grassroots Diversity & Inclusion initiative at Spark Foundry UK, called The Collective, launched in September 2019

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