Fewer brands are engaging in programmatic online advertising in 2017.

How come we are not surprised?

The persistent “drip-drip-drip” of brand safety concerns with programmatic advertising – and the heightened perception that online advertising has been showing up in the most unseemly of places — has finally caught up with the once-steady growth of economically priced programmatic advertising versus higher-priced digital formats such as native advertising and video advertising.

In fact, ad tracking firm MediaRadar is now reporting that the number of major brands running programmatic ads through the first nine months of 2017 has actually dropped compared to the same period a year ago.

The decline isn’t huge – 2% to be precise. But growing reports that leading brands’ ads have been mistakenly appearing next to ISIS or neo-Nazi content on YouTube and in other places on the web has shaken advertisers’ faith in programmatic platforms to be able to prevent such embarrassing actions from occurring.

For Procter & Gamble, for instance, it has meant that the number of product brands the company has shifted away from programmatic advertising and over to higher-priced formats jumped from 49 to 62 brands over the course of 2017.

For Unilever, the shift has been even greater – going from 25 product brands at the beginning of the year to 53 by the end of July.

The “flight to safety” by these and other brand leaders is easy to understand. Because they can be controlled, direct ad sales are viewed as far more brand-safe compared programmatic and other automated ad buy programs.

In the past, the substantial price differential between the two options was enough to convince many brands that the rewards of “going programmatic” outweighed the inherent risks.  No longer.

What this also means is that advertisers are looking at even more diverse media formats in an effort to find alternatives to programmatic advertising that can accomplish their marketing objectives without the attendant risks (and headaches).

We’ll see how that goes.

Programmatic ad buying takes a hit.

There are some interesting new trends we’re now seeing in programmatic ad buying. For years, purchasing online ads programmatically instead of directly with specific publishers or media companies has been on a steady increase.  No more.

MediaRadar has just released its latest Consumer Advertising Report covering ad spending, formats and buying patterns. The new report states that programmatic ad buying declined ~12% when comparing the first quarter of 2017 to the same period in 2016.

More specifically, whereas ~45,000 advertisers purchased advertising programmatically in Q1 2016, that figure has dropped to around ~39,500 for the same quarter this year.

This change in fortunes may come as a surprise to some. The market has generally been bullish on programmatic ad buying because it is far less labor-intensive to administrator those types of programs compared to direct advertising programs.

There have been ongoing concerns about the potential of fraud, the lack of transparency on ad pricing, and control over where advertisers’ placements actually appear, but up until now, these concerns weren’t strong enough to reverse the steady migration to programmatic buying.

Todd Krizelman, CEO of MediaRadar, had this to say about the new findings:

“For many years, the transition of dollars from direct ad buying to programmatic seemed inevitable, and impossible to roll back. But the near-constant drumbeat of concern over brand safety and fraud in the first six months of 2017 has slowed the tide.  There’s more buying of direct advertising, especially sponsored editorial, and programmatically there is a ‘flight to quality’.”

Krizelman touches on another major new finding from the MediaRadar report: how much better native advertising performs over traditional ad units. Audiences tend to look at advertorials more frequently than display ads, and the clickthrough rates on mobile native advertising, in particular, are running four times higher than what mobile display ads garner.

Not surprisingly, the top market categories for native advertising are ones which lend themselves well to short, pithy stories. Travel, entertainment, home, food and apparel categories score well, as do financial and real estate stories.

The MediaRadar report is based on some pretty exhaustive statistics, with data analyzed from more than 265,000 advertisers covering the buying of digital, native, mobile, video, e-mail and print advertising. For more detailed findings, follow this link.