This article is the sixth in a series produced by the Pharmaceutical Marketing Society’s Digital Interest Group to address some of the industry’s most pressing challenges in the digital space. They have been designed and written to inform and share good practice, but most importantly to generate discussion and collaboration.

The following article will explore why Programmatic Marketing should be part of your Omnichannel experience, and why not using the power of Programmatic Marketing means you’re wasting part of your digital marketing investment.

What is Programmatic Marketing?

In the words of Tim Armstrong, former CEO of AOL and Yahoo, “what can go programmatic will go programmatic”.

Programmatic Marketing uses software to automate processes for purchasing digital advertising. While traditional digital media buying methods include requests for proposals, tenders, quotes, negotiation, insertion orders and long waits for campaign performance information, programmatic buying utilises technology and machine learning to create greater efficiencies, and increases performance, both in terms of return on investment and audience impact.

Compared to traditional media buying where the marketer, or their agency, would block a section of a website, app or platform with the aim of capturing the attention of the members of their target audience that visit that property, programmatic offers a more sophisticated way to buy media and is designed to do away with this old fashioned hit or miss approach.

So how does it work? Programmatic uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies that determine where marketing budgets are best spent in real time on an ad-by-ad basis. So no more of the scattergun approach of buying large numbers of ads in the hope you will reach your target audience and accepting a high amount of wasted budget due to ads reaching the wrong people. All you have to do is feed your programmatic solution information about your campaign, target audience and key performance indicators, and the technology will do the hard work for you.

The traditional approach was notorious for costing marketers too much money. The effectiveness and performance of programmatic technology is obvious when we look at how its adoption has grown in other verticals over the last 10 years. Beginning as a new technology at the start of the last decade, programmatic has become the dominant way of buying display advertising, with eMarketer forecasting programmatic accounted for over 94% of all digital display UK ad spend in 2022.

The Programmatic Ecosystem

Similar to how financial markets are now run and traded, programmatic marketing has created a marketplace ecosystem that brings together supply and demand, and harnesses technology and data to more efficiently trade.

The programmatic ecosystem is made up of several different types of players. The main categories being Demand Side Platforms (DSPs), Supply Side Platforms (SSPs), and Data Providers.

Demand Side Platform (DSP)

  • A DSP is a platform designed to serve buyers, usually brands and/or their agencies. In its most basic form, a good DSP will give the user a simple and intuitive interface to plan, build, buy, track, and optimise digital marketing campaigns.

Supply Side Platform

  • An SSP is a platform designed to serve the sell side. In the case of Pharmaceutical marketing, an SSP would act as an aggregator of different HCP-focussed websites, apps and platforms. A good HCP focussed SSP will offer a wide range of digital channels including but not limited to Medical Journals, Medical Education Platforms, Medical Association Websites, Peer to Peer Networking websites/platforms and various other HCP-focused platforms.

Data Provider

  • Data Providers come in many shapes and sizes, but they all serve the same purpose of sitting between a DSP and SSP and curating data sets that can be used to build target audience profiles in the DSP. These target audience profiles can then be overlaid against the supply coming from SSPs to create highly targeted marketing campaigns. Data Providers can also be used to overlay audience and campaign performance insights to campaigns.


For the context of this article the DSP is the most important player as this is the platform that will allow the brand marketer, or their agency, to run programmatic activity. A good DSP will already have access to the best audience data and supply via relationships with Data Providers, SSPs and leading Publishers.

What are the advantages of Programmatic for HCP Marketing?

Imagine a scenario where you want to reach a specific HCP audience with a specific message using digital media. Now let’s say you wanted to maximise your reach and share of voice with the audience, so you run an activity with five large publishers. That’s at least five requests for a proposal, five negotiations, five campaigns that need to be tracked and reconciled, and five lots of reporting you need to try and amalgamate into one coherent performance report. Very quickly you’re multiplying the amount of physical resource you need to plan, execute and measure the campaign. On top of this you have challenges around whether each publisher/platform defines your target audience in the same way, how you mitigate duplication across each publisher/platform, and perhaps, most importantly, how do you properly attribute performance across each partner in terms of their ability to influence the behaviour or attitude of your target HCP audience?

Compare this to how you could run this activity programmatically. You could centralise the entire campaign into one within your chosen DSP. Allowing you to run the activity across multiple channels and publishers to maximise your reach. All while using consistent audience targeting methodology, reducing wastage and duplication across channels, centralising all your reporting and analytics into a real time dashboard, and most importantly leveraging the power of machine learning to optimise how the campaign is delivered on an ad-by-ad basis, ensuring your message is being served to the right audience at the right time, in the right context, to maximise its impact.

A co-ordinated omnichannel programmatic approach allows marketers to deliver their message to the right audience, at the right time, in the right context. This obviously brings great return on investment to marketers, but the benefits don’t stop there. An often overlooked but major benefit of programmatic marketing is that it can enhance the experience of the audiences, in this case the HCPs. Rather than the old model where they are over exposed and bombarded with ads and messages, they are now being served relevant content when it matters most to them. Imagine a scenario where an HCP is online reading up on a specific treatment for a condition, and your company has just published a  study around a new treatment with improved efficacy. Programmatic provides the perfect vehicle to deliver your message to that HCP not just when they are most receptive to it, but also when it is of most use to them.

What are the requirements to run Programmatic Marketing?

Any organisation that has run or is planning to run digital marketing is ready to test programmatic. If you have a target audience and a campaign objective, you’re pretty much ready to go. If you don’t have the in-house knowledge, it’s a simple case of picking the right partner that does, whether it’s your agency or going direct to a specialist player. The expertise is out there for any pharma marketer that runs digital activity to enjoy the advantages on offer from programmatic. Even if you’ve never run digital advertising before, programmatic is great way to start as you can immediately benefit from the advantages it offers, and the process to begin would be no different to how you would prepare to run traditional digital advertising.

Programmatic has been a staple of consumer digital marketing for over 10 years so there is a wealth of expertise out there. What’s better is that the consumer marketing industry has done the hard yards when it comes to developing programmatic to drive results and comply with regulations like GDPR etc. For example, programmatic has come to the Pharma industry knowing it needs to built on a platform of first party data, GDPR compliant consent and privacy by design, rather than being overly reliant on 3rd party cookies and unconsented data. So as the Pharma industry embraces the new technology it can do so knowing that many of the mistakes have already been made and can easily be avoided.

When it comes to specific pharma marketing regulation the beauty of programmatic is that at its core it is simply digital marketing. As long as you ensure you’ve done your homework on your chosen partner and how they comply with the relevant digital marketing regulations in specific territories, you have nothing to fear. If you can run digital advertising activity in a market, you can leverage programmatic to increase the efficiency of that activity whilst complying with the same regulations.

Programmatic Marketing Best Practices

So, you’ve made up your mind, and you want to make programmatic part of your marketing plan. What do you do now?

1.     Does your organisation already have any experience with programmatic? If you work for a company with any consumer brands, or an agency that manages both HCP and consumer brands, chances are your organisation already has people that are familiar with programmatic and reaping its benefits, find those people and talk to them.

2.     Find the right partner to support you. Whether that’s an agency or going to direct to a programmatic DSP, the process for identifying and vetting your partner will be the same.

a.     Make sure you identify a reputable partner with a demonstrable track record of running successful programmatic marketing for the Pharma industry. Be wary of consumer marketing players with no HCP marketing experience.

b.     Ask the right questions:

i. Which brands do you already work with? Do you have case studies I can see?

ii. Where do you source your supply? Wherever possible you want to work with partners that have direct relationships with a wide range of specialist HCP channels.

iii. Is your technology your own or white-labelled? Has it been designed to support the Pharma industry? There are specialist HCP-focused players out there, it’s in your interest to find them.

iv. How does your organisation ensure compliance with the relevant Pharma marketing and data regulation?

v. Do you have real-time reporting and analytics capabilities? How do you use these to optimise performance above and beyond traditional media buying tactics?

c.     When talking to partners and asking these questions look for someone who can answer and describe their offering in easy-to-understand and simple terms. Beware of anyone that attempts to bamboozle you with tech jargon., If someone can’t describe something simply, they don’t really understand it.

3.     Don’t expect programmatic marketing to be cheaper. A lot of programmatic technology works using auctions so don’t be tempted to bid as low as possible as this will consign you to buying the lowest value supply. Instead look at programmatic as a vehicle to increase efficiency and performance. It’s true that programmatic will let you work out your sweet spot in terms of price vs performance, but don’t start at the bottom. Adopt a mantra of how you can buy less ads whilst being happy to pay more for them, because they are delivering greater value to you and your target audience.

4.     Adopt a continuous cycle of “test”, “learn”, “optimise” but rather than thinking in months or quarters, begin thinking in days and weeks.

In Summary

Before programmatic came along, digital ad buying was a labour intensive process that yielded par performance at best and very often sub-par results. By embracing programmatic, consumer marketers have created:

  • far greater efficiencies and returns on ad spend
  • gained greater insight into the performance and impact of their digital marketing efforts
  • and, when done correctly, improved the end user experience

For a long time, the Pharmaceutical industry has been pioneering the use of big data and technology to further advance medical care, whilst at the same time not embracing the use of technology and data to improve their marketing activity. As John Wanamaker famously said, “half the money I spend of advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half”. Isn’t it time we stopped settling for digital marketing that merely ticks a box on the marketing plan and performs just well enough? Make the switch to programmatic so you can work out which half isn’t working, begin reinvesting that budget into improving the half that does, and in doing so improve the experience for your HCP audiences.



Gareth Shaw, General Manager Global Demand Partnerships at Doceree


The PM Society is a not-for-profit organisation that believes excellent healthcare communications lead to better outcomes for patients.

We aim to:

  • Support organisations and people in healthcare
  • Recognise excellence and promote best practice
  • Provide education and development

Visit us here to learn more about the society and the value of becoming a member

The Digital Interest Group is made up of passionate pharma digital experts who volunteer their time to:

  • Promote digital best practices across pharma marketing and the wider commercial organisation
  • Explore and share an understanding of what digital strategies and tactics marketers in the life sciences sector can employ effectively to support their brand, business and customers.