It seems advertising and marketing technology emerged from the basic principle of making the difficult easy. When search marketing was in its infancy and Google had to share the market with Yahoo!, AskJeeves, FindWhat, Kanoodle and a litany of other "search engines" that have since been lost to time, search management required an interface that simplified the search practitioner's job.
Search bid management became a core component of advertising technology, followed by social bid management and programmatic display management (DSPs). Each one has some concept of ads, targeting and bidding across multiple partners with one interface. I have supported and built many of these platforms with the notion of helping marketers do their job better. I was wrong.
Have you ever watched a movie from the 70s where someone purchases a plane ticket from an airline counter and is asked, "Smoking or nonsmoking?" I feel as though we will look back on the current generation of advertising and marketing platforms with the same sense of nostalgia and shock in the coming years. Marketers actually uploaded millions of keywords with multiple handwritten variations of ad copy and manually set bids? How is that possible? Why was that acceptable? The headless interface will render these problems obsolete.
Why the headless interface
I couldn't tell you every application of headless as it relates to other use cases and technologies. But for ad tech, the headless platform makes sense. The concept explicitly refers to the management of advertising via a platform that doesn't have an interface. Can't be done, you say? In 2005, I would have agreed, but we have since progressed.
Management interfaces exist because practitioners had neither the right tools nor the confidence in technology to make better decisions for them. It is a combination of fear, mistrust and DNA-level protectionism that makes having a user interface (UI) comforting. Things are changing. In a world where data science (dare I say "AI") drives much of what we do, a headless platform will likely become the norm.
In layman's terms, a self-driving car needs neither a steering wheel nor a brake pedal. Why would a marketing technology platform need them?
The headless platform today
Today, a marketer has enough data and insights about each of their customers to create holistic profiles and deliver truly unique and personalized interactions. Targeting, valuing and messaging have no place in this world -- those are concepts used in the days of Trans World Airlines and Pan Am. So, what are marketers actually managing?
Messaging can be structured and templated upfront and populated in real-time for each consumer. Geotargeting? Why? You know enough about your customers to decide whether they should be messaged based on where they live, work or travel. Frequency capping? It will literally become as relevant as the airplane smoking section. How could you market to your customers in a world where you arbitrarily decided, en masse, how many times you needed to engage with them in order for them to take an action? I couldn't live in such a world.
Do you need a headless platform?
Management interfaces exist to manage these functions. What we need today is a platform to establish these components more efficiently. Marketers, let the platform interact with technologies and systems up and downstream, powered not by human bias but by machine and deep learning. In real time. Across every channel. And this requires a headless platform.
This, of course, is easier said than done. We want to move forward, but we find comfort in the familiar. As Don Draper explained, while smoking a Lucky Strike, nostalgia is "a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone." A common struggle for product teams is trying to break away from the idea that everyone wants what they know, knowing that they need something better. We need to provide a platform broken down to the basics, devoid of many of the redundant tools we have become accustomed to and opt for the minimal. Quoting Steve Jobs, perhaps the real Don Draper, "People don't know what they want until you show it to them."
Whether or not the term "headless" will catch on for these minimized platforms remains to be seen. I am not sure the name even matters. Instead, we, as marketers, and those of us who support them need to stop focusing on drop-downs, radio buttons and outdated targeting concepts. We need to choose technologies that deliver on the promise of true personalization. For a marketer with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of customers, there is no UI to manage that. But, like smoking sections, we have -- thankfully -- evolved.