One of the things that bothers me most about the Ad Tech industry is how we debate the meaning of industry jargon.

Addressable TV

To be clear: I don’t mind that we have industry jargon. I think it’s totally natural for any new industry to develop it’s own set of words and terms. However, the thing that really bothers me is how we talk about these words and furiously debate their meaning. For instance:

“DMP really means such and such.” “Viewability is really XYZ.” “Addressable TV doesn’t mean A, it really means B.”

I hear these comments all the time, and they always feel deeply wrong to me. Here’s why:

1) Words themselves do not have any intrinsic meaning.

Unless you’ve studied the work of S. I. Hayakawa, this one can be a little bit hard to grapple with, so let’s start with an example: the word “Programmatic.” If you’re from the ad tech industry this word may carry deep meaning and implication. The second you hear the word, you instantly think: “machine-traded advertising.” If you’re not part of the ad tech world, this word may mean something completely different – or nothing at all. There’s nothing inherently “programmatic” about the word “programmatic.” In no way do the letters “p-r-o-g-r-a-m-m-a-t-i-c” carry any weight on their own. The only reason the word programmatic means anything at all is because we’ve collectively agreed to prescribe it a specific meaning.

2) New words and terms take time to develop meaning

When a new word is coined, it takes a few months before everyone really agrees what the word means. Here’s how it starts:

  • Someone invents a word and has a specific meaning in mind (e.g. “Addressable TV”).
  • People hear the team “Addressable TV” and start to draw their own conclusions about what the word means.
  • They draw on all of their other experiences with the words “Addressable” and “TV” and invent their own likely meaning for the word.
  • Then each of the people who heard the word go through a process of testing their invented definition against the definition that everyone else has invented.
  • In the process of everyone testing their own definition of the new word, a whole new batch of people hear the word and start inventing their own meanings.

The adoption curve is exponential: up and to the right. People hear the word, invent their own definitions, and repeat the word to other people. Up and up and up.

Definitions weave together and transform as people edge closer to agreement on the meaning of the new word. Eventually the term achieves complete saturation and the definition settles. From what I’ve seen in Ad Tech, this whole process takes about 6 months or so.

So next time you hear someone arguing passionately about the true meaning of the word “Viewability” – just smile, remind them that words actually don’t mean anything, and have a mature discussion about what the word ought to mean and how you’re going to get everyone else to agree with your definition.

The True Meaning of “Programmatic”
  • Or you can get into a heated debate about the real meaning of the phrase, discuss the etymology of the phrase in the industry, bemoan how the phrase has become diluted through over-use in new business pitches and budget requests, and toss off more pedantic and precise alternatives that people totally **should** be using. That’s so much more fun :)

    (I don’t think the definition ever really settles – the negotiation process is ongoing as new people enter the business / etc. Actually, that can cause issues, since some people in one company can “settle” on a meaning that subtly different from what people in another company settle on, and woe betide them when they get into a conversation…)