When Omnicom Group CEO John Wren spoke to analysts during the company’s third-quarter earnings conference call, he said that programmatic buying comprised just 2% of the holding company’s current business. “It’s still small today,” he conceded. Despite being a small part of the picture, about 23% of the agency’s 6.5% organic growth for the quarter came from that programmatic line. When pressed further during the Q&A, Wren said he expects its contribution to grow to double digits in 2015.

While programmatic buying hasn’t yet taken over as the dominant way to buy advertising, the conversation has changed, say media buyers interviewed for this story. It’s no longer a question of if, these people say, but when. As these media-allocation tools surface at healthcare agencies, and premium publishers offer up more coveted inventory, they could upend the traditional way of doing business.

Programmatic buying refers to any online advertising that is booked, aggregated or optimized via software. It may sound simple enough, but there are caveats pharma advertisers should keep in mind when using these tools.

While the media often associated with programmatic transactions is cheap, remnant inventory, “in the healthcare space, it’s the opposite,” Nicole Woodland-De Van, SVP, buying services and deliverables at Compas, Inc. told MM&M.

“When you’re targeting professional audiences, using endemic [medical] publishers, there is no notion of remnant space. Publishers have very limited inventory, and there is a finite amount of doctors you’re targeting.” she explained. Compas, Inc. launched its own programmatic tool, AdMission, earlier this year with Proclivity Media.

Even when targeting consumers or patients, less coveted inventory can still be valuable—you just need a coherent strategy, Michael Maher, president of media services agency ID Health, points out. “Programmatic is usually not prime inventory—you’re not getting the front page of the New York Times—but it’s also not the dregs of media,” he said. “There is second-tier content which can be very productive.”

“We had a neurology brand that was trying to engage their patient population and didn’t want to fight with the competition for the same inventory—which was scarce and expensive,” Maher offered as an example. “The client ultimately used programmatic tools to identify patients on different venues, and they were able to drive engagement at a much lower CPM [cost per impression].”

Another common misconception with these tools is that their efficiency lies solely in how they allow clients to maximize spend. “An important aspect of this process is that you’re buying audiences,” Maher noted. “Programmatic follows audiences wherever they are online. You’re not buying anyone who’s not your target.”

That level of precision is educational as well as efficient. These tools facilitate the iterative process and help brands discover where their audience lives and breathes online. “Programmatic allows us to yield cross channel, cross device insights that makes our targeting increasingly specific,” added Benjamin Visich, media director for Publicis Health Media. 

Doug Kofoid, president of global solutions for Publicis ad tech company VivaKi, told MM&M that data from these tools can also broaden a brand’s audience. “We can look for correlations between specific consumer segments and brands. We can then look for other consumer segments with similar characteristics who, based on our model, may share that same affinity.” Publicis Health Media and VivaKi announced a partnership in October to offer programmatic buying services to pharma and health-and-wellness clients.

The first and third-party data gleaned from these tools is informing both the targets of the next campaign and future creative. “It changes the approach from creating one piece of brilliant creative to be fed to millions of consumers, to creating millions of pieces of brilliant creative to be fed to each consumer based on their needs at that moment in time,” Kofoid said.

While creative is subject to change, he added, TV has been resistant to programmatic tools. “One of the biggest obstacles we face to being able to buy TV inventory programmatically is the fact that impressions are still being bought upfront as opposed to a dynamic or RTB manner,” he said. “Another issue is overcoming the traditional mentality of buying for TV versus online video, and I think that as the technology progresses, we’ll start to see more fluid video budgets that can dynamically shift budgets between TV and online video.”

“TV is beginning to happen,” in programmatic, Mayer notes, “but I think it’s going to happen much more slowly than we saw with digital. I wouldn’t want to make a prediction on when and how much of TV advertising will be bought programmatically in the coming years.” 

An earlier version of this story appeared on the website Oct. 30, 2014.