This post is by Marie Dalton, marketing director at Connexity.

Brand managers ask if it's possible to launch branding initiatives programmatically but for many companies that's the wrong question. What they need to ask is: 'How quickly can I get good at it?'

Why the urgency? Look no further than the newest employees joining our companies; in the majority of cases they'll be millennials.

The seismic shift rivals the rise of the Boomers

We are living through a seismic shift in demographics. Millennials – the 20 million people who were born sometime in the early 1980's to the early 2000s – are one of the largest generations in the history of the UK. Indeed by 2030, there will be more Millennials than all other generations combined in the US, and the UK won't be far behind. Remember when the Boomers dominated consumer culture? They are now making way for their grandchildren.

Millennials already wield tremendous economic power, and their power is growing. By 2017 they will spend £125 billion annually and over the course of their lifetimes this will top £6 trillion.

Here's where things become very interesting for brand marketers.

Over the next decade, tens of millions of millennials will select, attend and graduate from University, enter the work world, marry, buy homes, and start families. Each milestone represents a prime opportunity for brands to influence those 20 million people and earn their loyalty. Each milestone is also a very real threat; there are literally trillions of pounds at stake that can be won or lost based on a brand's attempts to engage at these times.

A new bag of tricks to enable targeting at scale

Brand marketers will need to learn a new bag of tricks to reach and engage millennials at each of these key life events.

Back in the days when families tuned in to watch Catchphrase or the Generation Game – on the same day and the same time and generally all in front of the same set – reaching a target demographic was pretty straightforward, and scale was simply a matter of buying more airtime. And with every network selling 30-second spots, the same creative could be reused everywhere. Those days are gone.

While millennials watch just as much TV as previous generations, they spend more time watching it on devices other than television sets. There's no shortage of digital outlets for them, including channel websites, Netflix, YouTube, and any of the TV-on-demand services. Add content, social media and ecommerce – and their entire media focus has shifted online.

This complicates things on many levels. First, brand marketers need to embrace all digital mediums, not just TV. And they need to create a broader palette of creatives, as well as learn how to match the best format for each channel. After all, if you force millennials to watch a 30-second pre-roll on YouTube, the only thing you'll earn is their resentment.

This is why mastering programmatic marketing is essential for brand survival. It's the best (and most efficient) way to engage millions of millennials and it offers the kind of reach that TV used to provide.

Not all data is created equally

In a world swamped with "Big Data," it's critical that ad buyers understand which kinds of data will actually help them reach millennials. Not all data is created and segmented equally, which can hurt a brand's ability to reach its target audience efficiently. At the end of the day, programmatic marketing is only as good as the data that feeds it.

Over the past five years the industry has seen a lot of advances in the data used to target consumers. With 20 million millennials essentially up for grabs, brand marketers need to focus on the right data.

You can't assume that all young adults aged 25-34 are interested in the same life events. For example, whilst some will be keen to get married many may already be expecting their first child, and just as many may be planning the trip of a lifetime. If you want to establish meaningful communications with millennials, you'll need to listen carefully to the data signals so you can determine the correct life stage for each individual, and tailor your message to them appropriately.

One of the strategic benefits of programmatic buying is that it allows you to focus your ad spend just on your target audience – without cobbling together sponsorships on a bunch of websites – so it's highly efficient. Plus, brands can track results in real time and optimise ad spend immediately.

Solving the shopper/consumer conundrum requires continual analysis

Purchase data provides very specific clues and insights as to when and how you should engage specific consumers. But brands need to know how to interpret the signals and ensure consumers and shoppers are targeted differently. For example, someone who purchases a box of nappies isn't necessarily a parent; they may be an aunt or uncle a friend doing a favour for a new parent. To determine that the shopper is in fact the consumer (in this case a parent) we need to see a consistent, frequent purchase pattern of nappies.

As well as frequency of purchase, there are a number of additional criteria brand marketers should be judging their targeting data against. These include how recently the data was collected, where it was sourced from, and the number of data points used to classify the audience. If the data isn't accurate, it is likely the brand will miss their target.

Programmatic offers an unrivalled opportunity for brands to reach and engage millennials. Those that get smart about programmatic marketing now will go a long way to securing the future of their brand, those that don't are taking a real gamble and in this day and age, that's a gamble most brands can't afford to take.