Is programmatic killing creativity?

by: on 19 November 2014

Cameron Hulett from Undertone tackles the programmatic vs creativity debate

“Where has the creativity gone?” This is the question at every conference these days. Traditionalists see the shift to programmatic as a threat that forces advertisers into a corner - a corner that has minimal creative options. It is this creativity, they say, that is at the heart of good advertising.

So with advertising spend being pushed heavily towards programmatic, are we inadvertently killing creativity?

As with any technological development, a healthy dose of scepticism can be productive. However, dismissing programmatic outright based on a concern for creativity would be foolish. In fact, programmatic may not be stifling creativity at all, but rather, enabling it to take on another guise. Programmatic actually ads new dimensions to advertising such as allowing the placement of ads where the customer actually is, instead of where we might otherwise have predicted the customer to be. And this lends itself to both more creative messages and, crucially, a new creative method of delivery.

The criticisms of programmatic mainly rest on the perception of programmatic as being incompatible with high-impact “big idea” advertising. By nature, programmatic requires standardised ad sizes and formats to exist. Generally the existing formats being delivered programmatically are restrictive, to say the least, and the majority are still the standard banner which has not changed shape or size since its inception in 1994. If you haven’t see the very first banner ad, it was AT&T’s ad that looked like this:

Clearly, not much has changed since then.

Although it is true that high impact cannot be delivered programmatically yet, existing high impact formats and capabilities are now taking centre stage, particularly because they allow a high degree of creativity. You need not look further than fully interactive 3D ads for an example. This sort of functionality is laying the groundwork for more fertile, original work across the board. Since the programmatic environment allows for real time adjustments, marketers will have even further creative licence to make amendments mid-campaign. So creativity has already begun, even if the best of it cannot yet be delivered programmatically.

If programmatic is doing away with anything, it is the basic administrative tasks of the job. With programmatic, advertisers are no longer required to send insertion orders to publishers or deal with mundane issues such as ad tags. However technology will never rule out the marketer’s responsibility to design sophisticated campaigns and create compelling ad strategies. Although the technology will probably continue to do away with many of these tasks, it will allow both marketers and brands to spend more of their time thinking about creative campaigns instead of getting caught up in administration.

In fact, an AOL report suggests that most marketers do not agree with the criticisms of programmatic advertising with regards to creative. Almost half (48%) of marketers surveyed said that programmatic actually enhances creativity, while 28% disagree and 24% felt it has no impact.

So despite putting a damper on advertising creativity in the traditional, Mad Men sense, high-impact is already paving the way for new creative opportunities in advertising that will eventually be delivered programmatically. The current enthusiasm for technology and data have resulted in a “creative deficit” as Sir John Hegarty of BBH puts it, but his suggestion that this is caused by people getting distracted by technology is mistaken. The reason is rather that people are following the money; they are rightly looking for efficiency in order to scale their businesses, and when that efficiency is in place, advertisers will be well positioned to take advantage of the new structure.

That means creativity will not die. It is merely remodelling itself in a modern context and will soon re-establish itself at the helm of advertising.

By Cameron Hulett, Executive Director, EMEA, Undertone