Without creative, programmatic advertising is set for failure

by: on 31 July 2015

Simon Law from POSSIBLE argues why programmatic needs to move beyond the numbers

Most of the time ‘new’ starts by living off its inherent beauty, that’s where we are today with programmatic advertising. It’s beguiling, but it’s not doing half the work it could (and should) do.

The seductive joy of working in digital is being surrounded by constant change. New platforms, new technology, new capabilities, new media options, new brands and new audience behaviours. It’s constant, and it’s addictive. We get to play with the new, and figure out how to use it. We find out the advantages it brings and what’s next. But we are also responsible for doing that in a way that inspires and builds – we have to be careful that new doesn’t replace relevant, great, creative and inspiring. And we have to push new into effective territory.

Let’s be honest: most of the time ‘new’ starts by living off its inherent beauty, without trying hard enough. Its sheer newness allows it to get away with a lack of underlying brilliance – and that’s where we are today with programmatic advertising. It’s beguiling, but it’s not doing half the work it could (and should) do.

So far, pretty much all that programmatic advertising has focused on is algorithmically improving ROI – and, more often than not, it’s measured against clicks, rather than any real outcome. That’s not a terrible thing, since it’s made media budgets work harder and identified responsive audiences within wider targeting definitions. At the same time, programmatic media has stepped up from the origins of ‘remnant inventory’ in which sales teams used it to sell inventory that was hard to shift, a mechanism to sell the bin ends. Instead, it now focuses on more valuable media assets. Despite this, the advantages of programmatic are being hampered by a lack of creative variance.

In short, if all you’re using that awesome machine power to do is to find the most cost-effective audience with one message, then it’s just become a robotic salesman. No matter who your ads meet, and what their needs are, you’ll tell them the same thing in the same way. The only difference is that you’ll automatically reduce your audience until you find people who respond. And that’s blatantly less effective than having the ability to tailor your message. Which is why we need to start injecting a variety of creative into the mix. It is essential to adapt and change these messages in-flight to make them work harder. We have to be watching how the algorithms are matching audiences and messages, then looking for even more powerful creative executions to drive uplift.

This is easier said than done. There are some obvious barriers to be tackled first.

A key one is cost. More creative costs more money, which then tips the balance on ROI and kills the whole deal. So we need to find cost-effective ways to produce more creative, without simply resorting to blunt formats that mix templated assets with a string of copy options that have little or nothing to do with the imagery they accompany.

Next up is our own training. We’re all trained to find the best answer – both at agencies and in marketing departments. But the best answer is inherently singular. It doesn’t include a set of “maybes” – so we need to change our attitudes, too.

There is also likely to be an issue in terms of finding those variances – how do we build genuine difference unless we increase all the workloads from strategy through to creative?

Finally, we’ve got issues with time. More creative ideas requires extra time. And, when it comes to in-flight changes, adaptations and additional creative, the whole production process falls over because there’s simply not enough time to react. Agencies aren’t ready for it and, usually, the budget’s already been spent.

Let’s face it, this isn’t just about embracing the idea of programmatic creative, it’s a wholesale change. We need a new production process, a new attitude and new ways of apportioning the budget. We need to be more fleet of foot with how we apply data insight and more forward-thinking with our budgets. We need to identify different personas and build different messages for different needs (now that doesn’t sound too unfamiliar, eh?). In short, we need to think test and learn, but with creative.

It’s not impossible. And here’s the thing… the old model is definitely stale. Whoever gets ahead of this (and someone will) is going to enjoy an advantage while other brands catch up. So, make it you - stop accepting a small increase in effectiveness from programmatic advertising and demand a bigger step change. 

By Simon Law, chief strategy officer, POSSIBLE