Programmatic meets branding - the science behind the art

Rick Mulia Rubicon
By Rick Mulia Rubicon | 24 February 2016
JAPAC managing director, Rick Mulia Rubicon.

Programmatic has been affecting how media is bought and sold for a good few years now.

JAPAC managing director, Rick Mulia Rubicon, discusses whether this means we’re ignoring the importance of the creative approach.

It’s being asked a lot lately: Does the automation of advertising compromise the creativity that is so important for the industry? In particular, are we becoming so focused on data and performance that we are ignoring the importance of brand?

In a way, it’s a question as old as advertising itself. Creatives and media planners have often worked in silos. Remember those episodes of Mad Men, where clients would hang out for the wise musings of Don Draper. It was all about the big idea. Then there was Harry Crane, the media buyer, who struggled for recognition.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are companies that insisted on buying distress space. They’d look for bargains, then retrofit a creative into the inventory they’d bought.

Neither approach is ideal, of course. Media and creative need to be entwined – they are equally part of the solution.

But is automation taking us back a step? Is it forcing a separation between media planning and creative? It’s a fair question, particular as automation really started life as a means of filling unsold inventory. In a way, it was the machine built for distress space sales.

It’s come on leaps and bounds since then, of course. Every year more and more inventory is traded across programmatic platforms. With machine learning, driven by deeper and deeper data sets, buyers can assume that they are bidding for the inventory they really need. That means there’s little or no wastage and it helps publishers charge a premium for elements that contribute to the efficiency of a campaign.

That’s great, but it’s a media first approach. A lot of creatives, I’m sure, would argue that it’s the tail wagging the dog.

Automation: what creativity has missed

The smart creatives have realised that programmatic technology adds a whole new dimension to their work. By using data to support creative intuition, it means that branding and technology can not only co-exist, but also push the boundaries of advertising into a whole new realm.

To be fair to Don Draper, he didn’t pluck ideas out of his head. He researched the audience and often told clients more about their customers than they knew themselves. Since those days, advertising agencies have researched to the hilt. Quantitative surveys and focus groups have helped determine attitudes towards products and segmentation models have neatly compartmentalised people into distinct types. From all that, creative solutions were found.

Today, though, there is so much more data. We’ve still got the focus groups and surveys, together with the data brands gather, from visits to their website or attendance at events, for example, through to product consumption figures. On top of all that we have the behavioural data, showing how people have responded to campaign elements.

It’s a naïve creative type who can claim that none of this information is necessary or useful. Most will see the sense in using as much data as possible to develop and adapt campaigns. If people don’t respond as expected then, clearly, the approach needs to be changed.

Creative automation

Changing the creative mid-stream, in response to how a campaign performs will also become an automatic process. Rather than simply building a handful of creative executions and targeting them at pinpointed audiences, creative will be broken down into elements that can be automatically constructed for the specific viewer. It’s a process called programmatic creative and it’s the ultimate in personalisation.

We’re already seeing it, to an extent, with retargeting ads that show products from catalogues that you have recently browsed. But this is the tip of the iceberg. We can expect video content to be given a similar treatment and many more variables to be used in determining how your content is constructed.

A recent study by Yahoo! found, not surprisingly, that personalised advertising was more effective on a number of levels: 64 percent said the ads were relevant to them, against 32 percent for non personalised ads. 37 percent seeing the personalised ads felt connected to the brand, compared to just 20 percent seeing the non personalised creative.

Modular thinking

Changes are happening quickly. Clearly, the Don Draper school of advertising is closed. A brilliant idea isn’t enough – let’s also accept that it might not have been right in the first place. Millions could be spent on concepts that really didn’t trigger the right response.

Today automation means incrementalism is the modus operandi. Just as media schedules will adapt as they go along, creative approaches will too. The job of the creative will be to understand the elements required to build a flexible campaign – the building blocks that will form personalised ads.

For most agency folks this isn’t really a departure from the old way of doing things. Ads would often be tested against each other to see which works best. Various components may be switched to design the final ad that could be seen by millions. All that’s changing is all these elements can now be thrown into a live environment, and fine-tuned against various audiences, through automation.

Yes, machines will be choosing the final mix of elements that constitute the optimum appearance of an ad, but it takes the human mind to decide what those elements will be. Computers will never come up with a great idea. We still need creatives for that.

By JAPAC managing director, Rick Mulia Rubicon.

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