3 ways to make creativity and programmatic work together

Sam Ashken is planning director at The Barbarian Group

A recent report predicted that by 2017 programmatic advertising globally will be a $33 billion market. While there is excitement in the ad tech community as a whole, among many creative agencies and marketers, the programmatic opportunity is often met with a mix of confusion and blankness. As social, video and branding campaigns are increasingly mediated programmatically, creative agencies need to understand the opportunity better. And for programmatic to reach its potential, it needs marketing’s most creative minds working in it.

Sounds like there’s some overlap.

The challenges with programmatic, from a creative agency perspective, are as much cultural as technical. Let’s tackle the cultural perspective with a three-stage approach:

Reframe how we think about programmatic in a creative context.
Framing programmatic as a huge disruptor of the marketing process no doubt works well in a pitch to venture capitalists, but it can raise anxiety among creatives. Who wants to be “disrupted” by some AI? Instead, the programmatic message should be contextualized as a logical next step in the evolution of advertising.

Signals define advertising. First, it was about companies signaling to buyers what their products could do. Then advertisers learned that brands could help people signal to other people what kind of people they were. This latest innovation means consumers are sending signals back to brands about what they respond to, and this means we can better craft communications and brands to which they respond.

Creative agency planners need to change how we think and work.
The defining skill of creative agency planning is condensing. We are willful monomaniacs. We challenge ourselves to define a brand’s one audience, the single-minded proposition, the key brand benefit. This has always been an imperfect representation of what actually drives a business, but a simplified archetype has been necessary because it’s been too difficult or costly to reach multiple audiences with multiple messages.

With programmatic, these difficulties fall away. As planners, we need to have the humility to accept that the data we get back from programmatic might identify segments and insights that not only did we not know about but also didn’t even know we didn’t know about it.

What is this new “programmatic mindset?” Ben Plomion, vice president of marketing at Chango, a programmatic advertising platform, calls it, “a willingness to second-guess your assumptions going into a campaign. You need to trust the technology to discover new markets without prejudice and craft your campaign so that gleaning insights is equally important as achieving your stated goals.”

Programmatic advocates need to re-educate creative people about what the opportunity is and isn’t
It’s time to skewer some misapprehensions. According to Plomion, “Programmatic is more than retargeting. It’s an opportunity to go after a competitor’s customers, cross sell additional services to existing customers, match messaging and environments, and find new audiences.”

Creative people can get their teeth into all of these things, and we don’t have to rely on low-engagement formats like banners to do so. Video, social and native can all be programmatic as well.

The opportunity also needs to be reframed around creative sequencing. Concepts like “the long idea” and “flow advertising” recast what we are asking creative people to do in programmatic. The task becomes more fun, and will likely lead to better work.

Finally, we need creative people to understand that programmatic does not undermine — but rather reinforces — the value of wit, humor, irony, surprise and reverse psychology. Recently, seminal British copywriter and agency founder David Abbott passed away. The man gave us the tagline “‘I don’t read The Economist’ – Management trainee, Aged 42” — and he would surely apply the same wit if he were working in advertising today.

No one is saying that as creative agencies, we’re not allowed to think creatively in programmatic. The only people holding us back are ourselves.


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