No, Programmatic Isn't Killing The Creative

Richard III has been painted throughout history as a scheming, murderous wretch who backstabbed and connived his way to the English throne before dying in battle. After his remains were laid to rest in a manner befitting an English king, there was backlash from those who didn't believe Richard deserved such treatment.

Programmatic advertising and real-time ad buying are facing a similar backlash. Publishers see data-driven approaches to digital marketing as attempts to replace humans with machines. Marketers, particularly on the creative end, say these approaches force out creative content in the name of efficiency.

Because of these fears, we’re seeing a rush of comments denouncing the benefits of programmatic, saying things like it’s “killing the creative” and it “can’t be trusted,” and calling programmatic marketers “the bad guys.” These concerns are based more on sensationalistic theory than substantiated fact.



Let’s address these issues individually.

What about the claim that programmatic is replacing humans with machines? On the surface, that certainly seems to be the case, since programmatic does use algorithms to buy and place online ads. However, the goal is not to take humans out of the equation, but to make the process itself more efficient and ensure individuals can focus on higher value work. That doesn’t mean humans are gone, it just means that their role in the process is changing. Algorithms still need to be managed, data still needs to be studied, and markets still need to be evaluated. Humans may not be buying or placing the ads directly, but they are still the cornerstone of the process.

This leads into the next criticism, which is that programmatic is killing the creative aspect of advertising. The main argument isn’t about the ad buying/placing process, it’s about the actual content that digital ads contain, and it brings up a valid concern. In the race toward greater efficiency, an advertiser can be tempted to sacrifice investing in creative to access more data, preferring to get a bare-bones banner ad in front of the right people quickly instead of taking time to craft a quality message that will resonate.

Prioritizing efficiency over quality, however, makes a rather big mistake. While it’s best to get ads in front of potential customers as quickly and efficiently as possibly, those prospects aren’t going to waste their time on ads that don’t pique their interest. Customers today also prefer a more personalized ad experience. To get the most from digital advertising today, you need to show customers you view them as human beings, not just data, and to do that effectively, you need creatives.

That’s not to say, however, that creative content is more important than efficiency. People don’t want advertorials or ads that “take them on a journey” when they’re browsing Facebook or reading a BuzzFeed article. The age of "Mad Men" is over.

Instead, we need to establish the right balance between creative and data. Figuring out how to make a message engaging within set parameters has always been one of the fun parts of working in the creative end of advertising. A clever call to action, a funny hook, a witty catchphrase: these things aren’t being phased out by programmatic, they’re being given a chance to shine at a whole new level that’s faster than ever before.

When any industry moves forward, changes have to be made, and ad tech is no different. Positions might shift and job descriptions might change, but programmatic isn’t going to replace humans with machines or kill the creative side of advertising. What it’s going to do is reposition the online advertising industry to make it more efficient and effective.

5 comments about "No, Programmatic Isn't Killing The Creative".
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  1. David Mountain from Marketing and Advertising Direction, May 5, 2015 at 4:07 p.m.

    If creative can't think up different things to say and sell based on buying cycle information, that's on them, not the medium. For my experience, getting more info about my prospects, and being able to incoporate CRM elements, inspires more creative art, not less.

  2. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, May 5, 2015 at 4:45 p.m.

    You didn't address one of your major points, that programmatic "can't be trusted." I still have major issues with suspect inventory, partial video plays and unseen "views." These are not creative issues, and they're not strictly programmatic problems, but substantiated facts as to the effectiveness of programmatic are pretty scarce.

  3. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, May 5, 2015 at 4:46 p.m.

    Maybe the Richard III analogy is a stretch. Programmatic and RTB haven't killed any kids, especially rightful heirs to the crown.

  4. Tom Cunniff from Tom Cunniff, May 5, 2015 at 4:54 p.m.

    The most powerful advantage of programmatic is its ability to replace "I hope I can get this random 18-35 guy interested in my product" to "I know this specific guy is interested and hasn't decided what to buy." There's nothing inherently anti-creative about that; arguably it should aid creativity.

    But it hasn't yet. Here's why.

    1. Data moves faster than our ability to react. Marketers and agencies are still learning how to adjust to torrents of real-time data. Everybody's attention is fractionalized, but staff and budgets have not multiplied. It's hard enough to get all of our communications out there at all -- never mind making them creative.

    2. Relevance often trumps creativity. The best headline to persuade someone who needs a 5-star hotel for less than $300 in NYC is probably "5-Star NYC hotel, ranked #1 on Trip Advisor, $299 if you click in the next 5 seconds". This ad will never earn gasps of approval at Cannes, but... it will convert like crazy. 

    3. We can't amortize creativity as we once could. When TV audiences were huge and distractions tiny, a great TV campaign could run for a long, long time. (Way back when I was an ad copywriter, I wrote a single TV spot that ran for more than a decade.) Today audiences are tiny, and distractions huge. Few marketers can justify spending major time and money on any single ad. Advertising is no longer a business of home runs; it's a business of strategic bunts. This isn't a failure of agency or client imagination; it is reality.

    In the short-term, advertising is likely to remain disappointingly dull. There will be occasional bright spots. But in most years we can count these creative triumphs on one hand and still have plenty of fingers left over.

    The solution is not less technology, but more. Many of my technology clients are developing powerful ad creation capabilities. I predict that soon most ads will be entirely machine-created or heavily machine-assisted. Companies like Persado have powerhouse AI capabilities for writing ads, and companies like Streamwize are changing what a banner ad can be.

    In time, I believe advertising will find a balance in which most of the every day ads are written by machines and the truly creative work (e.g. "how should we position and describe a product that does something no one ever imagined before?") will be handled by humans.

    I think it's inevitable that the technology that seems to trample creativity today will soon enable it to blossom.

    As William Gibson brilliantly put it, "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed."

  5. Andrew Hunt from Addroid, May 7, 2015 at 3:40 p.m.

    Compatibility with programmatic markets doesn't mean creativity has to suffer.  There are plenty of nifty ad products out there (ours included) that empower brands to execute high quality creative in a programmatic world.  Certainly custom rich media doesn't port well into a high frequency marketplace, but banners and other self-contained units are optimized for targeted and automated delivery of creative messaging, assuming the campaign is well designed and executed.

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