The Problematics Of Programmatic Creative

“We’ve been doing what they call content marketing for 25 years,” Bruce Bolger told me last Friday. “It’s a big part of enterprise engagement.” 

Bolger, a friend and hiking buddy, is an entrepreneurial author who has been pushing the importance of engaging everyone involved in the sales of goods and services — customers, employees, partners and suppliers — into a proactive process of communication, learning, recognition and collaboration.

“It’s 21st century marketing,” he says. “It’s finally taking hold with CEOs, and the advertising industry hates it. Advertising is a 20th-century solution.”

Today’s consumers — particularly younger ones — want to be informed, not sold to, Bolger says. They want sincerity and honesty. They want to talk back. That’s what effective content marketing does, as we all know. If it doesn’t, people will either push back hard or simply turn their backs.



Bolger founded the Enterprise Engagement Alliance (EEA) in 2008 to spread the message that business propositions that “begin with people end with profitability.” As for return on engagement, a portfolio of 45 companies the EEA tracks that are recognized as having superior relationships with customers, employees and communities outperformed the S&P 500 by 19.03 percentage points from October 1, 2012 to May 31, 2015.

Fittingly (and I’ll explain the connection in a minute), Bolger and I were comparing notes on content marketing — occasionally interrupted by pileated woodpeckers — while walking six miles of carriage roads on the Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Westchester County, N.Y.

Just before we set out, I’d read on my iPhone the reaction of Ford Kanzler to last week’s interview with Otto Bell, the creative director for CNN’s new branded content studio, Courageous.

“Good for Otto! He's learning all about how publicity has been working for PR pros for many decades,” Kanzler wrote, making the case that putting “informative, yes, even newsworthy, content” online does not a revolution make.

That’s true, of course, as the Rockefellers themselves could most ardently attest. Once public relations genius Ivy Lee convinced John D. Rockefeller, Sr., to engage reporters rather than shun them, his image as a cold-hearted robber baron began the transformation into wizened — and wise — philanthropist.

And although John. D. himself came up with the idea of giving away dimes to adults and nickels to children on his own, contrary to the way the tale is sometimes told, Lee’s “signal contribution was to get him to make this private practice a public trademark,” writes Ron Chernow in “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.”

Lee was all about crafting a compelling story.“In one essay, Lee put in bold, capital letters this: ‘I BELIEVE IN TELLING YOUR STORY TO THE PUBLIC,’” Scott M. Cutlip writes in his book “The Unseen Power: Public Relations.” “The greatest service public relations could perform was to do for business what Billy Sunday has done for religion — publicize its policies in the language of the man who rides the trolley car and goes to ball games, who chews gum and spits tobacco juice.”

That guy is still around. I’ve seen him on the No. 4 train to Yankee Stadium. So, too, is the woman who taps her Uber app and goes to the health club, who eats kale and recharges with 7-day detoxes. And there are increasingly more algorithmic ways of targeting both of them. But the story and the language — the creative — must be vastly different. KnowwhatImsayin? You feel me?

“There’s a huge bias in the industry of right person, right time,” says Ben Maitland, who is executive vice president of sales and marketing for Multiview, the B2B digital marketing company that produces content for scores of associations, among other services. “In fact, [there’s] such a bias that the industry is trying to automate the element of creative. How could you iterate creativity?” he asks.

It’s not that programmatic creative doesn’t have a place, Maitland says — offering the dynamic creative generated around your shopping cart when you’re on as an example — “but it really can’t replace the human function.”

And that’s why the art directors at Multiview are “right out of 1975,” Maitland maintains, talking to the clients, coming up with concepts and making pitches, whether it’s a banner ad or native video. 

“Programmatic is just a different medium for the distribution of content -- and if the content is weak it is going to have the same effect it has in any other medium,” he says. Which is to say little effect. “Content is king, and that will not change regardless of the medium.”

But well-executed creative without targeted distribution is like the “tree falling in the forest,” as Bell pointed out and Lee well knew. Newspaper photographs influenced the masses in the day of Lee and Rockefeller. Today’s content is competing against so many other choices in so many other media for increasingly narrower niches.

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” A.J. Liebling famously said in 1960. Today, freedom of the press is guaranteed anyone who downloads the right apps. But to engage viewers, you’ve got to tell a relevant story well.

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