Rage against the machine: The fight for creativity in an automated world

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Advertising automation isn't going anywhere, writes the CSO of POSSIBLE. It's time for creatives to stop fighting the power and learn the nuts and bolts

Several years ago, Marc Andreesen said that software eats the world. And now that we have things like chatbots, Watson and driverless cars, many are worried that their jobs are on the menu, too.

The problem is particularly acute here in advertising. You might think that a creative industry would be the last place where people would be worried about robots. But like many businesses, we’re seeing a massive move away from traditional workflows and towards automated tools, like programmatic buying, dynamic creative optimization and data-driven decision making.

The stats can be chilling: IDC projects that CMOs will drive $32 billion in technology spending by 2018, and automation software alone will be a $5.5 billion market by 2019. We now have creative management platforms (CMPs), like Flite and Thunder, that provide self-serve tools that enable you to create, target and optimize tens of thousands of versions of an ad. And Facebook has said that 10,000 developers are building chat bots for Messenger.  

As we’ve seen from debates raging through the industry, these changes are producing great angst — as well as a rage against the machine. Creative agencies are dismayed to find themselves answering many more questions about targeting and artificial intelligence (AI) than about the things they know best, like storytelling and cultural insights.

Unfortunately, the debate pitting data against creativity masks the real problem for adland today. If brands can plug assets into an automated tool that uses data to select the best option, the value of creative thinking falls. In the old days, you only had a few shots at success. That required seasoned creatives to help you evaluate your choices. Now, you can throw up thousands of assets in dizzying combinations, and whatever comes out on top wins.

And in creatives’ darkest moments, it begs the question: Do we really need creativity anymore?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the first place, the companies that sell these tools tend to exaggerate their capabilities. That has led to a persistent myth that marketing automation comes cheap and drives outsized results. In fact, it costs a lot, and the results are solid but unspectacular. You’ll never get a 10x lift from a machine that produces and optimizes dreary assets. You won’t get a video with 10,000,000 views, or a campaign that touches people in a deep way. No wonder that nearly half of marketers aren’t satisfied with their marketing automation purchase.

Still, it’s risky to pretend that automation and AI won’t impact creativity’s perceived value. Creatives must adapt to the new automated future. Therefore, they have several tasks at hand.

First, creatives have to finally learn the nuts and bolts of data science. This is less challenging than it might sound. After all, data science didn’t even exist in the industry five years ago — and it evolves fast. So nobody’s an expert, and you can easily get up to speed on the basics using online courses at places like EdX, Coursera and Udacity.

Next, we have to go a lot deeper in our understanding of data and technology. For a long time, we’ve known we have to stay on top of new developments in digital platforms. Increasingly, we need to look at the entire technology stack that powers companies and marketing organizations. Content management systems, demand side platforms, and data strategy can all inspire or shape creative ideas — and provide new opportunities for reaching customers. If you understand the data and technology available, your creative ideas will only benefit.

Finally, we have to deepen collaboration with technology platforms. This may be a touchy subject for some, because companies like Google, Facebook and Oracle are growing their service offerings. In some areas they are even starting to compete with agencies and marketing teams. While your natural inclination might be to compete back, collaboration is still a better idea. Working together with these platforms, agencies and clients will learn how to be more creative on them, while accelerating digital marketing progress overall.

Unfortunately, we can’t avoid automation in the modern marketing landscape. It will continue to put pressure on creative people and bring big changes to their roles. But if we can learn new skills, understand the technology, and collaborate to come up with great ideas, the rise of machines doesn’t have to mean the end of humanity. After all is said and done, we may find that they help us more than we think.

Brandon Geary is Chief Strategy Officer for POSSIBLE.

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