The perils of technology, or where culture meets code

Graham Moysey: head of international at AOL
Graham Moysey: head of international at AOL

All the talk about technology being pitted against creativity is entirely understandable, but fundamentally wrong says Graham Moysey, head of international at AOL.

It's 1969. Creatives and account men alike collect around a new room at the heart of Sterling Cooper – and a new, ominous-looking grey machine.

This is the first computer at the agency at the heart of HBO’s hit series Mad Men. Copywriter Michael Ginsberg moans that creatives are being pushed aside by the new device. Don Draper laments the "perils of technology".

Watching this episode recently, the talk of technology being pitted against creativity – with creativity losing out – felt oddly familiar.

There are many parallels to be drawn between the frantic fear of change at the fictional Sterling Cooper of the sixties and the industry’s view of programmatic today.

There’s a suspicion that automation could drive out creativity, erode client relationships and diminish the human role.

Our perspective – as with the Mad Men computer – is that these are understandable fears. But they're myths. As a global media owner heavily invested in programmatic, we wanted to put that perspective to the test.

Is a programmatic future really so dark? Or could the meeting of technology, human insight and imagination lead to a better, more creative future for us all?

This was the starting point for our recent report, Programmatic Futures: Where Culture Meets Code. We undertook an in-depth analysis of the opinions of the industry’s brightest and best agencies, brands and publishers. It revealed that the industry does see many positives when it comes to programmatic.

Many of the people we spoke to are open to the idea that it actually opens up new forms of creativity and allows more collaboration.

While it is felt that programmatic certainly changes the human role in marketing campaigns, the majority felt it had not depleted it.

The research revealed that there is still some way to go to before the true potential of programmatic is reached, however. In order to do this, we believe there are three crucial guidelines the industry needs to follow.

1. More training and education

While an encouraging 48 per cent of those we surveyed agree that programmatic enhances creativity, there is still reluctance from some to fully embrace it.

The biggest barrier to programmatic remains a skills gap, with 37 per cent of sell-side and 33 per cent of buy-side respondents pointing to the issue.

As programmatic enters a new chapter, it is imperative the industry invests more in training to help consultants diversify their skillset to use data in the right way. Individuals' understanding of programmatic is essential for its growth and development.

That doesn't mean everyone needs to learn to code, but they do need to have the knowledge about the programmatic process and be able to pass it down, educating clients, publishers and creative agencies alike.

At AOL we are investing in ground-level education sessions that are run not just for our sales teams but across the business. This means everyone has a clear understanding of programmatic and how we are using it within AOL.

We also spend time leading education sessions with clients and agencies to help them build a picture of what the programmatic offering could look like in the future.

Investing time in this way now will be hugely beneficial going forward in building an industry ready to take its existing expertise and shape a better, more influential programmatic.

2. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

It's often said that programmatic is leading to less collaboration. This couldn't be further from the truth.

Programmatic is strengthening relationships at every single point in the advertising journey. Sixty-five per cent of those we spoke to agreed they spend more time talking about strategy and audiences as a direct result of programmatic, and more than a quarter (26 per cent) of heavy users of programmatic said that it helped them spend more time with clients.

Collaboration will ultimately lead to better results for the industry as a whole – allowing more reliable data and insight, more cohesive strategic thinking and more time to get to know clients' needs in detail.

Users of programmatic will feel the benefits of a more integrated approach – collaborative sessions that generate better ideas and a feeling that each link in the advertising chain is working in harmony.

3. Be curious

It may sound simple, but it’s only through participating in programmatic that you'll see the efficiencies and opportunities it brings. There's only so much you can learn from the theory.

I'd encourage those in the industry who are sceptical or less familiar with programmatic to test, learn and optimise. Forty-four per cent of our respondents felt experimenting in this way was most vital when it comes to programmatic success.

Of course, all this has to start with being open to the possibilities of programmatic – rather than fear the "perils of technology".

I can well imagine Don Draper's scepticism were he confronted with programmatic for the first time. But I'm convinced that he would begin to see the difference it could make to him, his clients and Sterling Cooper.

This is a new age of automation, but it isn't something to fear. Those that embrace it, adding the potential of data to its greatest effect to human brilliance, will reap the rewards.

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