Reinventing adland for a programmatic age

As niche consultancies make big bucks selling their data talent, adland still appears to be holding firm to the idea that 'creativity' sits at the heart of its grand narrative.

Creativity is what adland sells to clients, hailing it as the road to greater performance. In addition, creativity is the key to awards, which in turn drive industry professionals’ career success.

The thing is, the growth of programmatic digital advertising is changing that perception. Whereas adland has historically put creativity front and centre, programmatic is all about intelligence.

As adtech and martech allow us to up our game, to know so much and in real time, it seems that intelligence must now play a greater part in the adland’s narrative. Extremely complex tasks are now being handled by software. Self-learning algorithms are now fed in real time with data that was previously unusable in advertising. Cross-channel campaigns are now optimised in real-time against KPIs that are directly aligned with business goals. 

Intelligence, both human and artificial, will probably be the driving force behind advertising performance in the digital age – and this doesn’t just mean the performance of PPC programmes. Digital transformation, combined with the ever-increasing pressure on advertisers' marketing budgets, should invite the industry to foster a new world more capable of celebrating it – and celebrating the new breed of creativity that has arisen to support it. 

But so far the industry has failed to do so. It hasn’t valued the work done by those who drive the platforms, algorithms and campaigns. This needs to change, at a time when agencies are working hard to succeed in attracting, valuing and retaining other talent.

We perhaps need to look long and hard at what ads overwhelmingly look like in the platform age. We might then be willing to revisit our definition of what ‘creativity’ stands for in the digital era. We have to accept the fact that many of today's ads, while very effective, largely break away from the classic rules of storytelling.

Generating performance, especially on mobile and in-feed, involves a different set of rules that often have very little to do with the conventions of telling the "beautiful stories" we love to see in 30- or 60-second TV ads or through big, integrated campaigns. In the programmatic age, an effective creative approach is also a format – or a sequence of formats – that can truly take advantage of what we know of the individual user and the context of the impression, hence generating extra performance against set KPIs.

What do six-second YouTube videos or Facebook in-feed videos tell us about an effective ad, one that is adapted for mobile consumption and that hits performance targets? These formats undeniably perform well on a multitude of indicators at the top and bottom of the tunnel. This is even more the case as the platforms, assisted by their agency co-pilots, choose the best versions and continuously optimise.

We might all agree that these videos, which immediately put forward a key visual, an argument and a brand, are not the type you would typically enter for an award. It is not even possible to call the vast majority of them stories. Most of the time they are short videos designed (and optimised) to produce their effects on a target that we know is going to pay very little attention. Hence the importance of mentioning the brand very quickly.

We know that on average, a target audience will be less than attentive to videos placed before the content people actually want to watch or embedded within the mobile feed. View-through, engagement and conversion data dictate, at least partially, what it is that we should say and how we should say it.

The best TV ads, on the other hand, rely on the ability to attract attention through top-notch storytelling. ‘In-feed’ and ‘in-stream’ do not always lend themselves well to these well-constructed stories. They may require other approaches that work with, at best, a low attention level, without sound, etc.

This is where human and algorithmic intelligence, rather than magic of the great storyteller, can make a difference. This is the case whether the goal is to build awareness for a new product or to drive traffic to a merchant site – all within strong ROI constraints.

Faced with an over-informed, over-fickle, over-connected consumer, advertising is finally, thanks to adtech, upping its game. When used properly, programmatic buying ‘thinks’ and acts in real time to try and provide consumers with a little more value. 

What’s more, this added intelligence can also feed big idea-driven campaigns. Strategic planners in creative agencies will play with DMPs, CDPs or the next-best-thing to dig for insights that can inspire the creative folks. Some of them already do. And we have now seen countless idea-driven campaigns whose results have been boosted by thinking ahead their programmatic activation. In fact, it is difficult to think of a more profound change in advertising since the advent of digital advertising.

There is nothing spectacular in adapting dynamic elements within a banner ad based on what we know about individuals – but it works. There is nothing really sexy about the smart sequencing of messages on a video campaign – but it works.

And the people who make this happen, managing complex tasks and beating themselves up all day about optimisation, are a different breed that also need recognition and praise. They too help to deliver what clients are ultimately paying us for. They might very well be the bright new face of adland, provided we allow them to shine.

In the programmatic age, big award-winning campaigns are the exception rather than the rule. Those presented in Cannes, or elsewhere, represent a tiny fraction of our industry’s output. Great creativity is not easy to achieve or simple to sell, for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, the intelligence that adtech brings to the table can benefit all campaigns and almost everything we undertake. For the sake of both clients and end-users, it works.

This intelligence, as well as ‘pure’ creativity, happens to be the other great strength of holding groups. It is high time to claim it loud and clear, and to put it at the core of our narrative. The Accentures and Deloittes of this world are already doing so.

Thomas Jamet is chief executive of of IPG Mediabrands France and he credits Vincent Balusseau, associate professor of marketing at Audencia Business School with contributing ideas and insights to this piece.

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