Programmatic Advertising Creative. Winter Is Coming.

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Software eats the world.

Statements like that are all fine and dandy, until they start hitting a little too close to home. Software is knocking on the door of the advertising world, and many are none-too happy about it. While programmatic buying continues to be a hotly discussed topic in the advertising world (here’s my none-to-subtle take on it: Display Advertising Is A Failed State), there seems to be more motion in the marketing technology and ad tech space for programmatic creative. Yes, you read that right: programmatic creative. Instead of having teams of smart creative types develop the best creative possible for a brand campaign, let’s allow the computers to figure out the message, how to personalize it and deliver it to the consumer.

If you layer programmatic creative on top of programmatic buying, what does the future hold for advertising?

Recently, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled, The Process of Making Digital Ads is Gradually Starting to Become More ‘Programmatic’, that looked at some of the fledging startups that have generated significant venture capital interest in this space. They also looked at Flite, which was acquired by Snap (Snapchat) recently, as further proof that this is where our world is headed. It’s easy to see how the current uses of programmatic creative are being deployed – and why this is happening. Hint: it’s mostly doing the creative automation work for the retargeting process. It goes something like this: A consumer searches for something online, instead of that data being fed to an agency to produce an ad, the technology enables a way for a simple/templated ad to then follow that consumer all over the web (charmed, I’m sure). The more personalized these ads (mention of the product, brand and image), the more likelihood that a future purchase will happen (at least this is what the retargeting and analytics professionals are telling us).

What if programmatic creative delivers on its promise? 

Branding – as we know it – is going to change if programmatic creative gets momentum. We used to talk about brands and advertising within the realm of the “big idea.” The big idea is that each brand should have one big statement that it stands for. This idea that each ad campaign should have one big statement that it stands for in the marketplace. Has this way of thinking become way too traditional for our modern world? Should a brand (and an ad) tell the same story to their entire audience? Should a brand (and an ad) have one unique big idea, or is that old-school thinking? What happens in a world where programmatic creative becomes a real platform, and the technology to deliver all kinds of different messages to different people if viable? Does this make advertising more effective, while making the brand sentiment whatever is needed – in the moment – to make a sale? That’s something – serious – to think about.

There is a lot to fear about programmatic creative.

The human side is the easiest part for us to fear. The idea that no computer brain can be more creative than a human brain. The idea that no computer will ever be able to write a song that brings tears to our eyes, a movie treatment that moves us, the next great novel, or the next brilliant tagline. We don’t want to believe that a computer can replace the human condition. Humans will know when it’s another human, and creativity is something that we have cornered the market on. This part, I am not so sure about, but it’s still (mostly) the stuff of science fiction. What’s really nerve-wracking, as you explore the current world of programmatic creative, is how it hollows out the value of a brand. In fact, if you flick through the myriad of startups who are in this programmatic creative space, you will hardly see mention of what happens to the brand. The sentiment is: let’s not worry too much about the brand, right now. You’re spending billions of dollars on advertising that is not effective. Make the ads effective by making them all so hyper-personalized… we can worry about the brand later. Trillions of different ads – with different creative – all served based on who is seeing the ad and what kind of offer will motivate them. 

Brand first. 

If we want programmatic creative to be something real and tangible, I would bring forward this thought: let’s make the brand programmatic first. If a startup can truly develop the first programmatic brand (all technology… no humans), then go ahead and make all of your advertising align with that. The idea that programmatic creative solves the “problem” of having the people who create an ad not being in the same part of the world as the person who is buying the media campaign, could be a little shortsighted. Using technology to template ad creative so that it can be served in near-real time, is probably a smart strategy for many global brands. But, using technology to develop the creative platform, and then handle the full ad production of it – simply because a brand is global or is spending a lot of dollars – seems like a tragic lapse in brand thinking. Yes, we are experiencing a technological advancement of programmatic creative in our industry, but what do we do about the brand and its value?

So, will programmatic creative kill ad production or will it completely turn a brand upside down?