Media Perspective: The automation of advertising could unleash creativity

How often have you heard that internet advertising's accountability is as much a curse as a blessing?

That line of sight between click and commerce means we become too reliant on an immediate response. Consequently, it undermines the ability to do something a bit braver in the space.

This is only half the debate - because it also changes what we actually say to people. Response-based principles mean we rely less on creative-led messages in the search space. Big advertisers, with a million-plus keywords live at one time, automatically serve more than 5,000 variations of body copy with them - all minor semantic iterations of each other; all honed to suit the keyword or phrase; all geared to maximise response; and all crafted by analysts, with creative "inspiration" largely redundant.

This is often ignored because it feels containable - "it's only search". So what happens when this applies to a wider realm of communication? Automated ad creation is now a reality. In the simple space of a Facebook ASU, multiple iterations of the same ad can be churned out by a piece of software linked to Facebook's API. Thousands of different messages, shaped and chiselled to ramp up response; each with a minor tweak to suit a subtle shift in audience or reaction - so effective that one advertiser has 16,000 different iterations for one ASU.

Sky's October IPTV push will see these principles extend to telly - addressable advertising finally made scaleable, serving different audiences different stuff, at one time. Is this then a cause for commiseration or celebration? Will it mark the end of pure "creativity" and turn all campaigns into response-led automation? Who knows, but two examples give hope that it may unleash a new wave of creativity.

The first is the story of the aspiring creative who served a $6 Google AdWords campaign, about himself, to six top creative directors. Whenever they Googled themselves (and you know they would do), he was there. And so were the job offers. Because what mattered more than the message was how he'd caught a unique glimpse of human behaviour and used it to make that message powerful.

The second story is the spectacle that Carling created with just one TV spot in Yorkshire. Viewers in Leeds were "interrupted" from their normal Carling ad to tell them they could get a free HomeDraught system wheeled round to their house the next day - day one of the World Cup. The hoopla this caused was huge. Yet the only limits to this being a national extravaganza were the ability to serve different ads to different postcodes, and a fully automated delivery system that could successfully deal with a national clamour.

I never thought I'd say this, but an automated future might just be an awful lot of fun.

Ian Darby is away.

- Stephen Farquhar is the head of strategy at ZenithOptimedia.