Programmatic doesn't mean 'game over' for creativity, just some new rules

Far from signalling the end of creativity, programmatic media-buying is giving the marketing industry some dynamic new parameters to consider, writes Mel Exon.

Mel Exon: Programmatic isn't just about 'robots with calculators'
Mel Exon: Programmatic isn't just about 'robots with calculators'

Back in the last century, 'gorillas with calculators' cropped up as a disparaging phrase used to describe media-buyers who traded forcefully and mechanistically. In 2015, as programmatic marketing takes hold, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have simply shifted protagonists: it's robots with calculators instead.

Robots with calculators

So what is programmatic, why aren't more marketers paying close attention to it and what happens to creativity in the age of automation? The second of those questions is answered by the other two. Programmatic media is a complex, jargon-stuffed topic, confusing to many and still carrying with it the carrion-like smell of a creativity killer. But is it?

At its simplest, programmatic means using software to buy and sell digital advertising. Like a lot of industries, this shift to automation is efficiency driven, theoretically removing the errors, time and cost that can come with pesky human resources.

While RTB (real-time bidding through auctions) dominated programmatic in 2014, at 92% of spend, coming up fast is 'programmatic direct', which lets advertisers purchase guaranteed ad impressions in advance from specific publisher sites.

Significant shifts

Inevitably, with an industry that is new, evolving at pace and involves big sums of money, there are trust issues.

According to the IAB, the programmatic market (including auctions and direct deals) is on the rise: it's expected to grow to $20bn by 2016 and already accounts for close to half the UK's digital display ads. Even in RTB, significant shifts are afoot, with growth coming from private marketplaces (vs open auctions) and mobile and video programmatic (vs display advertising). There are even experiments with programmatic TV and outdoor ad buying.

Inevitably, with an industry that is new, evolving at pace and involves big sums of money, there are trust issues. Fraud and a lack of transparency in some quarters make vigilance about consistent, comparable measurement even more critical.

What happens to creativity in this context?

The perception is that programmatic works primarily for direct-response ads, not known for their creativity. But there are two things marketers should consider in this context:

1. This technology sets us free. Programmatic automates the lower-order tasks associated with ad-buying, giving us more time to concentrate on developing considerably more interesting and useful campaigns.

2. We might be better off renaming this 'dynamic' marketing. Every ad should be dynamic, taking the audience data used in programmatic buying and using it to make the creative uncannily relevant. Not in a retargeted-to-the-point-of-stalking way, but instead using location, time and demographics to update and evolve the ad. Again, according to the IAB, doing this well "can double yield on interaction rates and increase engagement by 50%".

Shift upstream

Building a programmatic assembly line does not necessarily mean 'game over' for creativity: it is simply in creating patterns, allowing for mass-customisation.

This requires a shift upstream in the planning process for programmatic. As Doubleclick's Phil Miles describes the opportunity, we should "move the conversation away from pure execution and towards thinking how we can use the data and signals it provides to drive strategy and creative".

This, in turn, demands marketers and creative agencies take stock of their marketing models. To borrow a metaphor from Henry Ford, I'd wager that most traditional agencies still hand-build cars. Designed, built, then launched and left on the Tarmac. Building a programmatic assembly line does not necessarily mean 'game over' for creativity: it is simply in creating patterns, allowing for mass-customisation. What's more, as programmatic video grows, the creative opportunities will come more sharply into focus.

For now, it may take effort to get to grips with the plethora of platforms and providers, but let's not lose sight of the goals: greater simplicity and efficiency.

Mel Exon is managing director, BBH London, and co-founder, BBH Labs @melex.

MEET OUR THINKERS