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Creativity in the programmatic era

Creativity in the programmatic era
Digital Strategy Director Liam Brennan launches the first of a Starcom MediaVest Group series with a look at 2014's big industry evolution.

There is a commonly held belief that the brain comprises of two halves – the logical side (left) and the creative side (right).

People who are ‘left’ brained tend to work in scientific fields, whereas those on the ‘right’ are involved in more artistic endeavours.

Traditionally, those that work in advertising would be considered to be more right brain than left.

However, we are now in the ‘math men’ era of ‘big data’ and programmatic buying, where advertising effectiveness is linked to efficiencies in targeting and buying as much as (if not more so) than purely creative execution.

As some recent opinion pieces suggest, the shift towards data led planning seems to be killing traditional creativity in advertising.

However, I believe that the ‘big data’ era of advertising will usher in a new era of creativity – it’s just that we’re not set up for it yet.

Banners are making a comeback – but they’re still banners

When online became part of the wider media mix 10 or 15 years ago, many creative agencies did not enjoy working with banner formats. The canvas was small, had low impact and couldn’t (in many cases) feature audiovisual components. Banner formats soon fell foul of media planners as well when click through rates began to decline and more creative options became available.

But now, with the growth of programmatic buying, the humble web banner seems to be making a bit of a comeback. Indeed, the IAB predicts 45% of all UK display inventory will be bought programmatically in 2014 – a large proportion of that in banner ad formats.

The strength of data led and programmatic buying lies in precision - being able to isolate audiences and move them down a ‘sales funnel’, with tailored and increasingly direct messaging/re-messaging.

This focus on the precision has meant that programmatic buying has featured heavily on performance plans. However, due to the limited creative capabilities of banners than run within them, they’ve been slow to appear on the more creative ‘brand’ plans.

This association of ‘programmatic = banners” means we’re not getting the most out of data led planning. We equate creativity with the creative canvas not the creative use of insights.

Put simply, we are not thinking creatively in what we can do with data.

Old methods for new tech is the wrong approach

One of the best creative applications of data was during Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Obama’s team needed to maximise attendance to a fundraiser featuring actress Sarah Jessica Parker, singer Mariah Carey and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

Rather than blanket email a list of potential attendees, Obama’s team created a series of different invites for the event, alternating copy for each consumer segment (e.g. females, interest in fashion etc. received an email with Wintour as the headliner) – similar to how we use data in creative targeting now.

However what was different was that those featured in the event were chosen based on the list of invitees. The Obama team had looked at the passion points of those on the list (e.g. who they followed on Twitter) and sought out influencers in those fields as their ‘creative asset’ in order to maximise the likelihood of people buying a ticket.

This was one of the early examples of creative application of data - influencing the ‘creative’ as well as ‘targeting’. A simplistic use of data (and with little tools), but extremely effective as the $40,000 per ticket event was a quick sell out.

Through accessible data we have the ability to understand more about consumers than ever before. It doesn’t kill the creative process – it makes it easier and more effective.

A new way of working is needed

Most agencies are not set up for data led creativity.

Creative agencies use public, client or specially commissioned research overlaid with creative best practice. Many media agencies, who have been more vocal about data usage, keep their data focused planners within performance teams.

In order to be truly creative in this new field, data and insight must be freed from a backroom function pushed front and centre. Data mining will become part of the audience research and insight piece and, importantly, ongoing optimisation.

Traditional elements (ideation, copywriting, art direction etc.) of the creative process need not change a great deal. However, the frequency of this process needs to match the frequency of new learnings.

Earlier I referred to the left and right brain concept. This has been proven to be incorrect - logic and creativity comes from both sides of the brain.

A new focus on data will help creativity, not hinder it.

Liam Brennan is Digital Strategy Director at Starcom UK.

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Last updated 14/11/2014

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