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Robot, you're fired: Why the man-machine collaboration is key to programmatic creative success

Mercedes made headlines when it announced that it was replacing robots on its assembly lines with humans, an interesting plot twist in an age when we are accustomed to reading about people losing their jobs to machines. It turns out that the robots weren’t flexible enough. They couldn’t handle the kind of detailed customization that Mercedes considers a hallmark of its brand’s quality, so they replaced the robots with humans.

Technology still has a huge role to play: these humans will operate smaller, task-specific machines, a combination Mercedes believes will deliver better results for its customers via a more cost-effective production process.

There is an important analogy here with digital advertising, an industry that is undergoing a fundamental shift toward task automation, just as the auto industry did decades ago. The programmatic industry would be wise to take note of Mercedes’ decision, especially if it wants to take full advantage of its targeting and capabilities potential. (That’s right, we’re not doing so yet.)

Mercedes is not the only company giving the boot to some of its robots. Toyota has also replaced robots with people in an effort to increase efficiency. For Mercedes, and for digital advertisers, it’s just as much about quality. An advertisement is an extension of a brand. If the creative isn’t appropriate, if every detail isn’t perfect, then the ad isn’t serving its full purpose.

Mercedes’ decision is analogous to people choosing creative management platforms (CMPs) over dynamic creative optimization platforms (DCOs). DCOs are the most hands-off approach to programmatic creative optimization, whereas CMPs require more human input. DCOs automate ad customization, but you might sacrifice some quality —pixel perfection, for example. For some brands, especially luxury ones like Mercedes, that sacrifice is too great.

With CMPs, advertisers take back some control. The process is automated, but they have the final say on details like pixel differences and copy placement. The human touch ensures quality control. It’s akin to the human operator-small machine tag team. The machine helps the human do things more efficiently, or even perform tasks that weren’t previously possible, but the human is needed to ensure flexibility and quality.

The devil is in the details

Mercedes prioritizes customization, even of small details like the color of the carbon fiber and the type of tire valve cap. These changes aren’t fundamentally altering the vehicle, but they matter to the person buying the car, so much so that Mercedes is willing to disrupt its manufacturing process to see that they’re executed correctly. Personalization matters even more in the ad industry.

Creative customization in programmatic allows us to take a general concept and make it more impactful to a specific audience. A subtle color change or a new headline can be what makes the difference between an ineffective ad and one that resonates with its viewer and incites action. Despite the importance of the creative, and despite programmatic’s unprecedented ability to help us reach a specific audience with a tailored message, we’re not taking the same pains in our “manufacturing process” to ensure high quality, personalized ads.

Bring in the humans

Everyone loves to talk about the tension between robots and humans, and to paint this bleak, scary picture of a dystopian world where unemployed humans wander aimlessly while robot overlords run the show. But long term, the rise in programmatic isn’t going to mean fewer jobs — or at least it shouldn’t. There will be job rearrangement, sure, but for companies that realize programmatic’s true value proposition, advanced targeting capabilities that allow you to reach a very specific person with a very specific message, programmatic opens up career opportunities.

Programmatic automates much of media buying, but to get the most from programmatic’s capabilities, you need human intervention. Now that you can target micro segments across vast media properties, the complexity of media buying has exploded. We’ve seen examples of media buying teams being let go, but companies going that route will soon realize that they need more human expertise to maximize the effectiveness of their buy.

People also prognosticate that creative automation will lead to fewer design jobs, but I’d argue the opposite: Now that we can target in such a specific way, the amount of creative work that is possible is almost unlimited.

Technology helps companies do more with their resources, but to start letting creatives go now, at the very moment when ad messages can be refined for the person seeing it, would be irresponsible. This is what we’ve practiced for. This is what we’ve dreamed of. There will be, or at least there should be, more job opportunities in the creative planning and design process over time.

Most companies haven’t yet hired sufficient resources to truly capitalize on programmatic’s capabilities. They don’t have the most effective processes in place, or, in many cases, the right talent. As Mercedes demonstrates, it will take trial and error and investment—in people, not technology, for once. Let’s use Mercedes as a reminder that just because you can automate something doesn’t mean you should. I get it; it’s what we do best. But let’s instead spend time identifying how to best use human intervention to augment our production processes. Advertising is, after all, an innately human business. And it turns out, robots and humans make a really good team.

Rob Lennon is sr. product marketing manager at Thunder

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Rob Lennon

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