These days, it feels rather like the numbers do the talking. Data- and software-driven ad planning, targeting and buying are revolutionising the industry. So it’s no surprise that technology and science are winning the war for column inches.
Already this year, however, I have noticed a quaint attempt at a correction. The programmatic ad tech vendors, the agency data executives and the brand scientists are starting to throw around words like 'creativity' and 'art'. In the reams of opinions now being shared online, the ad-tech sector is coalescing around a new challenge: now we have the media in place, it’s time to focus on the message.
When VPs or data scientists wade into 'creativity' waters, it can seem to make for an awkward, embarrassing moment – speaking beyond their brief, crossing the line separating 'Mad Men' and 'Math Men'. But the truth is, that divide has never existed.
As British scientist and novelist CP Snow made clear in his 1959 Rede Lecture on 'the two cultures', a fissure between art and science only opened up in the Romantic-era early 19th century, as schools and universities began dedicating themselves to one discipline or the other. Before that, Romans expressed themselves through engineering, Greek art took the forms of geometry and mathematics.
So I have never bought the notion of a division between the programmatic practices we are marvelling at today and the supposed golden age of creative advertising, typified by the 1950s or 80s.
At the recent Guardian Changing Media Summit, BBH founder Sir John Hegarty described both Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and the process of salesmanship, equally, as 'art'. He’s right – sometimes ad planning is about looking for an oddity in media data that opens the window to a better buy.
Our industry has always thrived most when it has used both hemispheres of its brain. There is no shortage of creativity here.
That is why I am concerned that we may, indeed, be letting the programmatic process override the purpose.
With the technology now in-play in the marketplace, advertisers are doing a great job at delivering to the right person at the right time. As an industry, however, we are less good at delivering the right message.
Let’s take an example. If you are a travel operator these days, then data sets, propensity-to-buy ratings and targeting superpowers can help take your creative to a prospective customer, whether they are browsing the Mirror or FT.com. The trouble is, those readers are likely to be very different.
This should make a world of difference to the kinds of triggers you present to them, the buttons you push. But, today, limitations in automated buying technology mean we are often unable to deliver alternate creative messages in quite the way we would like.
This is where we need to get to – real-time, individual-by-individual media planning that prizes the richness and uniqueness of a message, not just how efficiently it reaches its audience.
Brands may be wowed by the tech on offer, but they also recognise the logistical problem.
Some 58 per cent of marketers report having insufficient operational resources to execute dynamically optimised campaigns, according to a Digiday survey. Two thirds say a lack of creative resources is preventing them reaching true scale.
Dynamic creative optimisation technology is emerging that promises to support more creative messaging, while programmatic sequencing raises the possibility of delivering personalised narrative campaigns, beyond the life of a single piece of inventory. In response, creative agencies protest that producing multiple messages increases cost and complexity.
But I don’t think it is beyond the wit of our industry to produce creatives that more appropriately match the media which carry them. In analogue, we have already done it for years – an ad for a credit card looks very different in a holiday magazine to its manifestation in a business weekly. Today, in digital, we are using the same generic message over and over, missing valuable conversion opportunities.
While our business, holistically, is both technological and creative, we still have a problem in which ad specialists don’t necessarily understand technologists, and vice versa.
To take full advantage of the software available, we must reinvent the way we approach messaging. Science can unlock our art. But, to do so, we first have to answer the 'how?'
Tom Bowman is CEO of IO