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The war between programmatic buying and creativity

The war between programmatic buying and creativity Michael Estrin

Harry Crane might promise you the world with your media buy. But one thing he'd probably never guarantee, with the certitude of today's media buyers, is the idea that your media spend would always deliver the right message to the right person at the right time without any waste. Instead, the fictional media buyer from AMC's "Mad Men" would most likely try to convince you that a media buy on a popular daytime soap opera would put your brand in front of housewives, whereas buying time on a network news show would bring you an audience of thoughtful adult males. There would be waste, sure, but the media plan would move the needle because it would be aimed -- though maybe not targeted -- at an audience that is most likely to be receptive.

The war between programmatic buying and creativity

Of course, Harry Crane and his gender-biased assumptions are long gone. (Incidentally, soap operas are reportedly on their way out, too.) The media buy today is so data-driven that increasingly media buyers are being taken out of the loop, especially as the concept of targeting takes on an air of computational precision never before seen in media.

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Real-time bidding, or what some refer to as programmatic buying, is becoming increasingly popular with brand advertisers. According to eMarketer, automated media buys will account for 13 percent of all display buys this year. That's a significant number, but what's even more staggering is that automated buys have more than tripled since 2010. But if you think the direct response crowd -- which has always been about the right person, right message, right time trifecta -- is driving the shift to automated media buys, you're wrong.

A few months ago, AdWeek asked Rubicon Project to take a snapshot of the shift. Turns out, Rubicon Project, which handles 6 billion ad impressions and 350 billion bids placed among comScore's top 500 publishers each day, found that name brands are leading the way toward programmatic media buying. AT&T, Verizon, Southwest Airlines, Chrysler, and Unilever were the top five Rubicon buyers in October of 2012.

But it's not just happening at Rubicon Project. Federated Media's decision to shutter its direct sales business and gear up for programmatic has been well documented. On the publisher side, there have been reports that the glad-handing sales teams of old -- sorry, Harry Crane -- are being replaced by quantitative specialists because today's media buys increasingly require a sales force that is technically fluent in ad serving technology and well-versed in auction theory, game theory, and numerous other disciplines that you probably would have expected to see on a stock trader's resume. 

Of course, the shift to programmatic isn't just about retooling the skill set of today's media buyer. As Brian Lesser, CEO of the Xaxis, explained with a little help from the PBS show "Downton Abbey," the idea is to deliver on one of advertising's oldest promises, albeit with a modern, digital toolset.

"The ad worked because it reached the right person (Mr. Bates), with the right message (we can fix your limp), at the right time (if you don't do something about your limp, you're going to get fired)," Lesser wrote in Ad Age. "Getting these factors to align is far more important now than it was in 1912; ours is a world where media are extremely disaggregated and consumers are surrounded by more marketing messages each day than Mr. Bates could see in a lifetime."

The example Lesser cites in an interesting one. A century ago, that media buy was inextricably linked to the ad's creative. The advertiser whipped up the art and copy and then contacted the publisher to see about the cost and timing of the ad placement. Today, that's not necessarily the case.

With a greater emphasis on programmatic buying, some creative directors say that the creative process is increasingly disconnected from the buying process. That reality presents a number of issues, not the least of which is this question: Is creative a limiting factor in the right person, right time, right message promise? Or, put another way: Can an agency really make that promise if it means generating dozens of creative options for each audience segment?

Can your creative team really scale for programmatic?

If we're talking about direct response creatives, the answer is probably, "Yes." Direct response advertisers have had a long-running relationship with digital targeting technologies. And for the most part, creative has kept pace. But the demands direct response places on the creative team are mostly about hitting a small target with a number of angles, rather than thinking outside of the box to create something wholly original. If we're talking about brand advertising, it may be a different story.

"Display creative is becoming more automated -- much like media buying is," says Sarah Sikowitz Hite, VP, group media director at 360i. "Dynamic creative allows for creative updates based on the target audience -- all delivered in real time. For creative teams, this means templates that technology can update, rather than creating a number of different versions."

But while Sikowitz Hite believes it is possible for creative teams to keep up with automation, she's not sure targeted messaging is a panacea.

"It's important for both brands and media buyers to think about the incremental lift that targeted or personalized creative will deliver," Sikowitz Hite says. "For direct response brands, specifically those in the retail or travel space, dynamic creative can drive high ROI. However, for brands focused on branding and awareness, tailoring creative to narrow micro-targets may not deliver incrementally better results."

But Brian Carley, executive creative director at Rokkan, an agency that handles creative for a lot of targeted campaigns for major brands, sees it differently.

"The idea that you can match the right message to the right eyeball at the right time definitely does present some creative limits in terms of how much one agency or even a team of agencies can generate," says Carley. "I'm just not sure we've really hit those limits yet."

That may be because few brands are really going as far on the right person, right message, right time promise as targeting technology might allow. But remember, programmatic buying is still picking up steam. Media buying technology is improving, the data sets are becoming increasingly rich, and the marketing spend is growing. The question is, "Where does that leave the creative?" 

"I don't think it is a great use of time to attempt to craft a million personal headlines and notes for a database of a million people," says Jason Norcross, executive creative director and partner at 72andSunny. "Rather, I think it's smartest to organize those people into specific groups (like recent users, lapsed users, etc.) and serve them a more general message (like, 'We've just upgraded our product, give it another try')."

Segmenting those audiences and connecting with them at the right time in appropriate channels, and perhaps even a few surprising channels, is the creative act, according to Norcross.

Suspicious targeting

But even segmenting makes Carley somewhat suspicious. For one thing, he suspects there's also a limit to just how much consumers really want to hear from a brand. Aggressively pushing tailored messages to segmented audiences runs the risk of numbing consumers, says Carley, or worse, turning them off to the brand entirely.

But Carley's bigger concern is that the targeting that goes into programmatic buys really isn't all that targeted.

"You see a lot of media plans that look suspiciously like all the other media plans out there," he says. "The idea is to be very granular in your media plan and strategy, but a lot of what we see feels very cookie cutter."

Avoiding the cookie cutter

In a perfect world, each team that works on the campaign is looped in early and often.

"Early communication is key," says Sikowitz Hite. "Having kick-off meetings with both creative and media in the room -- even across agencies -- allows for work to happen concurrently. Additionally, clarity on specs and rich media partners upfront can stop a lot of the chicken and egg dynamic that often occurs between creative and media; media can plan around what it knows will be built, and creatives can build what it knows will run."

Norcross agrees. When good, early communication happens, the client usually gets the best result.

"We have had the most success by getting all partners -- media, PR, social, creative -- aligned on a brief with our clients very early in the process," says Norcross. "Then we all come together and share ideas. Get everyone focused on solving the problem, not filling buckets and checking boxes."

Norcross says he's a big proponent of what he calls "better beginnings." It starts with the best possible articulation of the client's problem or opportunity, better briefs, and better meetings, especially in the early going.

"Then you can better identify the right thing to do and actually get to newer, more interesting and, potentially, more innovative solutions," he says.

But while the process Norcross describes is certainly possible, it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes the problem is that the media is bought way in advance, says Carley.

"That means you're trying to fit the creative to the media," he says. "That happens a lot, and it can work great, but the tradeoff is that your ideas need to conform to the media buy, which means you may not be able to go as big as you like."

Another common problem: clients that see situations with multiple agencies as an opportunity for a creative bakeoff.

"That can be exciting, and it can lead to a big idea, but pitting multiple agencies against each other isn't good for collaboration, and usually that's what the brand says it wants because we're creating so much creative for so many channels and scenarios, which is one of the reasons multiple agencies were hired in the first place," says Carley.

Are silos still the problem?

Even if a brand is genuine when it says it wants to collaborate across agencies, there's always that pesky problem of coordinating between teams.

"Silos still exist to some extent," says Carley. "But I'd say that the lines between teams have become really blurred in the last few years, and that's a very good thing."

But blurred lines between teams aren't the same thing as having integrated teams. Time and skill sets remain limiting factors. Each team has a full-time job, so while it's possible to loop them in with the other players, it's not necessarily feasible to cross-train those teams with any real depth.

As Carley puts it with a chuckle, "Creative directors all know the basics of what the media buyer does, but there's a lot of drop-off after that."

Don Draper or Harry Crane?

It's easy to think of the rise in automated buying as a kind of battle between Don Draper and Harry Crane -- or maybe Harry Crane 2.0. But it's not a zero sum game, at least not when you're talking about brand advertising.

"Custom creative executions are meant to live alongside specific content and, at their best, align the brand with the content in a unique way," says Sikowitz Hite. "Those programs are not going away. It's up to media and creative, along with the premium publisher community, to keep bringing those partnerships to life through compelling storytelling and new ideas."

Unfortunately, at the high end, all the challenges of aligning media and creative remain. While at the low end, it's clearly a media buyer's world. 

But the way Norcross sees it, the agency's challenge is to weave together the custom creative that embodies the big idea with targeted opportunities that extend the message's reach to the largest possible audience.

"A broader audience might not see the custom campaign, but the hot molten core of your audience will experience it in a more meaningful way," says Norcross. "It'll feel bigger. And that is meaningful scale. Then you can use other sorts of tactics -- media and otherwise -- to create on-ramps to that custom campaign for a broader audience."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

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"Two businessmen playing tug of war" image via Shutterstock.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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