It’s time for creative to retake center stage
Call me a curmudgeon. When I was coming up through the advertising industry, it was creative that drove the campaign. Creative development is where the process started, where the energy went and what gave a campaign its identity, its purpose, its chance for success. Media was just the distribution mechanism for those arresting, mind-changing messages.
Programmatic has changed that. Today, it’s the media agency that guides the campaign, that draws the resources and sets the agenda. The pendulum has swung way too far, and I think it has really hurt us.
Don’t get me wrong — programmatic buying and selling has led to undeniable advantages: targeted audiences, cross-channel capabilities, the ability to dynamically address a message to an individual consumer in a rigorously precise moment, and (theoretically) an end-to-end supply chain fueled by an abundance of rich data. Ignoring for a moment the supply chain problems of fraud, brand safety and viewability, the broad availability of audience data allows for quantification, targeting and optimization of buying in a way never before possible.
But somewhere along the line, the problem of how to distribute the message became more important than the message itself. Creative now takes a back seat to the media plan.
Programmatic has deprioritized publisher collaboration and rich media. The separation of media and creative agencies at the holding companies has made collaboration between them rare, if not impossible.
Have we forgotten that all this effort must end up with a compelling message in front of a person — a living, breathing human being who is multitasking and distracted, and whose primary purpose in life is not to process our advertising messages? Ultimately, the best ad delivery mechanism is useless if it delivers a message that doesn’t sing.
The deprioritization of creative
The state of today’s creative reflects its deprioritization. It’s simply not as good as it could be.
Everybody wants to shift blame to the agencies for this overall drop in quality. But I truly believe that agencies deliver what the clients demand.
In fact, today’s procurement process makes it so that agencies give clients only exactly what they pay for — so if brands aren’t paying for great creative, not focusing on great creative and not demanding great creative, they’re not going to get it.
Obsessed with the distribution machinery, brands aren’t demanding transformative creative from their partners. And as a result, brands are left with lousy, uninspired communications which many consumers ignore, and which roughly 30 percent of US internet users will block in the first place.
We are approaching a point of maturity when it comes to the programmatic pipes themselves. We’ve spent the better part of the past decade watching programmatic grow from real-time bidding and remnant inventory to command a more significant part of the budget once reserved for premium, upper-funnel executions.
Now we are seeing programmatic creative tools making new types of creative expression possible. We can sequence messages to individual users to build a case or tell a story. We can use dynamic native to surface rich branded content to the consumer to deepen his involvement in the brand. And we can combine audience data, contextual data and environmental signals like weather to create a new standard of personal intimacy.
Addressability means we can speak to the person. And we can offer relevant value in exchange for her attention. And if she engages, interactive channels provide brands the means to engage in return.
All this is possible, but rarely attempted, let alone achieved. Creative agencies and creative professionals can lead the shift, but only if they are provided the proper incentive and can respond to the right demand. The key is that brands must know what to ask for and put all their leverage behind the ask.
Making a creative connection
So what does great creative look like in today’s mobile-first, cross-device environment? The simplest answer I can give is that great creative must grow out of consumer insights, yet be elegantly adaptable to multiple devices, formats and consumer circumstances.
Instead of making different creative for different formats, or just repurposing the same creative across different formats, today’s most effective ads recognize data signals like location, time and device, and they take advantage of these insights to dynamically communicate a clear identity and message.
A couple of examples to illustrate. (Disclosure: My employer helped implement the following two campaigns but did not design the creative.) By blending the fundamental ad man’s skill of copywriting with the precision targeting we expect of digital, Corona created engaging dynamic video ads to match messaging with events, times of the day, day of the week and weather, resulting in ads that naturally engage the viewer with relevance to the moment.
In native advertising, Nespresso created a connection with the user by linking emotive copy lines to the highs and lows in the day.
Both examples demonstrate a willingness by the agency to embrace the amazing things the tech can do. But more importantly, they’re using that tech to execute a strong central idea that clearly shows the viewer that their time looking at the ad has been rewarded by creative that’s been given the time and effort it deserves.
This type of creative might be more work for creative agencies than what they are currently producing, but it doesn’t have to be.
But regardless of complexity, this kind of creative connection is definitely more likely to happen when creative is engaged at the beginning of a collaborative process of a cross-device campaign. If brands aren’t demanding it, nor paying for it, the agency isn’t necessarily going to make it.
As an industry, we need to recommit to the quality of advertising creative. We need to put creative back at the forefront of the process, as opposed to relegating it to an afterthought made to fit a media plan after the fact. Now that the distribution has been (mostly) sorted out, clients must demand that creative reassume its role as the soul of the ad campaign, and they must put the processes and budgets in place to make it happen.