Cannes 2016: Ad Industry Gathers Courage To Tackle Its Programmatic Creative Problem

polar-bear-cannes-titleAre programmatic advertising and creative storytelling finally coming together in a meaningful way?

It's a good question to ask at the Cannes Lions festival, where the whole point is creativity – or it used to be, before the twin powers of data and media started elbowing in on the joint a few years back.

But creatives are still here in vast numbers, and numerous remarks made in Cannes this week suggest they and their clients may finally be gearing up for the mass personalization of ad content.

Engaging The Creative Shop

BBDO San Francisco is one creative shop that's dancing with programmatic. This summer, the agency is working on a programmatic ad campaign for its client Mattel and hopes to use what it learns to inform the agency's overall workflow.

"Programmatic creative is almost a contradiction of terms," according to Jim Lesser, CEO of BBDO San Francisco. "There's so little Cannes-worthy creativity in programmatic. Our ability to target is unbelievably precise, while our ability to create messaging and storytelling for the people we can reach is lagging far, far behind."He says the big challenge for BBDO and Mattel is "How can we take programmatic, which at it's worst is annoying and creepy, and make it useful and interesting?" The answer is to move away from creating "objects" such as a TV spot, Snapchat video or print ad.

"Creative people typically think of an object as an output," Lesser said. "We have to stop thinking about objects as an output and instead create systems as an output."

Some creative agencies at WPP have also begun to collaborate with their GroupM brethren on programmatic marketing.

"An agency like Grey wasn’t born around data," said Grey president David Patton, speaking at a Xaxis-hosted event in Cannes on Wednesday. "It wasn’t inherent in our business. We’re trying to build those credentials within, but we’re still about creativity."

How will Grey pull it off? "We need to bring data scientists into the creative process, no doubt about that," Patton said. "But we also need to bring media planning into the creative process. And I sometimes feel this channel is an afterthought, and it needs to be further up the value chain if we are to achieve what we need to achieve."

His fellow panelist John O’Keeffe, worldwide creative director at WPP, agreed but drew a sharp line between the data-driven idea and the programmatic delivery method.

"There’s a confluence of interest here on behalf of our clients," O'Keeffe said. "At the end of this week, we’ll see a lot of brilliant creative work, and I’m hoping it’s relevant to its audience. Data is just information. It’s a good starting point from which to draw an insight, from which you can get creative. If you can deliver that programmatically, congratulations, well done."

As for automation of creative as a guiding principle for brands, he's not a fan. "Sounds like a great opportunity to put your feet up."

Who Leads?

One still-unanswered question is: Who should spearhead data-driven creativity, creatives or tech? Speakers at the Xaxis event were divided.

"Data men are going to rule," said Diaz Nesomoney, global CEO at Jivox, but added, "Data by itself doesn't do anything, so the creative folks have to gather with the data men and figure it out."

Nicolas Bidon, global CEO at native ad platform Plista, begged to differ.

"I think the creatives will win," he said. "Data is just a way to inform. In our industry, it's about creating emotions: joy, interest, surprise, compassion. Data can help inform how you do this, but you still have to be a human and have an idea."

To clarify this debate, it's important to distinguish between the "big idea" on the one hand, and dynamic creative optimization (DCO) on the other. DCO is widespread in display, though unevenly implemented, and is now coming to new formats like native and video.

"The next phase will be dynamic video capabilities," said Jos Pamboris, chief product officer at Flashtalking. "The idea that you can run thousands of variants of your preproduction video has been available but hasn't been hugely successful yet."

So, a more nuanced take might be that the question of who owns "programmatic creative" is not a zero sum game. DCO can be reasonably handled by the marketer's agency and technology partners, while creative agencies can incorporate customer data and known segments into their ideas. Creatives may also choose to alter their pre- and postproduction workflow to allow for dramatically more versions of a video ad, for example. But that will take work.

"Our creatives are still sitting in silos," said Wunderman global CEO Mark Read. "You’re the guys who build ads. You’re the guys who optimize the sales. It’s about recognizing that change and bringing people together in a fluid way."

Marketers strongly feel this need as well.

According to Matthew Pritchard, global head of digital media at GSK, "There's a need to nail the last mile to assemble the creative." He believes this is likely to be a function of technology, since creative agencies "don't leverage dynamic creative or other modes of execution."

machine-heart-titleFor Your Consideration

Manjiry Tamhane, Worldwide CEO at WPP-owned consultancy The Gain Theory, is on this year's jury for the Creative Data Lions, a new award category that was introduced in 2015 to recognize excellent work that leverages data.

She told AdExchanger that 85% of submissions she saw during the judging process were either all data with little creative inspiration or great creative ideas with a retroactively tacked-on data point. But she said the other 15% reflected true collaboration between data and creative elements. Some involved programmatic execution.

"Keep in mind, 15% is a very significant number," Tamhane said. "The temptation today is to overcomplicate and do things because you can instead of because you should. We were looking for entries where simplicity emerged from complexity in a way of creatively communicating, where creative and data flows together."

Of data-driven creative, her overall assessment is: "It's happening in fits."

"At the moment, it requires a lot of human investment," she said. "If you could in some way automate creative outputs, that's potentially a game-changer. Automation is scary for a lot of people, but [need not be] if tech companies and agencies are involved from the very beginning."

Costs Will Rise

But the coming together of creativity and data won’t be cheap.

"Creative costs are going to soar if we're going to get it right," said Andrew Casale, CEO of Index Exchange. "For good creative to flourish in programmatic, it will probably mean resetting media budgets. Right now, there's a massive chasm in education. Programmatic is that creaky thing; creative agencies don't understand or bother with it."

And yet, cost may not be the primary obstacle.

"I don't think the reason we haven't had a creative breakthrough is because of the cost," said BBDO's Lesser. "The cost is something we'll have to figure out. If we're going to shoot 100 times the assets, we're going to do it a different way. We're going to have to do it fast, cheap and great."

So what's the hold-up, if not compensation models? Ego plays a role.

"Media going to math is hard enough for people to stomach," said Eric Roza, SVP, Oracle Data Cloud. "Creative going to math is even harder. It's not just a technical issue, it's a philosophical issue."

The Marketer's Burden

Now comes the hard part – making it work for the marketer.

"We have obviously recognized, at a WPP level, that horizontality is the future," said O'Keefe. "Clients don’t need to recognize siloes. If they need programmatic skills from Xaxis and brilliant creative from me, we can’t say you can only have one. That model is dying, and we want to make sure clients have access through the team structure – access to whatever they need."

Clients, broadly speaking, want better cooperation across disciplines. But how do they get it, when agencies (even under the same holding company roof) don't always play nice?

"I’m looking for brilliant understanding of customers and their journeys," said Zaid Al-Qassab, chief brand and marketing officer at UK telecom company BT. "I’m agency-neutral as to where those things come from. Today, it’s no longer the domain of one agency group or another to come up with those things. Anyone can, because anyone has access to data, even your creative agency."

He added that the client has to be the integrator of agencies. "That’s our job. That’s our responsibility."

GSK's Pritchard agrees, and adds that clients must insist on simplicity. "From a brand's perspective, it's the next logical step to integrate agencies. My one request from my teams would be to overcome a change we've got to overcome the barrier to entry. We shouldn't try to boil the ocean."

Because there is a risk of getting lost in the technology and jargon, something clients should be vigilant against.

"I’m worried the conversation is myopic," said BT's Al-Qassab.

On the question of whether creative can be fully automated, he said, "My POV is that it doesn’t matter. Data can be as complicated as it likes to be, but the customer doesn’t care. It’s great if that insight comes from the data. It’s great if that insight comes from an old-fashioned focus group. The question is: What do you do with it?"

Later, Al-Qassab sounded a conciliatory note.

"Let’s not beat ourselves up too badly. We’ve been playing this game for a few years, and we’ve been playing the old game for decades," he said. "We’re learning. Clients have the responsibility to look at their integrated communications, get their agencies to work together, come up with fantastic ideas, understand different audiences and target them with the right messages. That doesn’t change."cannes-creative-comic


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