Huge Executives On Where Technology and Creativity Collide

hugeAs more advertising happens programmatically, it’s increasingly difficult to blend automation and creative design.

And though Brooklyn-based digital agency Huge doesn’t buy media, it feels the influence of automation in advertising and doesn’t necessarily feel it’s for the better, at least from a creative standpoint.

With roughly 1,000 employees, Huge operates offices in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., Rio de Janeiro, London and Singapore. Huge works with heavyweight companies and brands like Google, Nike, Comcast, Lowes, American Express and FX, to name a few. The agency has an in-house data department, and does nearly all its analytics in-house.

AdExchanger spoke to Ken Allard, managing director of business strategy, and Matthew Waghorn, director of communication planning, about the agency’s history, philosophy and how a digital agency can start to think about integrating new technologies into the creative process.

ADEXCHANGER: What’s distinctive about Huge’s client strategy?

KEN ALLARD: The way that we approach campaigns is to pinpoint a central idea. We think of campaigns as more than one-off initiatives. We want them to be connected to an insight that we have in the marketplace about the target market and the needs of those users. We want there to be an overarching strategy that helps the brand to connect to its users’ needs.

Can you give an example of a successful campaign?

KA: A great example of our process would be the work we did for TD Ameritrade around the Olympics. They wanted to show that they could help a broader marketplace and that making small, incremental investments would lead to something big over time. Working the Olympics is always tricky because the Olympic Committee has anything related to the athletes very tightly controlled though global sponsorships.

We had this idea called the It Adds Up campaign. We identified up-and-coming athletes that would be in the next Olympics but not in this one, so they weren’t locked up with the Olympic committee’s restrictions. We partnered them with a mentor that was an athlete in the most recent Olympic Games, the idea being that all of the people surrounding an athlete gives them a bit of help and guidance along the way, and that builds up to something great.

The campaign was #itaddsup, and it was both a social campaign and an offline campaign. We got a lot of earned media, and the “Today” show even covered it. We always think about the real market challenge for a brand, the user need and what’s authentic to a particular brand that gives it license to pursue a certain campaign.

How do you vet ad technology and integrate it into business strategies?

KA: We’re focused on helping companies build what we call externally facing experiences. We’re not looking to help a business, from the technology perspective, to re-engineer their order entry, accounting or their logistical systems.

When it comes to that, the technologies are quite new, and most businesses haven’t made the investments that are required to bring them to life. There was a gigantic round of investment around the first Internet heyday, and after the bubble burst, a lot of companies went into hiding and didn’t update their infrastructures for a really long time. Now we see a whole new round of investment because the old infrastructures don’t work anymore. They were only developed to power the digital experiences that were for desktop. Now the majority of usage is in mobile and tablets, and increasingly in new mediums like digital and physical experiences in store or with wearable devices.

The relevance of the old infrastructure in most organizations right now is quite poor. We help companies with their technology strategy to understand what users need, and we do execution to help our clients bring digital experiences to life.

How does Huge approach programmatic?

MATTHEW WAGHORN: At Huge, we don’t buy media, so my experience in programmatic and my view of it is one of a strategic nature. Our stance is that programmatic is good for certain things like mass reach, or if you’re looking to drive mass adoption of something like app downloads. Programmatic can be extremely useful for very specific marketing objectives like that.

But I think we're becoming very dependent as an industry on pricing, and I think that programmatic has enabled a race to the bottom in terms of pricing and quality of inventory.

I think that when you look at programmatic buying and consider the performance of banners, in general, we end up with this kind of weird equation where we've got agencies buying the cheapest media that doesn’t work and the cheapest banners that no one clicks on.

So, I’m not entirely sure that programmatic is all we've wanted it to be. When you look at the technological advances of it, from a targeting point of view, for instance, it’s very smart. I think there are certain technologies out there that push technical capabilities quite a lot, but I think by and large, programmatic buying has accelerated our race to the bottom.

With that pricing shift in mind, are there elements of programmatic that can support quality creative content?

MW: Now that pricing has reached rock bottom, we’re trying to invent ways of automating creativity. And I think automating premium content is the hottest topic within that conversation. There’s something to the idea of a private network that’s pretty cool. I actually wonder if private exchanges are a preferred way of selling from a publisher’s perspective. If, as a site, I can offload a bucketful of inventory and have it sold at an extremely low overhead, versus nurturing direct relationships and agency relationships, I wonder where that balance lies.

But in a world where we’re so blind to banners, and where brands are seeking much deeper integrations with publishers from a relationship and creativity standpoint, programmatic is not going to help them.

How does ad automation align with the creative?

MW: I don’t think that it does, but it depends how you view it. A media agency will view programmatic buying as the ability of getting cheap inventory to the right people or buying cheap audiences. There is an efficiency and a targeting balance at play. But where we see the challenge, as a creative agency, is that it’s not about being more efficient. We’re much less concerned in the mass capability of cheap inventory. We’re more interested in creating something that elicits an emotional response. Banners are the worst way to do that. So what we do in programmatic is not going to move the needle at all, if you look at scale of challenges our clients come to us with.

Then what’s the link between emerging tech and creative performance?

KA: I would say technology and creative performance are intrinsically linked, and you can’t do one without the other. If you think about the companies that are changing our world, like Google, Uber and Facebook, those are all companies that were founded by and are run by engineers. Those engineers saw what technology could make possible and how we could do things we couldn’t do before. And they combined that insight and foresight with creative experiences to change the way that we live, buy things, find things and even how we get into cars.

The idea that you can have a creative vision that’s divorced from an enabling infrastructure is fundamentally wrong. And the idea that a technology on its own can truly have an impact on the world without thinking about how about how a user would use it, how a company would implement it or what it means to the brand of that company and the products and services it offers is equally faulty.

We look at the marriage of business, creative and technology as core to who we are and core to what’s necessary to succeed in the world. And any digital experience is inherently measurable. If you’re not measuring it, learning from it and improving because of it, then someone else will.

 

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