What happened to creativity?



Cock-a-doodle-doo! Nature has a way of wrapping different forms of advertising into a single moment; it’s punchy and to the point - puffed-up, colourful, and noisy. It works.


A product of data – lots of it over millions of years, to arrive at that moment: cock-a-doodle-doo! Though a quick search into how the cockerel goes about his morning blast in different languages, suggests that dynamic creative driven by geo location and context plays a part.


And thanks to Sir David Attenborough, we’ve become accustomed to how evolution has produced the most wonderful examples of creativity in the wild; creativity designed to attract and win over a significantly important target audience. Bosh! But something gets in the way when we in the digital space try to flex our own creative juices. Yes, as a species we have a flair for adorning flamboyant costumes across diverse and fabulous cultures: feathers, paints, rings, and rags; and we’re enchanting in our stomps, but with our attempts to make advertising on the Internet effective, we’ve managed progressively to cloud out much of the good stuff to evolve an approach that can often be summed up as: if they don’t respond, shout louder and much more often at them.


We have pushed almost blindly into creating a medium that has somewhat lost its identity; where bespoke ideas, developed from the ground up and in line with the Internet’s unique capacity for interactivity, are less common than teeth on our cock-a-doodle-doer’s lady-friends. We’re chased around the web senseless by lazy creative; our social feeds high-jacked with the same high-frequency megaphone that caused so much damage to display from the pop-up to incessant retargeting; re-purposed TV spots tick off the ‘branding’ job; and creativity’s role is mostly about shoe-horning existing designs into restrictive boxes via automated templates and data-driven copy. It’s depressing to witness, but as with much in ad tech, its origins are driven by an industry fixated with short-termism, sound bites and exits. Yet increasingly we’re frustrated when we hear that digital display advertising doesn’t work. No shit.


Educating the online marketing industry has been the self-awarded role of the ad-tech vendors for years, and numerous super-well-funded tech machines have found themselves in a worryingly strong position to buy market share easily with generous dollops of flannel. Young planner-buyers haven’t been around long enough to know the difference - what may well have been a banned over-intrusive format of 2000-and-something, could well be today’s new ‘high impact’ wonder stuff, especially when washed down with a ski trip and some cocktails. At some point in the past, retargeting audiences until their knuckles bled was hoovered up as the future. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.


It’s tiresome watching the industry destroy itself: incentivised video; high impact; senseless retargeting; header bidding’s sequel; first- and third-party data abuse; data and data; data; clickbait; devices; algorithms - it goes on. Five minutes at DMEXCO will reveal the size of the hyped-up, exit-frenzied machine that when primed with enough T&E fuel can reap havoc.


But DMEXCO aside, why did data become pretty much the only story once programmatic pushed its way in? Because getting the creativity piece to work properly is simply too challenging for most vendors in a hurry, and a high percentage of those have been founded by technologists, not drifty creative types. Ten to fifteen or so years ago, Flash was the multimedia device of choice for website creative and online advertising. Designers were as familiar with the Flash creative suite as they were/are today with Photoshop. This familiarity removed any technical barriers for ambitious online advertising, empowering creative agencies to free up their energy and create wonderful concepts that were alluring, highly interactive, and very effective. I was lucky to witness much of this early interactive branding work; my then business, Tangozebra delivered a high percentage of it. Agencies like Glue, Deconstruct, Dare, Lateral, Wieden & Kennedy, Wunderman, and many others, produced fabulous bespoke creative that exploited video and interactivity brilliantly. They charmed the end user and it worked. Yes, we had the crazy phases of page ripping, corner peeling, and site explosions, but they too were original in their design if not perhaps a little too feisty.


Then in 2011, Apple launched the iPad without support for Flash, opting for the somewhat embryonic HTML5 as a multimedia solution instead. The online advertising industry resisted for a while but before long, HTML5 had become the direction of travel for rich media, and therein signalled the start of the decline for wonderful bespoke interactive digital creative as the basis for online brand-response activity. Back then, HTML5 required hand-stitching at a code level for even the simplest forms of interactivity; to replicate the great work done in Flash was simply not an option for creative teams. Suddenly, producing innovative creative stories was too complicated; the creative agencies backed away and in stepped the rich media networks, offering HTML5 creative built mostly from existing assets, pre-tested networks of limited sites into which to deliver, blended media rates with little delivery disclosure, and free-flowing entertainment budgets/rebates to smooth the way to adoption. And fair enough.


Adding programmatic to the mix only strangled things further for the flow of original bespoke interactive digital creativity. When programmatic is exploited properly, the target might be an audience type wherever they are, the location of which isn’t necessarily known until they suddenly appear in the ether and present a case for a bid. Complicating things is JavaScript - necessary glue for controlling the downloading, delivery, and interactivity of rich media. JavaScript is a bit of a maverick - it will happily break the layout of a site in an instant if unchecked, which means it has to be pretested within the delivery environment. But if you don’t know which sites you’re targeting, you can’t pre test, unless your programmatic ambition is restricted to a pre-tested network. It’s a big problem. The advent of programmatic introduced a hugely challenging chapter to rich media: how to deliver JavaScript tags dynamically into an environment, without the need for pretesting.


Delivering into enough sites to cater for a global campaign, or even larger-volume regional activity, was too onerous with open programmatic and so networks of pre-tested sites became the solution. Rhetoric will defend the larger networks’ prowess and how their sizeable levels of unique users provide for huge audiences, but you only need two hops of optimisation at 0.1% within a closed network to be left with relatively very few individuals to work with. Two hops outside of the walled garden, where you’re able to target new audience types based on a number of organic elements, is a very different basket of eggs.


Today we confuse creativity with formats. There are some powerful approaches for delivering creative: page skins (wrap-arounds) that shake rattle and roll, 3D scrollers, lightboxes, and all sorts. I’ve seen many truly wonderful examples of how these formats are exploited to deliver a brand experience, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s a design/artworking achievement – how to take existing creative assets including video, and deliver them with real impact. The guys at Scoota are incredible at it; I’m regularly stunned at how lovely the builds are. But despite the loveliness, as an industry the reality is we’re still delivering digital branding as either an intrusive video, or art-worked fashioning of existing assets.


Every now and then a blip back into the past does the rounds. Last year some noise was made about the gamification of online ads – adding gaming components to make the ad more engaging. If I had a time machine I could take you back to a time when this was the norm; it’s not new, we’ve just lost the passion, or perhaps budget allocation sits with those with other needs. More games! As I write I’ve numerous examples of interactive ‘advertising’ replaying in my bonce. Visualise a Moroccan market stall trader haggling with you via an interactive video; actually, let me paste in a grab below from this particular ad. As you select items Aziz has to sell, you pick the item and tap in how much you’d like to offer him, he then tells you what he thinks. The pre-recorded video responses of Aziz to your offer are highly entertaining and bespoke to each item. It made for considerable engagement. After a few rounds, the creative flipped to a message about value and Land Rover. Of course, the experience could be replayed so as to enjoy Aziz and his hilarious responses to other interactions. Granted, the political climate has changed in some cases for the better, so Aziz is unlikely to make an appearance again, but the mechanism was very effective.


Creative: Wunderman, circa 2006

There were so many brilliant uses of gaming as the core component within interactivity; it was a simple case of the great creative minds in creative agencies doing what they love. Let’s be honest, it’s not new.


Today, we’re lucky to have creative management platforms that streamline the build of HTML5 ads: Celtra, Sizmek, and dare I say it, Scoota. But if you still have to pre-test the JavaScript tags, delivery will always be challenging on numerous levels, optimisation will be limited, and media costs potentially prohibitively high in order to cover the necessary extensive technical support needed to make a campaign run smoothly. I have privileged knowledge of a solution that overcomes these challenges in real time…I’ll shut up.


What I’d truly love is to see is real, unique creativity come back into digital brand-response. Years ago, I lived in Battersea, or Clapham, depending on your cut. Every once in a while, there would be a French market on Northcote Road. My Saturday morning stroll for a paper and some milk would result in a few ‘gotchas’ as my bag filled with n’importe quel type de fromage. I was wooed. My pants stayed on but the experience would charm me and I’d succumb.


Online advertising has fallen foul to technology. I’ve had conversations with CEOs of US ad tech businesses during which they’ve been dumfounded as to why I champion creativity over data. During the twenty-four-or-so years I’ve been struggling to find ways to make digital marketing more creative I’ve seen hundreds, probably thousands of campaigns that have delivered engagement performances in the tens of times more effective than those where bland creative has had the living daylights bulldozed out of it by data.


You will hear how programmatic display doesn’t work. I could point you at numerous case studies that show the opportunities that exist when really great creative is shared with the right audience, to their right circumstances. In fact here’s one for a digital fitness device. What the graph below shows is the engagement rate for a global programmatic rich media campaign that used an expanding format containing video and interactivity. The engagement rate is a measure of the first deliberate interaction with the creative, in this case a click to expand.



The initial flat line is the premium private marketplace that the agency requested be a component of the campaign; after that the AI in the Scoota bidder matched with our automated JavaScript pre-testing and real-time fraud management tech got stuck in, quickly honing in on the most responsive audience types; typically found enjoying long-tail lifestyle passion sites within the open exchange.


Our industry is wrestling with huge change, and not just because of the impact of Covid-19. But the pandemic is forcing a number of brands and agencies to reconsider how they approach their digital marketing activity. How brilliant if those in positions of control had incredible, bespoke creative to work with as they reappear; then we might start to see online advertising shine again. And personally I can’t wait for the cookie to crumble – at Scoota we’ve spent years building tech that optimises without it, referencing creative elements against categories, context, domains, devices, and all sorts. I’ll let you guess whether or not it works.


ISBA’s recent study with PWC reopened a familiar sore, reinforcing a growing sense that programmatic display doesn’t work. The sad thing is that in so many cases it doesn’t. I have numerous thoughts on why this is and what we might do to solve it; but for now, I’ll let the importance of creativity be something for us all to dwell on a little.



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