Online advertising is regarded – both within and outside the field – as a cutting edge, technology-driven industry. Advances in audience data and machine learning are regularly touted, and some companies love to flaunt that they have rocket scientists and former Wall Street data specialists developing their algorithms.

While the explosion of online media touchpoints has necessitated a change in the way brands deliver ads, advertising only works if the message is effective. As much as the delivery pipes have changed, the importance of creative has at least remained constant, if not grown. Placing a poor ad in front of a consumer will deliver a suboptimal response, no matter how much the technology for finding audience segments and delivering ads improves. Marketers today have no qualms about spending on data. It’s time for their investment in creative to match.

Part of the problem comes from the way so many technology companies market their platforms as panaceas. This leads brands and agencies to think they’ll have all of the tools they need. Programmatic is revolutionary technology, but without real creative it is only a method for placing tedious ads in front of valuable consumers. A brand finding its audience is only half the goal, and dull creative will never help a brand meet its total campaign goals.

Brands need to match granular targeting with worthy, engaging messaging, leveraging all of the available tools so they can deliver the best performing creative. This means rich media, DCO and the ability to enable first- and third-party data to inform both of those tools. This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked. It is likely that some brands already think they’re doing all they can creatively, without looking at what’s possible.

Only recently, running high-impact rich media ad units required special attention and manual effort for each site, with brands and their agencies required to make the purchase directly with individual sites. But programmatic rich media no longer lags behind targeting capabilities. More and more, these high-impact units are either incorporated into domain-level solutions that sniff out the site and automatically tailor ad delivery, or they’re standardised, offering ease of use, ease of creation, and the ability to understand the nuances of surrounding content after an ad is served to deliver the optimal unit.

Delivering optimised, high-impact creative is very different from slot-machine dynamic creative that simply serves an image of an item a consumer recently viewed on a retail site. That’s lowest-common-denominator style advertising, and it amounts to outsourcing the creative to robots. If a marketer wants to invest solely in targeting and still deliver a soulless ad, they might as well hand out leaflets in front of a grocery store, where they know they’ll reach consumers.

The full potential of programmatic leverages cutting-edge data analysis while still relying on humans to develop (and push the boundaries of) creative. Robots can connect to other robots for targeting, but meaningful communication to humans still requires other humans to build beautiful imagery – the artwork that is actually going to catch a consumer’s attention and help them remember the brand.

Creative needs to be a focal point in developing every campaign, not an afterthought. Powerful creative templates are now widespread, adaptable, and easier to deliver at scale, therefore it’s important that rich media becomes a major component of every campaign that is delivered programmatically. Machine learning is smart, but it can never guess what will elicit emotion when it comes to creative – outsourcing creative to an algorithm only leads to dull advertising. If advertisers don’t let humans build their creative, they are handing over too much power to the robots. If you’ve seen the Terminator films, then you know how that eventually turns out.

Michael McNulty

Michael McNulty


Michael McNulty, Product Marketing Manager, Rich Media, Sizmek.