Saturday 29 April 2017

Stepping up the hunt for creativity in a new digital era

Online ads have a bad name. Irritating, interruptive, irrelevant, code-heavy, privacy-invading ads clutter websites, slow down apps and insert themselves before online videos. Stock Image
Online ads have a bad name. Irritating, interruptive, irrelevant, code-heavy, privacy-invading ads clutter websites, slow down apps and insert themselves before online videos. Stock Image
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Online ads have a bad name. Irritating, interruptive, irrelevant, code-heavy, privacy-invading ads clutter websites, slow down apps and insert themselves before online videos.

It's no surprise that online audiences don't like them much. But neither do advertisers. Here's what Scott Cunningham, senior VP of technology at trade organisation for digital ads, the Interactive Advertising Bureau said last year: "We lost track of the user experience. Looking back now, our scraping of dimes may have cost us dollars in consumer loyalty." And more recently Proctor & Gamble's Chief Marketing Officer Marc Pritchard decried "crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences" at an IAB annual leadership meeting.

Good advertising is based on creativity. So it's the lack of creativity in online advertising that I find most perplexing. Compare your typical digital display ad with a campaign on any other channel and you'll typically see a creative gulf. Hell, it's a creative void. So I asked some international thought thinkers in advertising if they felt genuinely creative advertising and communication is hard to come by online.

"F*ck yeah, creativity is hard to come by online," says Aquiles La Grave, Founder and CEO of Brandzooka, a video advertising company that allows businesses of all sizes to serve videos to their exact target audience across millions of sites. "Creativity is hard surely, but there are three basic reasons why our experiences with adverts online suck.

"The first is that as we continue to transition to programmatic and video formats there is a general and depressing lack of diversity of advertisers online. That's because the tools of the trade across the advertiser digital stack have been engineered to service the trading desks and digital agencies that handle very large clients."

The second reason La Grave cites for poor digital advertising is the relationship between large brands and large media agencies. "Do you know how these agencies currently get paid?" he asks. "That's right, a percentage of the spend. And do you know when they get to recognise any of that revenue? That's right when they've spent it! So what did we just incentivise the agency to do? That's right, burn through the budget, which means the first thing they will do is raise the frequency caps - which is why you see the same ad over and over and over - and the second thing they do is soften the targeting to basically anyone online."

The third reason? The fact that most large brands treat digital as an extension of TV. "So you end up using the same over-polished garbage that you are using on broadcast on digital," says La Grave. "And even a cursory look at digital ad performance will tell you those ads don't work on digital."

Faris Yakob, co-founder of Genius Steals, a nomadic creative consultancy (yes, he wanders around the world with no fixed abode) has a slightly different take on why creativity in online advertising is hard to come by. But first he wanted to define creativity. "I believe that good creative ideas are the least obvious combinations that still work," he says. "That means they satisfy the mind and the brief. Aristotle described good metaphors as 'lucid, pleasing and strange', which is as good a set of criteria as any."

So what's the problem? "Digital display starts off from an unfortunate place," Yakob says. "It's measured as direct response, so it ends up being crafted to achieve those goals, and direct response is usually the most obvious, the least creative kind of advertising. That's why brand advertising has been where the most creative advertising tends to live. That said, Dollar Shave Club showed that they could just use film and do direct response in a creative way that essentially built a brand from scratch."

Yakob also believes that increased data and targeting should in no way limit creativity. But it has muddied the waters. "Enhanced targeting has confused us as to what advertising is. The promise of targeted scale seemed to be alluring but is wrong. Advertising is a socio-cultural stimulus that makes products sellable and creates emotional associations that allow for price premium over time. By targeting to the individual we transform advertising into direct marketing, or door-to-door selling, which is fundamentally different."

Charlie McKittrick, Head of Strategy for Mother New York believes that creative agencies are now maturing when it comes to delivering on digital promise. "Maybe we got star-struck by widgets and blinking ad units and maybe the media agencies industrialised us too much" he says. "But there's a maturity coming and a new integrated mind-set that sees digital as a channel but as an ecosystem."

"We're leaving the information era where the primary driver of economic growth is the ability to manipulate analogue information and I think we're entering the era of creativity - but it's creativity with a little C not a big c. We used to have a fairly narrow idea of what advertising creativity was. Now when you look at what's created by 13-year-old kids on YouTube, rollercoaster videos made on Minecraft, there's massive creativity. As long as you respect and hold all that creativity to the same standards that were used with a good TV commercial then there's creativity everywhere."

For McKittrick the internet of things offers huge potential to advertisers to harness this creativity with a small c. Marketing, working hand-in-hand with connected products and design-led thinking, means consumers can be engaged in new and original ways.

"Think about how your thermostat and coffee maker is connected to your Wi-Fi, plus your phone, your Netflix and your PlayStation," he says. "So I can actually start to think of marketing campaigns and experience that I can create by stringing together all of those things. All of a sudden I don't have to worry about making 30-second spots work on a phone screen. I can think about making really impactful advertising experiences for people that involve all the things that are parts of our lives now."

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