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Some people seem slightly alarmed by the rise of automation in marketing.

Is it the first step towards all of us being replaced by robots that will eventually enslave humankind and force us to oil their joints until the end of time?

While that might have been a lame attempt at a joke, it is actually very relevant to the Creative Programmatic event I attended yesterday, which was all about how this largely automated channel needn’t spell the end of human creativity in marketing. 

The first talk came from O2’s Head of Digital Excellence, Nick Adams, and VCCP’s Innovation Director, Adrian Gans. 

The two of them discussed how they believe creativity absolutely has a place in programmatic advertising and ran through some examples of where O2 has demonstrated this in its own campaigns. 

Here are some of the highlights from the talk...

Beyond the fear and jargon

O2 naturally has a huge number of data collection points, from behaviour in-store to profiling people based on their My O2 account activity. 

This enables O2 to carry out very precise personalised targeting, which has led to the brand spending 70% of its total display budget on programmatic as of last year. 

But despite automating so much of its advertising, Gans insists programmatic isn’t a threat to creativity.

When something is characterised as machine or robotic, it’s automatically seen as a threat. But we’re looking to go beyond the hype.

We’re a creative agency but we’re embracing programmatic.

Half the problem, Gans argues, is the sheer amount of jargon being thrown around that makes the channel seem overly complex. 

“We want to talk about the work, not just the tech,” he says. “You have to embrace a certain amount of complexity but we should be talking about ‘what’ rather than ‘how’.”

Gans cited some stats that certainly support the idea that programmatic is full of future opportunities. 

According to a recent eMarketer study: 

  • 52% of total ad spend is on digital.
  • 50% of that is on search (which, Gans says, is programmatic in nature but not particularly creative). 
  • 40% of digital adspend goes on display.
  • Of that 40%, 70% is programmatic.

It is that 70% that Gans refers to as the ‘canvas’ for truly creative programmatic ad campaigns. 

Examples of O2's programmatic campaigns

1. Mobile

The challenge here was to take O2’s 'tariff refresh' TV ad and make it relevant and engaging for a mobile audience. 

So it created a system whereby it could take data about mobile usage – device, location, and so on – and offer users specific messages based on that profile. 

O2 could tell a mobile user the current recycling value of their phone, the best offer for an upgrade, what people like them generally preferred upgrading to (incorporating an element of social proof), and where the nearest store was.

Adrian Gans

O2 programmatic campaign

It created more than 1,000 versions of the video ad, which integrated in real time with the user’s device and location. 

The results:

The personalised ads performed 128% better in terms of click-through rate (CTR). 

“We know it works,” says Gans. “This sort of thing is going to be the bedrock for what we’re developing in 2016.”

2. Social

O2 partnered with Facebook to segment its audience and target them with three different messages:

  • Early upgraders.
  • Out of contract. 
  • Approaching end of contract. 

Nick Adams

O2 programmatic campaign

The differences between the ads were subtle, slight tweaks to the copy and images. But they definitely produced significant responses. 

The results:

Overall the personalised ads achieved 49% lower cost per order (CPO). In the early upgrade segment the CPO reduced by 61%.

Adams summarised the campaign by saying:

Subtle different messages can actually drive results.

3. Video

When O2 was a key sponsorship for the international sporting event that must never be spoken of again (Rugby World Cup 2015, if you’re still wondering), it wanted to come up with a powerful video campaign that actually prompted people to engage. 

Personalisation was the answer. So it pulled in data from its avatar creation website and brought it all together to create a collection of ads. 

Here is the non-personalised version of the ad:

When people watched the personalised version they would be addressed by their first name and invited to access the avatar site. 

The interesting part was that the tech could tell which part of the avatar creation process the user was at, so whether they had just started creating one and abandoned it or had got all the way to the end. The call to action would be personalised accordingly. 

Rugby World Cup O2 programmatic campaign

The results:

An 11% increase in engagement levels. 

Does too much data and automation stifle creativity?

The big question of the day came up in the Q&A session at the end of this talk, and this is how Gans answered it:

Of course there are limits to how far (automation) should, and could, go. There is always going to be a significant role for human imagination.

But we don’t see it as a negative. It’s just bringing more experts in to support the creative process as a whole.

Jack Simpson

Published 4 March, 2016 by Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

252 more posts from this author

Comments (3)


Elena Molchanova, Digital marketing lecturer at Moscow University

Great results and amazing, smart usage of simple moves which create effectiveness. Would it be too, well, ballsy to ask for publishing a couple of slides or samples of creative materials for those campaigns? I would love to share it with my students to demonstrate a power of just sitting down and thinking before booking a campaign.

8 months ago

Richard Tidman

Richard Tidman, Managing Director at Space 66 Ltd

Really interesting article Jack - and I wholly agree with your notion that data doesn't replace the creative process, it augments it. But you need a framework to follow, which is where Agile principles can add huge value.

8 months ago

Olivia Lane-Nott

Olivia Lane-Nott, Director at Spacecraft Consulting

Great article and all power to O2. I would just highlight that whilst they are being very strategic and targeted with their digital marketing efforts, with obvious results, that must filter down to in store experience and point of sale - from personal experience, this appears disparate. An understanding of how they internally communicate this strategy and train their staff to humanise this super digital marketing, would be fascinating.

7 months ago

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