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At Econsultancy's recent Creative Programmatic conference, I was struck by a healthy scepticism towards some areas of personalization.

Then this morning I read a beautifully concise post from the Ad Contrarian.

I'll quote from both the conference and the blog post and you can make up you're own mind as to the dangers posed by personalization to the art of advertising.

The Ad Contrarian:

Small picture marketers know a lot of little things...They create tightly focused advertising and put it in front of a select number of precisely targeted individuals.

On the other hand, big picture marketers know a few big things...They work very hard to produce widely appealing materials and put them everywhere. Then they stand back and let probability do the work.

Why have all the world's leading brands been built by big picture marketers?

Because the more you study data, the more you realize that data is just the residue of probability.

But doesn’t advertising comes in many different forms?

Nobody can argue that retargeting, for example, isn’t a valuable part of a retailer’s armoury. Though it’s effectiveness can be overstated, hold-out groups and attribution show that it does work (and doesn’t just cannibalise other channels).

Retargeting is, obviously, not possible without precisely targeting individuals.

What Ad Contrarian is undoubtedly talking about is brand advertising. So, we can move the debate away from so-called direct response campaigns, which often work with known customer databases, where personalization is implicit.

Brand advertising with programmatic display is the idea that pushing the same Coca-Cola / Volkswagen / Apple etc. at an entire audience is a rudimentary tactic that can be finessed.

Segments are created much like in email marketing, so that relevant (and likely, tested) ads can be delivered to these distinctive audiences.

To play to stereotypes, this could mean premium car ads being served to iPhone users or lower sugar drinks to older users (you can probably tell, I’m not an ad exec).

Or it might simply be brighter colours and ‘funkier’ music for the youth.

Are these jumping people milennials?

milennials

Art that thinks it understands you

The most infamous example of this to date has been done with video by AXE and Romeo Reboot  (part of its infamy comes from this more labour-intensive format for creative versioning).

This is defiantly brand advertising done programmatically, because the elements that are changed are nothing to do with product, but wholly to do with the user and what creative they might best relate to.

For some creatives, that's controversial, not least because we haven't yet heard any results from the work.

I’ll leave it to Nic Roope from Poke London, who took part in a panel at our recent event, Creative Programmatic, to express why this form of personalization is disquieting to creatives.

It’s the usual tension between art and the machine. Take a film and personalise it. Are all personalised results more resonant than the original unedited film?

…[Programmatic in this context] is eroding the feeling of the art.

The BBC is also currently experimenting with what it calls visual perceptive media, which sounds a tad Orwellian. A mobile app studies a user's music tastes and personality, then adds age and gender to ‘tailor’ a piece of video.

Serving segments differently within a piece of art (whether changing product placement or storyline) indeed seems slightly dystopian to some. Because what it does is emphasises the difference between the viewers (and gives them no choice in the matter).

This is even more anathema to some within advertising, where what brings the audience together should ultimately be the brand.

A quote from Charles Vallance from VCCP neatly sums this up:

With nearly all the strongest brands, we know what we're buying, so we shouldn't over-personalise or over-target as this will detract from how we consume brands.

Could a brand’s personality be eroded within a personalised ad?

The BBC's visual perceptive media project

visual perceptive media

The filter bubble

The filter bubble is a well known idea in media. If a user is served according to their perceived preferences, how will they ever know if they’d like something a little bit different?

Television is enjoyable for a number of reasons including an obvious feeling of voyeurism that comes from being able to choose a channel (rather than being chosen by an advert), and being able to discuss a programme at work the next day.

Programmatic advertisers must be careful that, even with testing, some users are less happily served by targeted ads (either implicitly or explicitly personalised) than they would be by traditional one-size-fits-all creative.

Shouldn’t we play to the strengths of the creative agency?

Not that I think we should mollycoddle creatives. But they’ve worked well before the advent of programmatic advertising, so perhaps we should heed Charles Vallance again, from VCCP.

Agencies like to unite with a single idea, not create 78 versions of something, so they're not keen on programmatic.

It's machine-driven, it disintermediates humanity, it needs to be interpreted by a human brain. So, it's more of an efficiency driver.

And that’s the point - efficiency. Sure, if you’re in the business of hawking PPI claims, you probably want to exclude users under 18 - programmatic advertising can do that, and that’s great (maybe not in this example).

But when it comes to deciding what different people like in an advert, remember that age is just a number and so is every other data point.

Ben Davis

Published 15 March, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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