Creatives would ask how an artificial intelligence could possibly understand the artistry and emotional levers that underpin a truly great ad campaign?

Would programmatic buying have improved the Guinness Surfer or the Cadbury Gorilla?

I’m being overly simplistic here, but these sorts of concerns do exist.

I’ve heard several agency bods fret about the impact on creative ideas, particularly when it comes to brand advertising.

However, I’m confident that we’ve almost reached a tipping point in terms of industry knowledge and understanding around programmatic.

It feels as if marketers are finally comfortable enough with the concept of programmatic buying to understand the huge opportunities it provides, rather than simply dwelling on the potential limitations.

I recently attended a panel session where marketers debated whether programmatic targeting impedes creativity.

POKE co-founder Nic Roope felt that too much targeting and personalisation can “erode the feeling of the art.”

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?

Nic was referring in part to an Axe deodorant commercial called Romeo Reboot, which broke the brand’s target audience into four segments and offered each 25,000 different permutations of the video ad.

The interchangeable elements ranged from simple things like the music, up to whether viewers saw a crime story or a sci-fi action scene.

Nic’s thoughts were echoed by Charles Vallance from VCCP, who said that agencies weren’t keen on programmatic as they “like to unite with a single idea, not create 78 versions of something.”

From the client point of view, Topman’s Tom Lancaster talked about the “mind-boggling” amount of ad creatives required to implement a programmatic campaign based around five interest personas.

But while it might all seem like a lot of hard work, it was noticeable that Tom didn’t suggest that the programmatic campaign had been a wasted effort.

Programmatic does not equal ultra-atomisation

Romeo Reboot is an extreme example of what programmatic can do and the campaign has received a lot of attention from the trade press.

But in spite of the fanfare, we’re yet to hear any actual results from the campaign.

In my opinion, the Romeo Reboot campaign is something of a red herring in this debate.

Nobody really thinks that programmatic buying will require marketers to come up with 100,000 different permutations for each campaign.

Instead the focus should be on where programmatic can aid the delivery of contextual, relevant ads, with a few elements personalised to make the creative more effective.

For example, the specific product, price or offer might be altered based on factors such as the user’s profile, the time of day, their browsing behaviour or their location.

This needn’t have any major impact on the overall tone and idea behind the campaign.

In an article published on the Econsultancy blog, Affectv CEO Glen Calvert argues that as programmatic has matured, a lot of the processes have been streamlined.

As a result, “the ‘plumbing’, or logistics, side of programmatic is becoming less of an obstacle to using data and creative to tell a good brand story.”

The situation will only improve as marketers become increasingly familiar with programmatic and aware of its ability to meet the creative requirements necessary to tell their brand story.

The Economist leads the way

Now seems a good point to highlight a creative programmatic case study that produced some really excellent results, just to prove that it can be done.

Back in October 2014 The Economist ran a campaign aimed at driving new subscriptions among liberal ‘young progressives’.

It was felt that this demographic saw the publication as one that was only read by the corporate elite.

The task for this campaign was to target 650,000 unseen prospects and allow them to discover The Economist’s progressive liberalism for themselves.

Using the rationale ‘There is nothing more provocative than the truth’, the aim was to show user relevant content that would help alter their view of the publication.

Using subscriber data, the marketing team built seven lookalike segments that reflected the different sections of The Economist.

More than 60 executions were created, many in near real time (from its live newsroom).

Economist ads led with topics like the CIA’s use of torture within hours of the story breaking.

Having piqued reader curiosity, The Economist not only wanted the prospect to read the related article, but to read yet more targeted content (knowing it takes four to five articles before a prospect considers subscription).

Ads pulled readers directly through to The Economist bespoke content hub. On serving the next article likely to be of most interest, the reader was nudged to register and, ultimately, subscribe.

From a media budget of £1.2m, the campaign successfully got 3.6m to take people action, sample The Economist in context, and become re-targetable contacts.

A campaign ROI of over 10:1 was achieved from the initial revenue stream brought in by these prospects.


The increasing reliance on machine-driven ad buying certainly presents some interesting challenges for creatives.

But those who suggest that programmatic might kill creativity have probably misunderstood how the technology works.

Campaigns will always require a strong central idea and a compelling story that runs through all the various channels.

Programmatic is really just a new delivery method that enables marketers to optimise different elements to make that particular message more relevant or appealing to that specific consumer.

The Economist case study shows that creativity coupled with programmatic targeting can yield excellent results.

The best campaigns are those that create an emotional connection with a brand, and as yet that requires a level of creativity that’s beyond even the smartest artificial intelligence.

So although programmatic has begun to revolutionise ad buying and optimisation, it will be some time before we read an agency press release celebrating the new hire of a pair of creative bots.

This article was originally published in Econsultancy’s Top 100 Digital Agencies 2016 Report.

To find out more, why not attend Get With the Programmatic, Marketing Week and Econsultancy’s one-day conference on 21st September in London, to hear from brand and agency experts.