Online Creativity And The Rise Of The Machine

The creative imperative in advertising is to do work that compels an audience to engage and to remember. Being memorable is how brands are built. Getting digital media noticed among the daily barrage of online impressions begs for work that breaks through. Work that is unique and consistent over time. Data surely can help brands do smarter work. But for true creative originality, for the big idea, humans are required. Real people. New technologies have tipped the scales and the balance between technology and creativity feels significantly out of whack.

The online world has historically been driven by a response rate mentality. Today it’s more mired in analytics than ever. With the continued decline of TV and print, where then are we building emotional brand relationships? It’s gotta happen online, and that means technology and creativity need to find a better balance. Brands have embraced big data and automation to improve performance but these are certainly cost and performance decisions, not brand decision.

Data technologies and creative services technologies are merging to further automate and standardize the creativity process. With the rise of creative automation, what happens to the consideration of brand aesthetics? What about emotional brand connections? What happens to tone, manner and style when a computer tells us what to write and what picture to use? Ironically, Millward Brown found that 88% of digital marketing decision makers at Fortune 5000 companies said that making emotional connections through digital media would encourage them to spend more on digital branding campaigns. Yet technology and the need to quantify return-on-spend seems to always take precedence over the intangibles of creative branding. The result is crappy, formulaic work. And there will be no risk-taking. The creative process seems choked by data, strangled by technology.

Are brands forgetting what matters? Relationships matter as much as clicks. How a consumer feels and what emotions brands leave them with matters. How a brand looks, how it reads, and how ingenious it is and its consistency therein, it all matters.

We’ve all been watching programmatic media buying reach its tipping point. By 2017, over 83% of online advertising will be bought programmatically. Making programmatic work on a broad scale has required conformity of design standards allowing all the technology middle men to play together. Brands must conform to standard units that the consumer has already learned “not to see”. While some marketers see the ability to be creative within the confines of data-driven creative, conforming to standards seems to be a constraint on creativity and serves to lessen a brand's ability to be unique.

Programmatic is also hitting social with mixed results. Some brands are using automated tweet solutions with less than optimal results. Coca-Cola killed its automated tweet campaign after it was tricked by Gawker into inadvertently tweeting out several lines from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Genuine conversations require real people. Leaving decisions on what to tweet that are subjective and require an understanding of semantical nuances and sentiment to a machine is, well,… unbalanced.

Machine-Generated Copy
This goes way beyond simple A/B testing. A new generation of companies like Persado, are using principles of computer and data science to help marketers generate their ad copy for maximum response. Programmatic creative generates language choices the computer feels will result in the greatest performance. They claim to remove any uncertainty about what messages will and won’t work using “natural language generation,” a type of natural language processing. Their semantic algorithms score the impact of combinations of specific words and phrases to create the most persuasive message. Data-generated copy. No humans required.

Programmatic creative services like Persado and what is called dynamic creative optimization (DCO) ensures the focus on performance continues perpetuating the imbalance between creativity and technology. Dynamic creative optimization tests and optimizes variations of multiple components of the same ad to maximize performance. Ads are broken down into a set of variable objects within the ad to be tested in real-time and manipulated to get the best performance. Gone is a commitment to tone & manner and the subtlety of quality design that resonate with people on a more subconscious level. Brand values feel left out of the equation with work distilled to the lowest common denominator.

Then There’s Native
While not a technology in and of itself, native advertising is being generated and distributed by machines. And most of it is crap. The fact that native exists at all is an acknowledgement of the ineffectiveness of online display. Automated content farms and click-bait generators are contributing to the native advertising pollution that seems to ooze from so many sites. Along with the rise of native advertising has come the continued disinclination towards unique creativity.

Native tries to be brand-invisible, just an unobtrusive sponsors of “something you might find interesting”. It says “I have not put any energy or expense into engaging with you on a more intimate level so here’s an article”. Independent studies on the effectiveness of native advertising are scarce and it’s difficult to measure. Hubshout conducted a survey last year that found 66% of those surveyed who recalled seeing a native ad remembered absolutely nothing about it, and 95% percent of them didn’t remember who the sponsor was. ...95%.

Like a consumer’s ability to look at a web page and “not see” the display ads, so too have they developed avoidance skills for native ads. Consumers know when it is sponsored, contributed or otherwise. They know not to click those, assuming a manipulative bias. And they can see click-bait a mile away. To the point where consumers have learned not to truyst anyting sponsored. Avoidance is easy.

Where’s The Balance?
No doubt, branding will have to find its place on the online. It will require a different relationship between technology and creativity; a better balance between the art persuasion and the science of behavior. The pendulum has swung too far and needs to come back to center. Because ideas matters. Creativity matters. Crafting an image matters. Making people feel matters. People do this, not machines.

Sir John Hegarty said it best: “We’ve fallen in love with technology rather than technology being the slave of the idea. There’s a good way of thinking about this. Technology inspires creativity, creativity challenges technology — in doing that we have lost the ability to convince people. We have confused persuasion with promotion. Our industry is about persuasion.”

What are your thoughts on creativity and technology online today?