They may once have seemed incompatible, but creativity and programmatic are increasingly coming together to create impactful campaigns that resonate with exactly the right consumers. So why are so few creative agencies taking advantage of the opportunity it presents?

We speak to two industry players to get their take on the challenge – Nick Moutter, CEO and founder of Admedo, and Arthur F. Muldoon, CEO and co-founder of Accordant Media.

Is there a lack of understanding among creative agencies around programmatic? 

Nick Moutter: I’m sure they do, though some more than others. I imagine many creative agencies have been keeping their ear to the ground. What’s definitely misunderstood, however, is the role they need to play in the next stage of programmatic’s expansion.


Arthur F. Muldoon: Many creative agencies have been intimidated by the focus on technology and are fearful that the art of creative is being overlooked by the science. As a result, many are reluctant or unable to determine how to find the best on-ramp for them in a new technology and data-driven marketing environment.

What are the biggest barriers for creative agencies looking to embrace programmatic? 

AFM: The biggest barriers are for agencies that have been traditionally oriented toward television and print advertising. Many of those agencies and their designers lack the understanding of how to effectively communicate in digital environments.

For digital agencies that are already experienced in digital, programmatic represents an evolution toward people-based advertising, which adds a dimension of complexity brought on by the challenge of solving design on more of a one-to-one marketing basis.

NM: Many don’t understand just how large the need for their involvement actually is. The other biggest barriers are a shortage of resource, skillset, and experience to get the programmatic offering set-up, as well as a lack of experience in evaluating suppliers and laying down a strategy.

How can creative agencies overcome these challenges?

AFM: Creative agencies can overcome these challenges by embracing programmatic as an opportunity to expand the creative mission. They can be more innovation-oriented. Programmatic is still new and creative, and in many ways, a missing link because creative hasn’t innovated at the same pace.

NM: Hiring new staff who have experience with the tech or training existing staff is crucial. The key to success will require a mix of solid expertise – both creatively and technically.

AFM: Creative agencies should also utilise real-time, quantitative feedback to inform their strategy and develop even more successful creative. That feedback can quantify the performance of creative in ways that may help everybody clearly recognise the impact that creative has on successful advertising initiatives.

NM: They will also need to set up a thorough and controlled vendor-testing program, including everything from optimisation to reporting. For agencies that are totally new to programmatic, a close relationship with vendors who can consult on setup and ongoing strategy is essential.

How can creativity and programmatic work together?

AFM: The combination of creativity and programmatic enables marketers to tell more cohesive stories that drive engagement across channels and devices. The success of the creative can be validated and optimised along the way.

NM: The reality is that programmatic cannot continue to work without more creative expertise. Creativity is the ‘gap’ we need to fill. Right now, we’re seeing the effect of poorly planned creative in display advertising, as highlighted with the growth of ad blocking and banner blindness. Sadly, programmatic has only reinforced the disconnect, with shoddy retargeting tactics that afford no thought to how the creative influences people’s propensity to really engage with ads.

To achieve unison, creative agencies need to embrace data. Ad tech has become a dirty word, but I believe this comes from a lack of understanding around how data is controlled and utilised. Creatively speaking, we’re still finding ways to consistently do this well, but there’s no doubt we can. Creative agencies must learn to recognise how deeper insight can equal bigger, better creative ideas.

AFM: Dynamic Creative Optimisation and versioning enables marketers to decide, in real-time, if the ad they show will be different based on certain data points about the end user, such as location or gender. Versioning enables marketers to show the same user different ads for each subsequent touchpoint, thus enhancing the storytelling process.

Are there any campaigns in particular which combine creativity and programmatic to great effect? 

NM: Last year, The Economist and Proximity London demonstrated how to crack the programmatic-creative divide with their ‘Raising eyebrows and subscriptions’ campaign. Here’s proof, not only that data and tech can enhance the performance of a great idea without robbing its artistry, but that the idea doesn’t have to be overcomplicated to work programmatically.

AFM: Weather-based programmatic campaigns are fascinating because creative can be changed in real-time depending on the forecast. It’s something we explored recently for an e-commerce client whose sales volume and return on ad spend  correlated with poor weather conditions. We built them a custom data feed to import live weather information from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the United States Department of Commerce, which we could then use to adjust the client’s creative, campaign bid and budget pacing. This combination of programmatic and creative led to a nearly 40% increase in overall volume and a 20% decrease in cost-per-sale.

What advice would you give creative agencies exploring programmatic? 

AFM: Creatives have an opportunity to help a lot in the evolution of programmatic so creative agencies should seize the moment to offer their important voice to the evolution. They should lean in and realise they can be an important part of the solution. As much as the focus seems to be on data, technology and the price of inventory, ultimately, marketers are trying to build stronger relationships to prospective and existing customers. Creative agencies should get in now with both feet because the role of creative is going to be incredibly important to the overall success of programmatic.

NM: Programmatic is only as powerful as your imagination. Consider your biggest ambitions as a business, and see how far you can push these with programmatic added to your arsenal.

What is the future of the creative agency in a data-driven world?

AFM: For better or worse, creative agencies have been focusing on the art without much science. And while there’s certainly importance in the creatives aesthetic, today’s marketers can back it up with more quantifiable business results that will benefit the creative agencies.

NM: Data won’t inform every creative detail, but the two will work in sync. For creative agencies that take advantage of this two-way exchange, there will definitely be a seat at the head of the table. We’re not looking at ‘the end’ of the media agency, but the creative ones will find themselves better equipped to operate without a total reliance on trading relationships. With direct access to tech, they can call more of the shots. With this control, even smaller creative agencies can uncover untapped revenue opportunities that have been left open in the current marketplace.

Any closing thoughts on the creativity and programmatic debate? 

AFM: In the not-too-distant future, there won’t be a ‘creativity vs programmatic’ debate. Data-driven, programmatic advertising will continue to grow, and its application to the creative process will grow in tandem.

NM: With all of the above in mind, there is one important question to ask: as creative agencies enter the programmatic market, will we see the cost of programmatic increase, as higher creative and production value is added? If clients feel that they’re losing the high-efficiency, low-cost of programmatic, how can those agencies prove this is an essential shift, not a trade-off? When planning their offering and speaking with vendors, agencies will need to address this consideration.