Article

Michael Nutley
Michael Nutley 26 June 2013

Creativity in online advertising is about more than what you look at

Creativity in online advertising remains a source of concern, but are we looking for it in the right place?

In Ken Burns’ great documentary series Jazz, there’s a story about the heads of music at the big US universities getting together in the early years of the last century to discuss the search for the American Beethoven, and to bemoan its continuing failure. The point of the story is that in trying to find a native musical genius in the classical world, they were looking in the wrong place. Louis Armstrong was then in the process of reinventing music and changing the way it was played and performed on every instrument, but he was doing it in jazz.


I think about this story when I find myself talking about creativity in online advertising, because it seems to me that often we’re looking for that in the wrong place too. If you expect the next Jonathan Glaser to come out of interactive advertising, you’re going to have a pretty long wait.


When people talk about the creativity of online advertising, they always seem to be talking about what the audience sees. But while there has undoubtedly been some great-looking work done over the years, the real creative action lies elsewhere. Creativity in digital isn’t just the preserve of the creative department; because of the speed of development and the desire among consumers for novelty, it’s even more important in media and technology, and in solving business problems.


And creativity (or the lack of it) has become a constant thread in discussions of digital media. Every conference seems to feature a panel complaining about the lack of creativity in online advertising, and usually suggesting that it’s a format problem; that if only the ads themselves were bigger, the creatives would be more inspired. Which among other things makes you wonder if they’ve ever heard of haiku.


At the same time, an idea that I first heard at last year’s Dmexco conference has been gaining traction. This is that RTB is a zero-sum game, and that when everyone has access to the technology, the distinguishing factor will come from strategy and creativity; the somewhat pious hope being that all the money saved by the efficiency of RTB will be ploughed into creative.


So it was interesting to hear Louisa Wong, general manager EMEA at AMNET/Aegis talking about creativity at the OMMA RTB event in London earlier this month. Her view is that RTB is driving creativity into the rest of digital advertising, rather than just what people look at. For example the data allows you to play with media placement much more, managing the customer experience of the campaign much more closely based on what people have already seen.


This isn’t to say that there’s no place in digital media for old-fashioned, capital C creativity. Clearly the aim - as it’s always been - is to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. It’s just that, now that it’s becoming possible to see the nature of the message in the context of an entire customer journey, things are a lot more nuanced than they were.


And that’s not mentioning the whole area of social media marketing, where the right message at the right time doesn’t look anything like what a traditional Creative department would produce.


All of this feeds into a much bigger discussion about the decline of advertising and the rise of marketing, both of which are directly driven by the changing relationships between brands and their customers. But ironically what we’re looking at is a return to the days when creativity was put in the service of solving business problems, rather than making ads.

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