John Nardone
John Nardone 9 September 2019

The Evolution of Digital Creative

In the early 2000s, creativity and the user experience were at the forefront of advertising strategy, but are positive emotional reactions to digital ads a thing of the past?

The disruptive efforts of yesterday now feel like a distant memory. Take for instance the infamous ‘Whassup’ campaign that reinvented Budweiser’s brand image, Burger King’s interactive and highly viral ‘Subservient Chicken’ offering, and Apple’s stylistic ‘Dancing Silhouettes’ iPod promotion. For all the benefits technological evolution has provided – high-speed delivery, machine-driven ad trading – it also seems to have dulled the creative palette for many advertisers.

Turning back the clock isn’t a viable solution. Audience content consumption and tastes have changed too much for an outright return to previous strategy and techniques, the Hovis ‘Boy on the Bike’ revival excepted. It’s time for a fresh take on data-based creativity.

Advertising runs off track

Two decades ago, unconventional creative won industry acclaim and awards; Budweiser's Whassup even earned a Cannes Grand Prix. But intervening shifts have dampened digital advertising's flair. Firstly, there is the rise of connectivity. Since the turn of the millennia, a continual wave of digitalisation has brought omnipresent broadband, mass smartphone penetration and a TV revolution; multi-channel homes now number 27 million. Audiences have moved online, followed by advertisers – with two-thirds of spending set to be digital by 2020 – and the web is becoming increasingly crowded, making it hard to stand out.

Secondly, automation has yielded unexpected consequences. While programmatic adoption has enabled unprecedented efficiency and reach, it has also fuelled more frequent blind bidding and a spike in the use of uniform inventory that can fit any placement. And, finally, there is measurement. Initially embraced in the early 2000s, the click-through rate (CTR) remains a popular way of assessing campaign effectiveness, as does last-touch attribution (LTA). Both offer limited and often unreliable insights, leading advertisers to mistakenly make creative optimisation decisions based on metrics that don’t truly reflect consumer engagement.

Digital creative: Innovative in concept, retro in practice

Emphasis on the need to "get creative right" is growing, helped by reports that illustrate the sizeable effect creative can have on the bottom line. So too is acknowledgment of the flaws inherent in outmoded measurement tools. Media buying teams, for instance, are seeing the downside of CTRs, which assume ads are only effective if clicked on – ignoring the potential impact of compelling creative on brand awareness and recognition – and fail to differentiate between real and accidental clicks. They are also reducing dependence on LTA, an evaluation model that gives all credit for conversions to the final touchpoint individuals encounter. But, for a high proportion of creative teams, these techniques are still standard, which means media and creative are out of sync, and in-flight optimisation is frequently guided by misleading analysis. Ultimately, budgets end up directed at generic, ineffective, and even irritating ads.

Clearly, a change is required. Not only is there a need for closer departmental collaboration, with media and creative working from one shared set of metrics, but also a more precise approach to measurement. Campaigns should be driven by a multi-faceted view of which ads fuel the best responses; to achieve that, advanced multi-touch attribution (MTA) is vital.

Where standard MTA aims for more even distribution by allotting cross-touchpoint credit in pre-defined portions, advanced MTA goes further, calculating the precise effect of specific ads. Using machine learning, intelligent MTA instantly scores each impression according to its actual conversion impact, such as influence on sales or actions that signal purchase intent. The most accurate platforms also leverage data science to prevent interference from factors that can introduce bias, including media and audience quality. For advertisers, the ultimate result is a comprehensive view of which concepts, copy lines, and images are the real high performers that can help power impactful, personalised creative in real time.

What’s on the horizon for digital creative?

Fluidity is the hallmark of modern content consumption. As the divisions between channels dissolve – for instance with TV, mobile, and online video – and mediums such as podcasts and voice assistants enter the mix, the effect of these formats on audiences and each other will keep growing. From an advertising perspective, the consequences of this convergence are twofold.

Most obvious is the importance of extending reach; maximising exposure means expanding media buying to cover multiple screens and platforms. But if messages are to hit the right mark, creative must be given equal billing. In order to cut through the noise and spark an emotional reaction, it will be critical to utilise data-driven tools that can measure the success of omni-channel campaigns and individual touchpoints.

While digitalisation has accelerated industry evolution, the challenge of keeping pace with ever-changing contexts and technologies has led advertisers away from what truly matters – aligning creative with the needs and interests of today’s audiences. To reinvigorate campaigns, advertisers must blend retro creative bravery with sophisticated data analysis, basing current and future strategy on a granular understanding of the ads consumers genuinely want to see. 

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