#OPSPOV: Can Creative Get Its Groove Back?

Can Creative Get Its Groove Back?

The other week when someone asked me by email if I was going to Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, I wrote back, “Do I look like I’m the type to go to Cannes? If I wanted to go to an overcrowded waterfront with a bunch of bloated Europeans, I’d catch a train to Brighton Beach.

“In other words: no, the company wouldn’t pay for it and I’m going to drown my sorrows in kvass at Brighton Beach.”

I haven’t really cared about Cannes in the past because itseemed like a bit of a creative agency… “Mutual admiration society” is the non-vulgar term. The only plus side would be drinking on someone else’s tab while enjoying sunsets on the French Riviera. I’d just hope they’d have something to drink other than Rosé. (Cognac? Well, I guess if there’s no bourbon…)

However, in the last few years a voice has been saying inside my head (in a Schwarzenegger accent a la “Total Recall”), “Get your ass to Cannes!” All the usual suspects of ad tech are out in force, with the duopoly of Facebook and Google apparently snagging the top locations for their “walled garden” events. (Nice one, Ad Age.) Ad serving and header bidder pros have reserved yachts and are putting on must-attend parties. Even this year, AdMonsters considered renting a dingy, flying a flag with our logo and offering a cooler full of wine coolers. (Can’t be any worse than Rosé.)

I get why a tech provider wants a giant Cannes presence: show off how much spare cash you have at an event a bit more glamorous than your average American ad tech conference (though you should see the hotel we’ve booked for the PubForum in Austin…). A yacht is a lot more impressive than a giant booth at ad:tech. 

But what really intrigued me was that according to The Wall Street Journal, backroom meetings and deals were more plentiful than the bottles of rosé. Being at Cannes seemed to offer huge insights into what channels advertisers wanted to stuff their spend next – it might be the actual upfront of digital advertising.

At the same time, isn’t Cannes a giant awards ceremony for creative? Why has ad tech completely stolen the spotlight?

Well, creative is having a particularly lame moment – as the actual Cannes awards showed. The prime example: a Bronze Lion was given to campaign from Brazil that seemed to suggest taking Bayer would give you the courage (?!) to film sex acts without consent. (I didn’t realize that besides killing pain, aspirin also quieted your conscience and encouraged immoral behavior!) Interestingly enough, the agency that developed that campaign won Agency of the Year

In addition, there were complaints that agencies were entering campaigns for awards that had run for extremely brief times and/or in limited markets. Basically, some creative agencies weren’t submitting their everyday advertising work but prestige campaigns built to win awards. Yup, just like movie studios that release “prestige pictures” that garner more awards than box office revenue.

As I mentioned the other week, there was a ton of talk about creative at OPS this June, which seemed very odd for a conference focused on the back-end of digital advertising. Talk ran the gamut from data-endowed dynamic creative to publisher-brand native efforts to heavy files wreaking havoc on viewability efforts. The general feeling seemed to be: while there may still issues, the transactional pipes are working pretty well these days. We can reach the right person at the right time… But what are we serving them?

The same crap as everyone else.

It’s not all doom and gloom – there are three trends promising a brighter day for creative. 

1. Creative and media agencies are teaming up. This is more than just Publicis breaking up Vivaki and decentralizing programmatic buying. Some of those trading desk people ended up at agencies mainly known for creative (e.g., Razorfish), and integration efforts ramping up. Elsewhere, agency trading desks are increasingly cycling data to their creative cousins, trying to figure out how best to leverage the information on a creative level. In addition, fully integrated agencies like R/GA have creative people working side by side with media planners and programmatic buyers.

2. Pub-mentum. Publishers are taking advantage of the dearth in creative with the help of third-party creative services including HTML5 builders. Publishers like The Weather Channel and Vox Media have shown they can be a real boon on mobile. And frankly, many ads designed by publisher studios can be migrated to other sites – publishers can actually operate as creative houses.

3. Native placements and the programmatic opportunity. So the whole native movement revolves around two concepts: next-generation branded/sponsored content (this ain’t your grandfather’s advertorial) and native placements – display units designed to fit seamlessly into a page’s (or an app’s) content. These clearly labeled ads aim to replace adjacent and jarring banners by fitting smartly into user navigation, detering banner blindness and further incorporating advertising into the user experience. And crazy enough, these are scalable and can be transacted programmatically – since opening the channel to AdX, Google has been out pushing its native products hard. Basically, native placement creative offers a few configurable assets – headline, image, body text – that is formatted for a specific site by the ad server. Take this to the next level – incorporating user data and adding more flexible facets – and you can see the potential for non-disruptive, truly personalized advertising.

So actually we shouldn’t lament that technology companies have invaded – and arguably conquered – Cannes. Ad tech should have thoroughly penetrated creative as the programmatic landscape developed. But creative is a tough business, with rough margins and an unwillingness to adapt and evolve – some of which is justified because the majority of U.S. ad spend is still in TV. 

However, the way forward seems clear, and it involves closer collaboration between creative and media agencies as well as publishers opening their doors to programmatic native. Creative may not be ahead of the curve, but there’s still time to catch up.

And also I don’t care how good you say that Rosé is – it’s still rosé. Blech. Give me either a Pinot Grigio or a Cabernet Sauvignon, but never a horrid blend of white and red.