The minds behind the machines

For all the wizardry that comes with digital technology, we still need humans to direct what the machines are doing. And while marketing automation is becoming more intuitive, we are still a long way from the robot revolution condemning humans to life in elaborate war bunkers.

For this reason, many agencies have employed digital experts with the necessary savvy to instruct the machines and ensure that they are delivering the results clients expect. And at FCB, two of these experts are digital strategy director Dan West and associate digital director Falk Werner.

As part of their responsibilities, the pair had to select an ad tech partner suitable to the needs of the myriad clients on the agency’s books.

With the explosion of providers over the last few years, the pair had no shortage of options—both established and new—to choose from. However, Werner (who joined FCB last year) made the decision to go with familiar brand in AdRoll, having enjoyed a successful partnership with the company while working in Germany at his previous agency.

“When I came over and joined FCB, I got in contact with [managing director]Ben Sharp to see what they can offer over here and it’s basically all the same stuff.”

Signing up with an ad tech partner immediately places enormous scale in the advertiser’s hands. With the click of a single button millions of messages can be dispersed through the internet instantly. And what’s more is that those messages can also follow users from website to website, like a persistent fly sitting on a television screen. 

Werner warns that if strategists aren’t careful in the way they use the technology, they will do little more than annoy consumers.   

“It’s not about chasing the user with a product,” he says. “You’ve got to be smart about it.”

Werner explains that the AdRoll system incorporates an algorithm that ensures that users aren’t pestered by the same ad over and over again (a common problem when retargeting first hit the market). 

“The algorithm is based on frequency and how recently a user has visited the client’s website. So if you’ve bought an item already, you shouldn’t see that banner. And if you went to a website ten days ago and never returned, then you similarly shouldn’t see the banner.”

Spray and hope

Until advertising moved online, marketers had no qualms about hitting consumers with the same ad over and over again across TV, radio and print. This approach, based entirely on repetition, has after all spawned lucrative categories like infomercials and unaddressed mailers.

However, as West explains, the strategy hasn’t worked out quite as well in the online space.  

“The entire industry is having to shift and become much more about value and relevance with more and more ad blockers coming into the market,” West says. “If you bombard people’s experiences, you end up having quite a negative impact.”

West says that consumers are essentially calling on marketers to become more creative and produce advertising that offers at least some semblance of a benefit. 

“It boils down to three things,” he says. “Firstly, what data is available to personalise the message? Secondly, how dynamic is the platform? And then, can the technology serve it up to the right person at the right time and at the right place. Essentially, it’s about combining all these in the optimum mix, so that you’re not wasting money by creating millions of messages that don’t marry up with your audience.”

A creative slog?

Since its arrival on the market, programmatic advertising has carried the promise of delivering personalised messages to the exact target market. It sounds almost like a marketing Utopia to have every message delivered to a specific person. But as a corollary, this also meant that someone would have to produce all the creative variations necessary to be relevant to increasingly segmented groups, potentially resulting in something akin to an industry sweat shop for creatives.

Fortunately, this horror has been avoided to some degree with the development of dynamic platforms.

Werner explains that AdRoll is able to dynamically determine what a user has viewed, and serves back that product resulting in a relevant, personalised creative—something that’s proving very useful to retail clients.

“Because the system is smart, you don’t have to produce 500 banners any longer and you don’t have to create every single piece,” Werner says.

“When dynamic bannering hit the market four or five years ago, the banners looked really ugly, and it was really a justification not to do dynamic creative. But now, over the last five years, we’ve reached a stage where you don’t even know that the banners have been dynamically created.”

Werner explains that this feature is obviously a little trickier to incorporate with clients that don’t have enormous catalogues of images, pointing to the example of energy clients, which might only have a handful of products for sale.

In this instance, he says there is certainly a need to create a few variations of creative but nothing close to what would be required for a major retailer.

“It’s about being creative and seeing where they stopped the process of signing up. What was the pain point? And how can you solve it? Maybe some people need 20 percent off or maybe some people need the added value of ten dollars if you sign up today.”

The power of knowing

In touching on this topic, Werner addresses one of the major advantages of digital advertising. For the first time, marketers are privy to information on where a consumer is on the purchase journey.

And while digital certainly has its problems—viewability, ad blockers and ad fraud, to name a few—the measurement capabilities of the channel are certainly superior to those of the traditional channels.

As West explains: “Before digital marketing was even thought of, John Wanamaker said: ‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half’. Digital is actually improving that by showing us what’s working and what’s not working. By having that information and knowledge we can do something about it.”

West says the industry is already making headway in overcoming some of its early problems, and he believes that things will only become clearer as the industry evolves and the quality of the data improves.

But with every improvement in the automation of any process, we step a little closer to human hands becoming redundant.

So are West and Werner concerned about us nearing the age when their services won’t be needed any longer?

“No,” says Werner. “Even though the algorithms are smart, we’re not automated yet. Every computer needs a human brain behind it to tell it what the objectives of the campaign are. It always needs a human to control it and to put some emotional thoughts into it.”

West agrees, and goes a step further, reminding me that machines aren’t the ones buying the products on the other end.

“We are communicating to people, which means we need to understand people. And machines are a long way from doing that.”  

  • This story is part of a content partnership with AdRoll.
  • If you would like to get in touch with AdRoll, visit here

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