Cannes 2016: McCann Worldgroup Faces Down The Challenges Of Programmatic Creative

ryan-cannes-062416Agency creatives can be iffy about applying programmatic concepts, such as targeting, data layering or real-time bidding. Not in all cases, of course – they recognize the moments when programmatic can boost a campaign.

But programmatic advocates, they feel, sometimes excessively focus on the technology. They also have a tendency to automate more than what the creative class is comfortable with.

Like many large agencies, IPG’s McCann Worldgroup, which also encompasses the Cadreon-using media agency Universal McCann, is still trying to work out processes around merging creativity with programmatic.

The agency is in the second iteration of a networkwide initiative to share strategy and insights, said Suzanne Powers, McCann Worldgroup’s global chief strategy officer. She points to the arrival of Sean MacDonald, its global chief digital officer, as a catalyst: “He arrived about a year ago, and we’ve started adding in the analytics piece of it,” she said. (MacDonald served this year as a Cannes Lions jury member, assessing “digital craft.”)

Powers and MacDonald spoke with AdExchanger about why the intersection of data and creativity is 2016’s hot topic and some of the creative difficulties accommodating the demands of programmatic creative.

The interviews were conducted separately and the Q&A has been condensed and edited together.

AdExchanger: Why is this year’s Cannes about data and creativity? As opposed to last year or the year before?

SUZANNE POWERS: The last couple of years have been very purpose-led, focusing on charities and not-for-profits. This year, it’s around real work for real brands, solving complex business problems, where you need data and creativity. And that’s winning a lot more than the charity stuff.

No offense to the inspirational work on the charity side, but you don’t often have the need or luxury for that data. You just want something that moves people. That’s my theory.

How should large data sets be applied to the creative process?

SEAN MACDONALD: We’ve been talking about big data for three years. You need to prioritize, figure out mission objectives, limit what data you’re looking at so you’re not overwhelmed. It sounds impressive to be bringing up all these big data topics, but at its essence, it’s about scaling down to the core of what you’re trying to achieve and being smart about layering on third-party data and what you get from your database.

In my experience, when you give creative teams data points that help them hone in on the constraints of a problem, they much prefer having those constraints. Through constraints, greater creativity is manifested.

To what extent can data limit creativity?

MACDONALD: I came out of data. My first job was manually optimizing online ads because there was no software to do it. If you’re trying to target specific audiences, you do that best with layering as much data as possible.

But there’s a big question mark in how storytelling manifests in an area like programmatic that’s so data-driven. When you get into programmatic and machine learning, it’s very interesting to try to figure out where the boundaries are. At what point do you lose what we mean by creativity?

Do data wonks get too caught up in the tools?

POWERS: I think so. I’m an old-school planner. I’m not sure if the plethora of data is that different. I think sometimes it misses nuance. If you’re out talking to real-life human beings about something, that’s observational research. You can see peoples’ energy levels.

There is more data than ever before, and it is only as good as what you do with it. And creativity is still the best way to solve really chunky problems. There has to be more of this marriage.

Programmatic is a conversation that scares me when it starts to be about programmatic creativity.


POWERS: Taking people out of making creative is scary. While programmatic creativity doesn’t mean that, I think some of the super duper nerds think it does. They think you can slice and dice and change things we make without any human interaction or creative spirit. That scares me a lot.

I don’t mind that we have new technology, but when it comes out, it’s often about “Look at what we can do now!” rather than incorporating it into the totality of what we’re doing.

When a new technology comes out, we awkwardly use it until it becomes a more natural part of what we do.

Is programmatic creative at a stage where the creative side hasn’t figured out how to use it, or is it something you want to pass on?

POWERS: It depends on the type of business you’re working on. Certainly, when you’re working on large pieces of business, global in nature, with lots of local and global assets – that’s fine. Because there’s been some thinking before about how those assets will all be calibrated to work. I don’t think creatives are nervous about that.

It’s when the conversation is around how they don’t need us anymore. That there are tons of content providers and content makers so they don’t need us anymore.

But you still need brand stewardship; you still need people who are working together to solve those business problems with creativity. Without that enveloping what we’re talking about, it’s just a bunch of shit.

Sean, you mentioned you saw only two innovative campaigns using programmatic creative at Cannes.

MACDONALD: In the Craft jury, we had an interesting case from Tennessee called Vacation Matchmaker by the Tennessee Department of Tourism. They basically took all these film clips of Tennessee, pulled your geographic information, demo information and behavioral information and film clips relevant to you and created these short films as advertisements. They did a really good job of storytelling leveraging data.

We work with [Brazilian agency] CUBOCC on Unilever’s Axe. They created this modern day rendition of Romeo and Juliet and got four amazing directors to do their different interpretations. They broke down each narrative arc into 11 pieces, so each followed the same structure. Each film had 25,000 different trailers, and Unilever pushed these out using data to figure out which versions were resonating most with audiences. And based on what was converting the best, they’d move media dollars toward those trailers.

What’s the issue of doing more of this?

MACDONALD: It’s a production issue. With TV commercials, you have limited time with the talent and you need to be efficient. Programmatic requires a different way to produce film. You need tons of versions for different target audiences and different scenarios with the product. That requires a lot of preparation before you get to the shoot.

And we’re also being pressured as an industry. Our clients know they need to create volumes of content and their budgets haven’t changed. So we need to come up with creative solutions where we can create quality content in multiple versions, sometimes thousands.

Suzanne, tech guys deny they’re trying to get rid of the creatives. But reading between the lines, do you feel they are?

POWERS: I think so. But who knows? I hope not. Can’t we just all get along? We can all bring very different things, and that’s when it gets interesting. We just need to get more comfortable with each other.

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