Programmatic & Creative - Unlocking more powerful ads

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The promise of programmatic media buying is buying media at the right time, right place and with right audience. If data and inventory are vehicles through which a brand’s message is delivered, then creative is the message itself. That said, programmatic discourse typically revolves around data and inventory and how the two are transacted between buy and sell side parties. Oftentimes, creative remains an afterthought in ad tech circles. However, studies such as a 2017 Nielsen Catalina Solutions report have time and again demonstrated creative quality to be the single most important driver for advertising effectiveness. It’s not hyperbole to say many in adtech are “majoring in the minors” by not giving creative its due.

What accounts for this gap between technology and creative? Here are two contributing factors:



Creative and media have historically operated independently with creative starting the process before passing finished assets to their media counterparts for campaign execution. In today’s data driven, real time world however, the walls between creative and media need to come down in order to unlock the potential of programmatic creative. Media needs to be brought into the creative process and likewise, creative ideation into the media process. For example, developing data driven creative requires actual data, and that historically sits with media agencies. As such, creative agencies often do not have access to data upstream to inform ideation, or downstream to act as signals and triggers for dynamic feed based creative.

One of the biggest challenges to creating powerful programmatic creative assets is when we don’t have access to 1st party data.

– Uma Reade, Head of Experience, Essence

Programmatic technology can unlock unprecedented scale and precision when it comes to creative delivery, but also new frontiers of innovation in the creative itself. Capitalising on this opportunity requires different ways of working.



The above described lack of collaboration results in many not fully appreciating the synergistic roles creative and media play in developing messaging that takes full advantage of programmatic technology. Programmatic technology carries an inherent personalisation aspect, but that does not only equal basic retargeting that “follow users around” with redundant creative. It means providing value by way of information, service or experience. Applying that to programmatic creative, simply being “dynamic” is not enough. At the end of the day, good creative still requires artistry. To reach a point where that artistry can be applied, folks on both creative and media sides need to possess a solid understanding of the technology and what it enables.

Creative agencies require staff who understand how to work with and maximise technology enabling data fuelled creative. This includes but is not limited to creative management platforms, dynamic feeds and APIs. Likewise, media agencies need employees who not only understand how to deploy creative programmatically, but also how data signals generated downstream at the execution layer can be fed back upstream to amplify and augment the creative ideation process.

According to a Creative Brand Director who has asked to remain anonymous,

the biggest barrier for creating powerful digital programmatic creative assets is “not enough education and training” as the technology remains relatively new for some production partners resulting in a non ideal “trial by error” creative development process.


In what follows, we discuss potential ideas and solutions for how brands, agencies and publishers can on their own and in concert, circumvent the above stated obstacles. We also include input from those working in creative on personal experiences dealing with solving for these challenges. Last but not least, we showcase several case studies of brands who have artfully and effectively bridged these gaps and collaborated with their partner agencies to deliver impactful and relevant data driven programmatic creative.




Programmatic technology can be a powerful force multiplier for strong creative, but taking full advantage of the technology requires different ways of working. Audience and campaign data naturally sit with campaign executors, most commonly media agencies. However, this same data can be mined for insights to inform creative ideation and programmatic scale potential.

As such, a well defined collaboration process between media and creative agencies is key to breaking down traditional silos to unlock programmatic creative potential.

We work very closely with all our partners, especially media [agencies]. We generally go into the planning process together to ensure the creative concept will really resonate on the selected channels – and in many cases – utilizing the media partnership to help drive the native creative assets development on platforms.

– Sheilen Rathod, President, Customer Engagement & Commerce, Ogilvy, APAC

The below diagram is one example of a shared campaign process enabling closer collaboration and efficient information exchange. Data, insights and creative ideas should be shared at each stage to facilitate the creative process within programmatic solutions.



While there is no single best collaboration structure as nuances could be dictated by different factors, the following principles are key to maximising the odds of success:

  • Brief together – Creative and media agencies should be briefed together to ensure all parties are aligned from the beginning.
  • Continuous collaboration – Data and insights should be shared between parties for the duration of the campaign lifecycle.
  • Creative co-creation – Creative and media agencies should work together to ensure assets are built to take advantage of technology unlocked by programmatic and emerging channels.
  • Data Strategy – Have an intelligent data approach for organisation, insight generation and ultimately deployment.
  • Holistic measurement framework – A measurement approach to assess both media and creative impact for future iteration.


Media agencies do share their audience targeting plans to some extent, but I find the key to close agency partnerships depends a lot on how clients bring the agencies together.

-Nick Pan, Managing Director, Strategy & Commerce, VMLY&R


Each stage of the collaboration process poses different challenges due to the siloed nature in which data and insights are captured and exchanged. Let’s examine several key benefits of creative and media collaboration in more detail.



Traditionally, creative insights were driven largely by a combination of proprietary and syndicated research. Today, more granular insights can be mined directly from first, second and third party audience data using programmatic platforms such as Demand Side Platforms (DSPs) and Data Management Platforms (DMPs). Data generated from campaign interactions can also serve as a valuable source of insights. The challenge is this data organically sits with media agencies. Not only that, there often lacks an efficient process for sharing said data.

Even if both agencies do get along well, there is still the speed struggle in getting relevant data to be shared across one another. When data is made available, we would already be too late in acting upon it.

-Ong Ta Zhi, Data Analyst, MRM McCann


As such, it is imperative there exist a mechanism for media and creative parties to collaborate and exchange said data to maximise the fruits of insight generation.

An example of such collaboration can be the media agency sharing a catalogue of relevant audience segments for downstream targeting to help inspire creative and media synergy upstream during the ideation phase. Another example is the media agency using programmatic platform forecasting tools to ascertain scalability of creative concepts in accordance with corresponding targeting triggers to help creative agencies in prioritising concepts with the greatest scale potential when deployed against media.

And it is not only media agencies that can share data informed insights to inform ideation. Forward thinking publishers with rich first party audience data are able to do the same. The prospect of passing user data decoupled from inventory is unrealistic for most publishers, but many are willing to share user insights derived from said data (assuming proper data capture and organisation infrastructure). While the primary intent of publishers sharing these insights is to inform media buys on their owned properties, these same insights can be used to aid the creative process. Ideally the two would happen in unison, further underscoring the synergy and collaboration theme of this piece.

An example of this in action is KFC leveraging Spotify’s streaming intelligence to address user listening behaviour matching the campaign’s objective of removing labels or stereotypes whilst promoting their unconventional WaffleBurger. The synergy between media, data and creative proved both impactful and relevant, taking home the Silver award for Best Use of Audio at the 2019 Mobile Marketing Association Awards.



The most advanced data strategy and insightful media plan would be largely for naught without proper creative. As such, creative and media agencies must be in constant communication throughout the campaign lifecycle.

Creative parties should ensure concepts, messaging and iterations are developed with audience segmentation and data targeting tactics in mind. For example, if the media plan addresses several different first party data segments, creative assets should be tailored to each of these segments with messaging that ladders up to the larger creative strategy.

Data helps identify the right audience, and again when coming up with messaging data. This is key to ensure the stories we’re telling are relevant and contextual to what our audience cares about.

-Uma Reade, Head of Experience, Essence

In addition to the audience, creative should be developed in accordance with planned media channels and properties. If there are known channels and/or properties that are strategically important, creative agencies should develop assets that take advantage instead of force fitting the same generic assets into all.

And it is not only creative agencies that need to tailor development to media. Media parties should make data, inventory and channel selections in accordance to creative concepts and asset development. In an ideal scenario, creative and media should be balanced with both sides contributing and adapting to one another. In practice, one side may take the lead depending on the nuances of a particular execution, but regardless, collaboration and open dialogue is required for optimal results.



The real time benefits of programmatic on media targeting are well documented. What is less discussed is how the same signals used to target media can be migrated to the creative layer to dynamically tailor and optimise creative messaging so end users receive more relevant and valuable ads.

These signals are passed in the bid-stream via the OpenRTB protocol and can be selected for using a data feed and/or supplemented via data APIs to inform creative messaging in real time. Examples include but are certainly not limited to the following:

  • Time of day or day of week
  • Weather
  • Geolocation
  • Device make and model
  • Browser or Operating System
  • Contextual signals (e.g. vertical, topic, placement, keyword)
  • Audience signals (first, second or third party data)

The data feed technology enabling dynamic creative typically sits within Creative Management Platforms (CMPs), but are also built into select media buying platforms. Some companies now also offer dynamic creative capabilities that do not require a data feed. Regardless of the exact technology used, to make the most of dynamic data driven creative, media and creative must continue to collaborate through campaign execution to ensure the correct real time signals are mapped to correct creative and that the creative assets are developed to support signal ingestion in the first place.

We [use the following data to inform the creative process]. Social listening: to understand our topicality around the category and conversations amongst our audiences. This also surfaces pop culture that our audiences are interested in. Google Trends & Search Keywords:this research shows what a specific market is searching for and interested in. Customer Data: [by] using their demographic data like birthday, gender, geolocation to develop personalized content and experiences. Partner Data: we have partnered with Alibaba in China and pulled out 10 years worth of customers interactions with the Alibaba network to create personalized content.

-Nick Pan, Managing Director, Strategy & Commerce, VMLY&R


While there will always be a place for experimental executions where standard measurement is deprioritised, most programmatic creative will be held to campaign Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) similar to media. As with most things in digital marketing, if the efficacy of an execution cannot be expressed with proper measurement approach, much of its practical impact is lost.

This is yet another reason why media and creative collaboration is paramount across the entire campaign lifecycle from pre brief to post campaign. As discussed earlier, media agencies can help creative parties maximise asset measurability by helping prioritise concepts based on scale potential, For brands where it makes sense, third party pre campaign creative testing within an in-lab environment (typically initiated by a media side data science team) can also be valuable to maximise the odds of creative breakthrough. During campaign activation, media and creative must be in sync to ensure set up is done in a manner that facilitates proper measurement. For example, if there is strategic incentive to independently measure the impact of different concepts, the programmatic planner buyer must know so he or she can set up the campaign within the buying platform the right way. In-flight optimisations should be shared between media and creative to elevate learning and inform next steps.

It’s absolutely part of the process and partnership [for partners to share campaign data to inform future creative concepting and strategy].

-Sheilen Rathod, President, Customer Engagement & Commerce, Ogilvy, APAC

Post campaign all learnings and insights, whether it be creative efficacy, who was reached or how different audiences interacted with different concepts, should be fed back to the creative agencies to inform future ideation and concepting. This then restarts the process akin to a virtuous cycle.




In the previous section, we discussed the importance of media and creative collaboration. However, both parties require skills and knowledge to facilitate and optimise said collaboration. This includes everything from process and ways of working to platform and technical knowledge. In this section, we examine a few of these from both creative and media angles.




While it is unlikely creative agencies will spend significant hours pulling levers in a programmatic media platform (e.g. DSP, DMP), it remains important those working on programmatic creative possess a basic understanding of how these platforms work in relation to creative targeting, triggers and delivery. As stated, data and inventory are vehicles through which creative is delivered. As such, it is important those creating assets to understand the ways in which ads can (and cannot) be delivered as well as the different real time signals that are passed at delivery to aid ideation and concepting.


Programmatic or not, good creative requires artistry and innovation. However, applying that artistry to programmatic creative requires a solid understanding of the different tools at disposal.  This includes CMPs, dynamic data feeds and data APIs to name a few. This may require a shift in the skills creative agencies hire for. For example, this may mean creative agencies hiring talent with programmatic media and/or data strategy backgrounds or developers who understand how to work with and integrate data APIs into banners for real time creative decisioning.

It is different across the offices around our region in Asia. Anywhere between 1% to 8% [of staff] across offices [work on creative development].

-Nick Pan, Managing Director, Strategy & Commerce, VMLY&R


When delivering creative via programmatic media buying, it is suboptimal to rely solely on a single “anthem” creative the way one would with TV or even digital video buys. Instead, it makes sense to have a creative framework that can be personalised across channels for a variety of audiences in accordance to how well the brand knows said audiences. As such, it is inadvisable for creative agencies to rely on a single “object” output such as a one-size-fits-all long-form video or a single set of rich media assets. When it comes to data driven creative, impactful creative “templates” with dynamic elements informed by relevant real time triggers is preferable. This requires a different approach and response to brief.





Programmatic media practitioners (more than ever) should have a solid grasp of the creative ideation, concepting and development lifecycle. Doing so enables more effective collaboration as it helps programmatic practitioners and data strategists better understand and identify the type of inputs that would be most helpful and where to get involved.

An example to illustrate this is a 2018 Google Maps campaign from Indonesia focused on driving Maps active users. Indonesia is known as the world’s traffic capital and with motorcycle penetration at over 80%, Essence and Google saw an opportunity to provide immediate utility by alleviating daily traffic woes of motorcyclists across the country. They achieved this by combining internal Google Maps data with programmatic technology to execute a campaign delivering mobile ads doubling “get-out-of-traffic” cards for motorcyclists stuck in traffic across Greater Jakarta, These ads provided route recommendations using Google Maps’ Two-Wheeler feature (a new mode displaying routes accessible exclusively to motorcyclists) bringing real time value to motorcyclists. The campaign was successful in reaching the intended audience with impact, resulting in a significant incremental increase in Google Maps Daily Active Users (DAU) for Google Maps in a market where the app already had high adoption baselines. Campaign success was possible due to those on the media working closely with the creative teams to understand how data can directly inform and enhance the creative experience.


Similar to how creative agencies should have a basic understanding of media platforms, programmatic practitioners should have a basic understanding of creative technology platforms and how they plug into media platforms (e.g. ad server, DSP, DMP). Similar to how those in creative need to know what is possible with media platforms, those working in media should understand how and what data programmatic creative tech can ingest. This is especially key as the majority of real time signals used to power dynamic creative comes from media.


Most media platforms today come with tools to facilitate and optimise data driven creative delivery either natively or via server-to-server integration. As such, it is important traders and data strategists understand the full capabilities of these tools to take advantage of its ability to amplify creative value and impact. As an example, an Ad Ops team needs to know their way around a dynamic data feed in order to build this into their campaign set up and trafficking protocol to ensure the messaging is successfully delivered.


An increasing number of publishers have built or are building creative capabilities to help develop assets for their owned properties and/or networks. This allows publishers to either own the creative development process when working with brands with limited creative resources or collaborate directly with brands’ partner agencies. In addition, there are publishers who have opened their content APIs to be used to dynamically surface site content within brands’ creative assets. This provides brands a custom signal that can be used to deploy tailored creative for specific properties. As such, it is important media agencies are aware of these capabilities in addition to the more “standard” inventory and data when working with publishers.




As stated at the beginning of this piece, creative quality is arguably the single most important variable for advertising effectiveness.  That said, there exists a perception that programmatic and creative innovation are somehow at odds or incompatible. That could not be further from the truth as programmatic technology can be a powerful creative force multiplier if symbiotically planned and deployed in concert. Maximising this synergy requires a paradigm shift in the media and creative relationship.

First and foremost, media and creative parties must collaborate across the entire campaign lifecycle. There is no exact collaboration formula, but consistent principles include unified briefings, continuous data and insight exchange, creative co-ideation and concepting, an intelligent data strategy for upstream planning and downstream execution and a holistic measurement framework to extract learnings to inform the next round. Adhering to these principles produces more informed creative ideation, tighter creative and media synergy, more relevant real time signals and improved performance measurability.

Second, the industry must collectively work to increase awareness and education on ways data and programmatic technology can unlock more powerful and innovative creative. This applies equally to both the creative and media sides. Creatives should have a basic understanding of programmatic media platforms, deep knowledge of creative technology and evolve thinking from single outputs to creative systems. On the media side, folks should possess a clear understanding of the creative process, basic understanding of creative platforms, deep understanding of programmatic platform data and creative capabilities and clear knowledge of how publishers can aid in creative development.

Collectively focusing on these areas will reduce the gap between media and creative, increase creative discourse and representation within ad tech circles and most importantly, produce even more impactful, relevant and valuable programmatic media campaigns.

IAB SEA+India Programmatic Committee
  • Diogo Andrade, SEA Automation Lead, Spotify
  • Rebecca Haly, Senior Manager, Account Management, Asia, Salesforce
  • Toby Williams, VP Business Development, APMEA, Unruly
  • Vincent Niou, Head of Programmatic, APAC, Essence