Ads or Algorithms?

By The Cog Blog Archives
Cover image for  article: Ads or Algorithms?

This week, while the rest of the industry was in post-Super Bowl creative ad fever, Wavemaker, the GroupM media agency announced a breakthrough. They've used artificial intelligence (big tick) to build a tool (called Maximize, obviously) that can analyze gazillions of media plan options in a nanosecond. (I may have got those numbers wrong.)

The news broke in Campaign on Monday, in a piece by their media and technology editor Omar Oakes, who by Thursday was speculating on whether media agency brands were becoming an endangered species as planners migrate to tech businesses and media sales operations.

The media consultant Tom Denford of IDComms wondered aloud if the Wavemaker move signalled the end of media planning.

And the creative agency Mother revealed details of their entry into the media agency business with Media by Mother, which aims to "rethink the media agency."

This paragraph from their manifesto caught my attention:

"Media planning needs to be about business and content planning. That means analytical talent who create better inputs for media and understand attribution. It means having content creators who can turn around a meme because they know culture. It means copywriters working within creative management platforms, so banners aren't the shitty posters of the internet. It means experts in media buying platforms who can work like producers, managing activation through the right access point with a deep knowledge of ad tech and data." (David Gaines, CEO, Media by Mother)

Going back to Wavemaker, media agency networks need tools. They're a key ingredient in the cement that holds the network together. They're the answer to the inevitable question, "But what differentiates you from the others?"

They also define a way of working. In the eyes of those at the center, if the local markets all have the same tools, they all work consistently. A key requirement for international clients.

It's never that simple.

Will all local markets understand and use the tools? How will the center check? How and how often will they train? What will they do if the tools aren't used?

These aren't hypothetical questions. We faced the same issues building the Carat network way back when.

There are certain lessons that have stood the test of time.

First, if the local market doesn't understand the tool, they won't use it. The first time a client asks them to explain the inner workings, and they can't, is the last time that tool will be used.

In another lifetime I once had to present how we estimated cross-media reach to a large client. (I was my agency's head of media research at the time.) Being a smart-arse, I put up a long formula to demonstrate 1) how clever we were and 2) the scientific rigor behind our approach.

My line was, "I'm sure you don't want me to take you through the formula ..." Unfortunately, the client had a deep and abiding interest in statistics and asked me to do exactly that. I couldn't, looked and felt like a fool and never made that mistake again.

Incentivizing offices to use the toolkit can work well. At Carat we used to visit local markets, ask to see examples of the tools in action, check their use with international business, and adjust local bonus payments accordingly.

Tools are great, but the clue is in the name. You need to have smart humans to work the tools. Smart humans need training in why they should be doing this when local market custom and practice dictate otherwise.

The danger with the Wavemaker approach is that it will stop people thinking about what they're really trying to do -- which is not to maximize the media numbers (a means to an end) but to use commercial messaging to drive business success for the client.

The alternative approach -- followed by Mother, and agencies like MediaHub and VCCP -- is to bring media planning in far closer to the creative process.

It's a question of whether you focus on the ads, or the algorithms.

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