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Remember When Every Brand's Video Strategy Was to Go Viral?

Why That Didn't Last and How Brands Can Take Advantage of Programmatic Buying

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When YouTube first gained popularity around 2006, it seemed like the dawn of a new creative age in advertising. Every brand flocked to YouTube, and everyone wanted to "go viral." YouTube seemed like a magical place where the age-old distinctions between advertising and content disappeared. Evian could captivate hundreds of millions of viewers with rollerskating babies. Ray Ban could stealthily seed an ad that would cement its cool factor with a new generation. In this new world, all your brand needed was the right creative agency and you would never have to buy video ads -- people would watch and share your content far and wide.

While brands continue to earn millions of views with great creative, this model never scaled. Trust me -- I know. We used to be the top analytics company for viral video. Then we -- like the industry -- underwent a transformation. Advertisers quickly found out that for every viral success, there were 10 failures, and they could not reliably reach viewers or measure success in the way they could with TV (or search advertising for that matter). Earned media is great, but it will not guarantee a brand advertiser will reach its goals of driving loyalty and getting people to buy things -- to "sell, or else" as David Ogilvy famously put it.

Paid advertising had to enter the equation, and it obviously did. YouTube joined media companies in putting pre-roll on its videos, slapped the bulk of it on its exchange, and the rest is history. Repurposing TV ads -- not creating long-form viral videos -- became the norm.

Now it seems like the pendulum is swinging the other way, and the media agency executives are the coolest kids on the block. The conversation slowly transitioned from "going viral" to trading desks and programmatic and industry protocols for the interface among video players and ad units. In that context, even a viral superstar like the Dollar Shave Club guy is doing interviews about programmatic buying.

Many creative people got bored, and shifted their focus to making great TV ads that win awards at Cannes. Over half of the pre-roll ads in video are just repurposed TV ads. That's too bad, because automation can change the game for creative people as much as media people.

The promise of automation is to make advertising more relevant than it ever has been. It's not just about streamlining buying processes or reducing media waste. It's about telling a different story to consumers based on where they live or who they are.

We're not just talking about retargeting people who abandon a shopping cart; it's about branding. Brands have the first-party data to make this huge. Imagine if General Mills knew that if it is raining, young men are more likely to crave Apple Cinnamon Cheerios. General Mills could then have localized executions that automatically run during bad weather. And because they're streamlining buying through software, they know that young men respond better to a specific ad on a streaming sports broadcast but hate it on their smartphones -- and can move money there.

Of course, there are barriers to this new machine learning-powered creative age. Most agencies are splintered between media buying and creative, and to truly realize this vision you need seamless collaboration between both. This speaks to the importance of collaborating through software. If creative and media agencies adopt the same platforms, they can learn from each others' data.

There are lessons from the past. When account planners were first put near creative people during the Mad Men era, the result was resounding success. Similarly, media and creative functions could learn more from each other. We may even live to see the great recoupling of media and creative again in some form.

The history of adland has always been a tug of war between creative and media people. The real story is that this distinction is blurring, and the question is what agencies will do about it.

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