Say Hello to the Robo Ad Creation Model

Zimmerman's Pick-N-Click-Ads Marks the Rise of the Machines

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Almost three years ago, the team at Zimmerman, a successful but often under-the-radar Omnicom agency, asked itself
Omnicom's Zimmerman agency is about to unveil Pick-N-Click-Ads, an automated online service that enables marketers to assemble ad creative with a system of drop-down menus. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opnion' box below.
Omnicom's Zimmerman agency is about to unveil Pick-N-Click-Ads, an automated online service that enables marketers to assemble ad creative with a system of drop-down menus. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opnion' box below.
one of those big business questions: How would we beat us if we weren't us?

Machine ads
Given the Fort Lauderdale shop's substantial billings, large retail and auto-dealership accounts and solid -- at least in an Effie way -- creative product, they decided the answer probably didn't lie in being another ad agency. Plus, who'd want to get into the ad business today, with its overcapacity and consequent product commoditization? Instead, they decided that machines, computers to be a little more specific, were most likely to eventually crush the Zimmerman admen.

Unlike many who've asked themselves such questions, the shop decided to extend the exercise beyond theory and make sure that if that H.G. Wellsian moment arrived, Zimmerman (or rather Omnicom) would own a piece of the action. Two and a half years and $3 million later, it is set to unveil Pick-N-Click-Ads, which it describes as a "virtual agency."

Drop-down menu creations
The site will allow users who pay a flat "all you can eat" fee to make their own TV, print, radio and interactive ads. During the brief demo he gave me, the site's creator, Michael Gelfano, VP-retail technologies, insisted it was different from Spot Runner or Visible World. But it performs a similar function -- namely, enabling the user, however stupid or inexperienced, to build a professional-standard ad via a series of simple drop-down menus, all in 15 minutes.

The site's first official showing will be on Feb. 3 at the annual convention of the National Automobile Dealers Association. The choice of venue isn't surprising, given that Pick-N-Click already is being used by AutoNation, one of the country's largest dealership groups, and given that -- again, like Visible World or Spot Runner-it's perfect for multi-unit businesses that might want to empower local operators, franchisees or dealers to customize ads according to geographical needs, local buying patterns, competitors' promotions or any other factor that might make a rapidly changed or customized commercial more effective than a one-size-fits-all national offering.

Spot Runner and Visible World
Apart from the fact that these computerized tools will make advertising affordable to more small and medium-size local businesses, I'd be willing to bet that in '07 we'll also start to see them deployed by major ad agencies and advertisers. WPP has a stake in Spot Runner; Visible World is already being used by a host of big-budget marketers; and Pick-N-Click is apparently attracting the interest of other Omnicom shops.

Anything that can be automated inevitably is. So why shouldn't it happen to the more routine and process-based types of advertising? It's already happened to basic accounting, as we'll all note again come tax-return time, and it's happened to basic legal work, with an amazing range of DIY services available online. The impact of this change is best described by Daniel Pink in "A Whole New Mind" (still the best book written on the future of the ad business), but if you want the short form, it's this: You'd better be bringing more than "craft" skills to the table if you want to have a future in marketing.

Threat and opportunity
As with all the technological changes that are causing upheaval in the ad business, the automation of regional retail-promotion-type ads is a threat and an opportunity: a threat to all those who sell their ads by volume rather than quality, and an opportunity for anyone who would love to have a machine focus on the commodity stuff so they can concentrate on real ideas and executions that will stand out from the mediocre morass.

Those real ideas, of course, will include creative ways to use the ever-growing array of creative tools, and perhaps even the creation of new devices. It worked for Zimmerman, which estimates that the margin per ad created by Pick-N-Click is three times the margin on an ad created by its people. Enjoy the rise of the machines.
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