How to Build Digital Ads Spot On, At Speed, and At Scale

Relevant creative can increase conversion rates 30% to 160%. Learn how to accurately target all your audiences with creative that grabs their attention immediately in this article.

How to Build Digital Ads Spot On, At Speed, and At Scale
How to Build Digital Ads Spot On, At Speed, and At Scale

Creating digital ads that grab consumers’ attention quickly in the distracting, oversaturated online landscape is a tall order – made even taller if you don’t have the tools to scale and target your ads precisely.

Too many marketers put creative in a supporting role in the digital ad process, even though according to Google Media Lab, 70% of an ad campaign’s performance is based on the quality of the ad’s creative. Bring your creative team to the forefront by helping them collaborate with and contribute alongside your media team. This article will show you how to:

  • Develop the right creative brief for digital ads
  • Build relevant digital creative for each and every target audience
  • Unify your creative and media teams in a connected workflow
  • Test, tweak and optimize individual ad elements for maximum engagement
  • Accurately measure campaign ROI – including creative costs like ideation, creative production, creative quality, and cycle times

Content Summary

How to build unforgettable digital-first ads
Create a digital-first creative brief
Create ads with clear messages for every audience
Work smarter with connected workflow
Test and optimize for the best creative
Measure ROI based on time to launch and cost per variant
Good digital creative is good for business

Consumers had already been on a steady upward climb toward embracing digital over the past decade when the COVID-19 pandemic lurched their behavior forward dramatically. Now they increasingly favor online channels such as social media, e-commerce, mobile, and video for socializing, shopping, and entertaining themselves from home. These new habits are unlikely to reverse themselves post-pandemic, so it’s not surprising that the majority of advertising dollars are now spent online. According to GroupM estimates, digital will account for 55% of all advertising dollars spent in 2021.

Despite this shift, digital remains a creative afterthought for many advertisers, with little attention paid to developing attractive, useful ads that foster an emotional connection with consumers — a hallmark of TV ads for more than half a century. Since emerging in the ’90s, digital advertising has been more about direct response and driving clicks with whatever works, rather than developing thoughtful, emotive, relevant, useful ads.

“Digital has not traditionally been a creative realm, relative to broadcast,” said Jeff Sundheim, account director at Google, who works regularly with creative agencies to drive innovation with new technology. “Digital’s unique nature requires a real-time creative feedback loop that is modular and optimized for both media and creative tactics.”

The need for scale and speed in producing digital creative has also become enormous: For example, at the 2017 Cannes Lions Festival, former PepsiCo President Brad Jakeman said, “Instead of five pieces of content a year, a brand like Pepsi needs about 5,000 pieces of content a year. Instead of taking six months to develop an ad, we have six hours or six days. And instead of it costing $2 million, it needs to cost $20,000.”

For advertisers to act on real-time digital creativity at scale while controlling costs, they need to invest in the appropriate technology that supports the entire creative and production process. “A next-generation creative-management platform that unites and optimizes media and creative workflows is game-changing for digital ad optimization,” said Manu Mathew, president, Americas, Ad-Lib.io.

“The media team may have this wonderful go-to-market plan that they put together from an audience perspective, but traditionally the creative guys were not part of that conversation, nor were they privy to all of the insights from the previous campaign,” he said, adding that to truly scale, brands and agencies can’t work inside that kind of production silo. “Until now, point solutions have addressed one side of that equation or the other but have not enabled a truly connected set of workstreams,” he explained.

“Instead of five pieces of content a year, a brand like Pepsi needs about 5,000 pieces of content a year. Instead of taking six months to develop an ad, we have six hours or six days. And instead of it costing $2 million, it needs to cost $20,000.” – BRAD JAKEMAN, Former PepsiCo President

How to build unforgettable digital-first ads

Marketers need to change their approach to creative development to build campaigns that are engaging, relevant, memorable, and most importantly, drive results. This must all be achieved in the context of the digital landscape, where ads need to elicit an immediate reaction, often in a cluttered or interruptive environment. The five steps to building digital-first ads begin with rethinking the brief, move through a process of adding relevance, producing those variations at scale, optimizing continuously based on creative intelligence, and ultimately rests on building better ROI for the entire marketing effort.

Create a digital-first creative brief

A recent New York Times article detailed how streaming audio services have changed how music is written: For one thing, the audio “hooks” come very early in today’s pop songs, which must be designed to reel in listeners within the first few seconds or risk their clicking away to the next track.

Digital advertising requires a similar shift. With such a short window to make an impression, digital ads need to offer an eye-catching brand impression immediately, before any storytelling begins. This is the polar opposite of television advertising, which is intended to reveal a story over 30 to 60 seconds, with characters, music, and movement, leaving the brand impression until the very end. Digital creative that starts with TV ad content, not surprisingly, is not memorable in the online landscape. Similarly, the job of creative director used to be to get the one perfect asset right. Now that’s been turned on its head — the goal is to build multiple assets that are uniquely relevant for each segment, while still maintaining the brand image. The core challenge in digital is how do you do both.

Thinking digital-first requires media and creative teams to be in lockstep from start to finish, strategizing about how content and assets are going to be used and how to create ad units that are optimized for varied digital audiences without diluting the overall brand or message. Collaborative technology that brings media and creative experts together to build the campaign brief establishes key insights at the earliest stages of ideation to improve creative execution and provide a big splash upfront to appeal to target audiences.

With such a short window to make an impression, digital ads need to offer an eye-catching brand impression immediately, before any storytelling begins.

Create ads with clear messages for every audience

The beauty of digital advertising is that brands have incredible flexibility to reach their audiences across a variety of channels. But that also requires creative messaging that is contextually relevant for every audience on every device. In fact, a study by MarketingCharts showed the quality of the creative accounts for an outsized 56% of sales lift from advertising from digital campaigns, whereas the media is of lesser influence (30%) and according to Xandr, 66% of consumers wish ads were more relevant to them and their lifestyle.

With today’s proliferation of platforms, from the display and social to video and out of home, scaling your message for every audience can create a seemingly insurmountable challenge. After all, an average campaign has 20 formats, a number that can quickly grow into hundreds of variants that need to be built and coded to the right specs. Thanks to the power of automation, the right technology platform allows brands to scale the relevance of their ads and even make changes mid-flight.

For example, a marketer may have to start their day needing to decide who should see a digital ad for sunglasses and who should view one for down coats. Rather than relying on average weather data to make geographic decisions of what product to highlight — presuming, for instance, that a down coat would always be relevant in Colorado during the winter but sunglasses would never be relevant in Seattle — a marketer can use technology to make those decisions every day, based on reliable data inputs, and automatically generate ad variations with potentially unexpected results. Based on the day’s real-time weather forecast, a digital ad automatically serves up an ad for sunglasses on that sunny day in the Pacific Northwest, while shoppers in Texas see down coats appear as they hunker down for that unexpectedly wintery blizzard.

66% of consumers wish ads were more relevant to them and their lifestyle. – XANDR

Work smarter with connected workflow

“Media and creative agencies need a collaboration zone to implement a shared agenda,” said Patrick Collister, creative director at Ad-Lib.io and former creative director/vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, who explained that “brand managers need to get their media and creative partners talking to each other to make sure the creative works and ad performance improves.”

The problem is, the advertising industry has traditionally placed unreasonably tall barriers between media agencies, creative agencies and client-side teams. “Media and creative agencies are now competing with each other for executional dollars,” Collister said. “Increasingly, that media-creative split is really damaging to brands. Instead, it is in both teams’ interest to collaborate in order to make sure advertising works better.”

That’s where a unified platform with a connected workflow comes in, sitting at the intersection of creative and media strategies. This workflow is structured to start with the brief that is based on input and discussion from the creative team and the media team, move on to conception the execution of the big idea, and assigning assets to each audience. The workflow is then applied to production, personalizing the creative assets to each format, channel, and platform. From this same platform, creative is assessed for the best- and worst-performing ad variants and recommendations can be implemented automatically to keep the campaign humming.

Test and optimize for the best creative

How do you know if the image of a cat performs better than the dog? Is blue better than green? Is the call to action as strong as it can be? Historically, measuring and optimizing each element of a digital ad separately has been impossible. Identifying the effect of the ad content from the media plan was also a challenge. A broader campaign or piece of ad copy might be optimized based on media performance, but the answer to why it worked or didn’t remain a mystery.

Critical to any optimization is that insights gained can be acted upon and made useful in real-time. That means knowing which part of the creative is driving engagement, and the sooner the better, so media dollars are not wasted. “The right platform allows campaigns to work hard for you,” Mathew said. “You don’t want to have to wait until the end of the campaign to understand what works and do better next time. You should easily be able to make changes throughout the flight.”

Algorithms that determine which creative elements in an ad perform best based on the context and audience, and which fall behind, now exist to optimize a campaign. Marketers can use this information and either set the system to create and update ads automatically, or they can review and replace poorer-performing ads with those that are clearly having a positive impact. In addition, as consumers tire of seeing the same ad too frequently (known as ad fatigue), creative assets can be swapped out to keep the brand fresh in consumers’ minds.

“The right platform allows campaigns to work hard for you. You don’t want to have to wait until the end of the campaign to understand what works and do better next time.” – MANU MATHEW, President, Americas, Ad-Lib.io

Measure ROI based on time to launch and cost per variant

Much of the conversation around understanding the return on advertising (also known as ROAS — or return on ad spend) only takes into account the return on what is spent on media. This has two problems:

Conveniently overlooks the cost of developing great creative and content, artificially inflating ROAS numbers in the process and

This leads to the flawed perception that the return is a function only of the media investment and that the creative effort does not matter.

Sometimes marketers call media investment “working media” and refer to creative development and other costs “nonworking” media, further implying those elements are less critical to performance. Yet according to research done by Google Media Lab, 70% of an ad campaign’s performance is based on the quality of the ad’s creative. In other words, brands that drag their feet on improving creative are likely giving up sales.

The right way to measure the return on a campaign should include the creative costs such as ideation, creative production, creative quality, and cycle times to react to fast-moving opportunities, in addition to media costs. The operational cost of scaling personalized ad production is high when individuals are crafting each ad. The costs associated with content that is built but not used or needs to be reworked because of assets that are not built to spec is very real albeit rarely measured. The true impact of all this inefficiency is latency in getting ads in front of people and a lack of agility, which ultimately leads to missed sales opportunities by the business.

Despite the complexity inherent in personalized campaigns, the assumption has been that digital should be cheap. The expense of production that had always been a big part of offline media costs (referred to as “below the line” costs) was assumed to be minimal in digital. That has proved not to be true. Including creative production in the ROI equation sets the right framework to optimize all the levers to drive a better return on investment. And this framework will also make it easier to understand the payback on technology investments that can streamline the collaboration across media and creative. By keeping costs low, flexibility high, and leaving more money on the table for digital ad spend, technology can help marketers build ads that work better for the consumer and put them in front of more audiences faster.

Today, the ROI calculation has to include the cost of ideation and production of the assets that the campaign puts into the market. If the creative is the most critical driver of success in ad performance, shouldn’t the effort to make the content faster and with fewer resources, be the best way to measure return?

Good digital creative is good for business

For brands, dragging their feet on improving creative means they lose out on sales. In a shifting digital advertising landscape, in which third-party cookies and the tracking they enable are disappearing from browsers, creative is even more important to draw consumer interest. A final note: Before the pandemic, a Forrester study found that a shift in the overall investment of $19 billion from nonworking technology into creativity over six years would provide an increase in ROI as high as 18% — a potential return of $66 billion across U.S. businesses. The importance of that investment in creativity has only accelerated.

The bottom line is that today’s digital landscape requires marketers to be more sophisticated, agile and creative when they present themselves to customers. “The latest technology allows media and creative teams to produce cost-effective digital creative assets, at scale and with speed, with the seamless workflow that maximizes impact and performance,” Google’s Sundheim said. “For brands looking for a competitive edge, that’s a key differentiator.”

A shift in overall investment of $19 billion from nonworking technology into creativity over six years would provide an increase in ROI as high as 18% – FORRESTER STUDY

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