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FEPE Congress highlights vexed role of creativity in a media world driven by ad tech

We all know – or think we know – that tech is taking over the ad world although not that many people seem too happy about it, apart from the suppliers of such tech and the companies and venture funds that invest in it.

But turkeys don’t vote for Christmas do they? Super computers armed with super algorithms presumably imply a diminished role for people although the burgeoning numbers at Google and some of the big media media agencies would seem – for now anyway – to counter that.

Every now and then, when these things are being discussed, there’s a squeak from the back of the class as someone says: “But what about creativity?” One of the ultimate aims of ad tech, perhaps, is the replacement of such a delicate bloom with programmatic formulae that can be guaranteed to work.

The out of home industry finds itself in an interesting place in the debate. Uniquely among offline media, technology does not seem to be a threat. Technology is powering the exponential rise of digital screens on poster sites, in stores and new locations around big cities and transport networks. That old industry stalwart Bill Poster is in danger of being made redundant.

Last week’s FEPE International Congress in Barcelona, a gathering of 400 or so out of home executives and interested parties from around the world, heard plenty about ‘smart cities (as in the FEPE Technical Award winner above),’ new measurement systems, the synergies between mobile and smart posters, the imminence of programmatic out of home media buying and the like.

images-1Mark Boidman (left), a media and tech investment banker at Peter J. Solomon spoke enthusiastically about the investment potential in new digital out of home. As he would, Boidman has worked on media deals worth $40bn.

Amid all of this, though, there was our old friend the elephant in the living room: creativity or messages devised by people to reach other people amid this tech revolution. Does creativity actually matter any more when you can guarantee to reach millions of potential customers cheaply, possibly with personalised messages?

Later in proceedings the cavalry – in the form of Mark Craze of Outsmart, the UK out of home marketing body, adam&eveDDB CEO James Murphy and Matthew Dearden, president of Clear Channel Europe and the new president of FEPE, tried to ride to the rescue.

Craze, who has run big media agencies in his time including Carat in the UK, instanced a campaign that had achieved all its metrics with something to spare but completely failed to enthuse the client. Why? Nobody was talking about it because there was no creative spark.

Adam&eve’s Murphy showed a number of campaigns from his own multi-awarded creative agency that used a mix of traditional and digital out of home to support and extend big local and global campaigns that used emotion and humour – the two creative hallmarks – to engage millions of people with brand messages from the likes of Waitrose and Wall’s (both below).



Ocean Outdoor and agency WCRS showed the full potential of the digital medium with their FEPE Creative Award winner for Women’s Aid.

Dearden (below), who has overseen a revolution at Clear Channel in the UK which now derives over half its revenues from digital compared to less than five per cent six years ago, spoke of the enduring impact of great creative and his plan to make ‘inspiration’ the keynote of his tenure. Some of his observations came in a panel on ad blocking; not, on the face of it, such a problem for out of home but actually a problem for all advertisers in whatever medium as they find find audiences turning away from ads, annoyed by the tidal wave of rubbish served at them by computers.

It’s an argument that won’t go away. It’s been running for half a century or more ever since the likes of Bill Bernbach challenged the adland orthodoxy that the only advertising that worked contained a highly-researched ‘unique selling proposition.’ WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell uncorked it with a vengeance a few years ago when he offered us ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Math Men.’ It will surely re-emerge at the Cannes Lions this year too.

It’s interesting that a buoyant out of home industry now finds itself in the front line.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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