How to Develop Creative Concepts for Programmatic Campaigns

Data Driven Campaigns - Thunder CMP

The new frontier in programmatic advertising is a creative one.

Message relevancy allows advertisers to combine the sophisticated targeting in their digital media buys with creative concepts that speak precisely to each targeted group. And through creative optimization, advertisers can test, learn from and optimize campaigns for performance gains of 30-50%.

Customizing creatives for programmatic media sounds great but, by and large, these customizations are all too often, well, not very creative.

To claim right person, right message, many advertisers draw from the same well of basic tactics—strategies like those that modify creatives based on simple geographic or weather data.

If using weather data and city names in ads is what data-driven advertising means to you, you’re taking the statement way too literally. Just because an ad knows it’s hot outside doesn’t mean that the conveyed message is any more compelling to a consumer. We can use ad tech to streamline and automate a lot of our work but we’re still marketers. Our ads ultimately require human finesse to change the feelings, opinions and behavior of human beings.

Effective creative relevancy helps advertisers connect with consumers by providing a positive influence on a consumer’s perception. This effect helps advertisers shape a consumer’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

So let’s talk about a creative process for people, not robots. Let’s talk about a process for data-driven campaigns that are full of heart, soul and, most importantly, humanity.

We will dig into creative tactics for programmatic soon enough but first we must build a strong creative strategy to serve as our foundation.

Resonance vs. Relevance

Putting the right message in front of the right consumer is a central theme in programmatic advertising. Arguably, the most significant component of an effective message is whether it’s meaningful to the consumer.

As marketers, we try to inform consumers about a product in a memorable way but also remember to create emotional values and positive feelings that are tied to the brand. Both conscious knowledge and non-conscious emotional values are factors that influence spending habits.


Here’s another way to explain these factors:

  1. Relevance is the answer to, “what does this have to do with me?”
  2. Resonance occurs when a relevant message is meaningful and affects the viewer.

Providing relevance is the first barrier to creating the right message in your digital ad campaign.

Is the styling of the ad appropriate to the viewer? Does the copy use the right words and tone? Are the images familiar or intriguing?

When viewed in this context, superficial tactics (like using local weather data) are revealed as silly and ineffective shortcuts to relevance. Unless we’re talking about a travel or sunscreen brand, we need a deeper connection to create that emotional impact we’re seeking.

That brings us to our second component: resonance.

Resonance addresses values, meaning, identity, and culture. For an ad to inspire someone to take action, it needs to resonate with some part of them. I identify with this product and its benefit. I want that benefit for myself.

As we proceed, avoid letting the efficacy of a campaign’s message get lost to the programmatic technology stack and the treasure-trove of data it offers. Yes, the creatives must be data-driven but they must also resonate with the viewer.


A Reasonable Scope of Work

Building creatives for a multi-audience campaign follows a flow that’s similar to traditional campaigns: a brand’s story and messages are built into a base concept.

A multi-audience campaign takes this single big concept and branches the idea into individual themes and segments customized to each audience. If we’re talking about display ads, we need to accomplish this without exceeding our creative budget or exhausting our designers and copywriters. (If you want to get into customized programmatic video, that’s a whole different beast.)

One way to keep the scope of work reasonable is to use a similar layout and style for the creatives. This has the added benefit of maintaining a consistent look and feel—and also helps improve brand recognition for anyone exposed to multiple variations of the creative.

Since this article focuses on digital creative strategy in the wake of programmatic buying, we assume that your media planners can target distinct audience segments using the wealth of demographic, psychographic, behavioral and contextual data available today.

The goal of creative concepting for programmatic campaigns is to seize upon the fact that we can target precise audiences and customize our creative to resonate better with the segments in the broader target audience. So if we want to put one set of messages in front of basketball fans and a different set of messages in front of skateboarding fans, it’s actually not that challenging to find those groups and target them.

Once you know which segments you are going after, there are numerous ways of building large numbers of similar creatives. You can use brute force and do what you already do in programs like Adobe Flash, or streamline your production using ad tech platforms like PaperG.

The workflow you adopt is based on what matters to your business. You must determine  whether you want to:

  1. do the ad production in-house or outsource it
  2. power your campaign with data feeds and spreadsheets (DCO), or
  3. take a more graphical approach that also offers scalable features (PaperG).

While your choice of technologies and workflow will define what is possible or even reasonable for your campaign, the purpose of this article is not to advise on what technology to use. (See Programmatic Creative vs. DCO for more information.)

Today we’re talking about how to make ground-breaking, highly-relevant, hyper-resonant creatives regardless of your process.

An Example Creative Brief

It’s difficult to talk about creative processes without a muse. Let’s begin our exercise with an abbreviated and fictitious creative brief for a global audio brand: Skullcandy.

headphones product shot


Skullcandy is the leading performance and lifestyle audio company driven by the creativity and attitude of youth culture.


New product categories will drive Skullcandy’s growth: gaming, sports/high-performance, and headphones designed for women. Since our products are in a low entry-level price range, our customers can start out small and progress to other products. Skullcandy already has a strong niche-oriented consumer base that often identifies with the brand through a similar mindset and ideology as opposed to specific activity. Now we have expanded our product line to reach impulse and casual buyers and seek expanding demand to groups outside Skullcandy’s traditional audience.


At Skullcandy, we connect with our muse consumer by pairing technological innovation with a message centered around art, music and action sports. Our customers are young, hip and constantly connected.


Expand consumer awareness and demand for Skullcandy headphones outside existing niche customers.


Skullcandy’s audio expertise delivers superior sound performance combined with unmatchable style.


Beats (Apple), Bose, Sony, Panasonic, Apple EarPods

Start with the audiences (plural!)

To produce relevant ad campaigns, or better yet, campaigns that resonate, always begin with the audience.

The first step is to carefully look at the segments where you hope to introduce or increase demand for your client’s product. We’re not only looking at the broad audience for this campaign. We will also focus on individual segments.

That means that, yes, you will need to buddy up with your friends on the media team or at the media agency handling that side of things. Get together early and often to discuss who is being targeted and what opportunities exist to customize the creative.

For simplicity, let’s assume the media buy for our Skullcandy campaign will target 18-22 year-olds who are enthusiasts of the following sports, activities and music:

  • basketball
  • snowboarding
  • video games
  • dance/EDM (electronic dance music)

From our creative brief, the unifying focus of the ad campaign we’re going to run has two parts:

  1. superior sound performance
  2. style

Our mission is to produce sets of creatives in five common IAB sizes that are customized to each segment above, plus a generalized creative that could work for any potential Skullcandy customer.

That sounds tough but if we stay organized and use the right software to help with production, it’s totally feasible. In a minute, I’ll share with you the 30 creatives I built in under 90 minutes thanks to the PaperG platform.

Back to the creative concepts. Let’s start by asking ourselves, “how will the product uniquely benefit each segment? What are the key differences between the benefits that each segment cares about?”

For the campaign to be effective, we need to move the consumer from merely understanding a product’s benefits to linking those benefits with personal values.

In the case of Skullcandy, our client is a lifestyle brand. Consumers enjoy the bold styling of the headphones as a form of self-expression, but they don’t want to sacrifice audio quality in the process. How these benefits manifest with each segment may vary considerably. What images and copy resonate with those segments will definitely differ.

Assuming the ads will share some common elements such as logos, color schemes, or layouts, how can we customize the creatives to improve relevance and resonance for specific audiences?

To help get your brain going, here are a few examples that may work for any campaign.


  1. Use a style of imagery appropriate to the segment
    1. e.g.: edgy vector art for 18-22 males, photo with vintage filter for 23-34 males, filterless photo for 35+
  2. Images of people and places should be inclusive to the target segment, too
    1. e.g.: consider race, age and styling of models with regard to the segment and their influencers
    2. ensure image backgrounds make sense to the targeted region


  1. Highlight the benefit that is most likely to appeal to this specific segment
  2. Use the right wording (i.e., how would they describe it in their own words?)

Following these lines of thinking, I’ve mapped some statements around sound quality and style to each segment. See the table below. For this campaign, we’ll use the text in sound quality as copy for our ads and the comments in the style column as direction to help pick which product imagery to use.

Audience Segment Sound Quality Style
general upgrade to awesome sound stark, vector
basketball push your limits, in sport and in life enjoyed by celebrities
snowboarding loud and rugged enough to go as hard as you do cool, rock and roll
video games get in the zone kinetic, explosive
dance/EDM bass you can feel black + color, trippy, alternative

We can take these concepts to knock out a bunch of creatives using the workflow of our choice.

Below are screenshots of the first frame, I used the PaperG creative management platform to quickly build different sets of ads for each concept. Each set offers six common desktop and mobile ad sizes.
upgrade to awesome sound

push your limits

loud and rugged

get in the zone

bass you can feel

Given more time, a product shoot, and a proper team, I think we could have created a great campaign. It would include many creatives that are all customized to audience segments. That’s the kind of one-to-one relationship we want between an ad’s message and the consumer who views the ad.

Things are looking really good. You might say we’re done… but we aren’t. There’s one more step.

Test and Learn

You may have been wondering, “Why do we need to create a generalized version of our creative when we have all these specific messages for each audience segment we’re targeting?”

Great Question. Not only do we want to customize the creatives to our audiences, but as a data-driven campaign, we want to validate (or invalidate) our hypothesis that these creatives resonate with each audience group.

When you’re going through all this work to customize ads to audience groups, it’s helpful to have a generalized ad to split test as a control. Even if the generalized ad only gets a small percentage of impressions within each segment, knowing how the customized designs are performing versus the base design will provide valuable information that can influence your next campaign.

Learning from the creative is (sadly) a fairly new practice, especially in display advertising. If you have never optimized a campaign before before, make sure you account for these activities in your workflow. This is an opportunity for you to differentiate your agency and show the client your unique (and huge) value proposition. Don’t miss the opportunity!

Essential Guide to Programmatic Creative Technologies

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