The Curse of Vanilla

Have you ever noticed that it’s the things you didn’t think of that always cause the most trouble?
I’ve been working on Dynamic Creative Optimization (DCO) programs for almost three years now.  And looking back, the issues that have cropped up over and over again are those that I had no clue were coming.
The one that I’d like to discuss today, I call the “Curse of Vanilla.”
A core tenet of DCO is the notion that creative variation leads to higher performance.  This occurs because of a blindingly obvious fact: People are different.  Have you ever thought about how strange it is for a major retailer to target females aged 18-54 with the same exact ad?  Does anyone believe the 18 year-old high school senior in Beverly Hills, CA will respond in the same manner as the 54 year-old grandmother in New York City?  Of course not.
To use a food metaphor, everyone has their own favorite flavor of ice cream.  I love dulce de leche (or, at least, I did until I went vegan – but that’s another post).  The people sitting around me as I write this enjoy: chocalate, mint chocalate chip, cookies and cream, butter pecan, strawberry, pistacchio, coffee, etc.   (One guy kind of looked at me funny and said, “I don’t like ice cream.”  I’m not positive he was in fact referring to ice cream.)
Unfortunately for advertisers, the broadcast paradigm that has dominated advertising for over a century carries with it a limitation: everyone gets the same ad.  In our food metaphor, everyone has to eat the same ice cream.  Now if you’re an advertiser, and you can only provide your customers with a single flavor, the choice is more or less obvious.  Go with vanilla.  It’s not anyone’s favorite, but no one really objects to it.  In fact, the very word vanilla has become synonymous with bland and inoffensive.  If you are forced to pick a single flavor for everyone, vanilla is probably the least bad choice.
Enter online advertising and DCO, where (finally!) advertisers can provide customized creative!  Chocolate? No problem!  Dulce de leche? Fine!  Jalapeno mint chocolate chip?  Sure thing – want a double scoop?  Dynamic creative allows advertisers to have a virtually unlimited number of flavors at their command.   Wonderful – we can finally give everyone what they truly want.
Of course, there is no such thing as free flexibility.  I won’t get into a boring discussion of Bayesian Statistics, machine learning, Taguchi methods, genetic algorithms, and all the other topics that make geek propellers spin.  Instead, I’ll just ask you to trust me: too many flavors of ice cream can make it hard to figure out the perfect flavor for each individual.
So as we began to launch dynamic creative into the marketplace, I made a mental note to myself: “Be sure that advertisers understand that they should keep their creative variations within reason. We have to control them – don’t let them get too excited.”
And sure enough, as we went to market, I re-discovered that age old truth.  I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
“Look at what you can do! Isn’t this great?  You can have billions of ad variations!  You can find the perfect message for everyone!  You can have Jalapeno Mint Chocolate Chip!  Woohoo!”
And as the orders started to roll in, as dynamic creative started to run, I took a close look and noticed that something was amiss.  Given the power to create a virtually unlimited number of ad variations, the advertisers hadn’t created too many – they had created too few!  I didn’t see 10,000 crazy flavors of ice cream – I saw 8.  And every single one of them were minor variations of… vanilla.  Argh.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  People are creatures of habit.  The danger was never that they would over-use the power of dynamic creative.  The real danger was that they would ignore it altogether, sticking to the ideas that had been drilled into their collective industry norms for over a century.  One identical ad for everyone…  the Curse of Vanilla.
Now that we’re aware of the issue, we’re taking steps to overcome it.  It’s not rocket science: we’re focusing on education and outreach, coupled with an emphasis on those executions where there are natural sources of creative variation – large numbers of products and services, large numbers of geographic locations, etc.
Lessons learned, or perhaps, re-learned:  You can’t predict the future; change is hard; or, as Robert Burns put it: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”
Now, someone pass the sorbet!

Have you ever noticed that it’s the things you didn’t think of that always cause the most trouble?
I’ve been working on Dynamic Creative Optimization (DCO) programs for almost three years now.  And looking back, the issues that have cropped up over and over again are those that I had no clue were coming.
The one that I’d like to discuss today, I call the “Curse of Vanilla.”
A core tenet of DCO is the notion that creative variation leads to higher performance.  This occurs because of a blindingly obvious fact: People are different.  Have you ever thought about how strange it is for a major retailer to target females aged 18-54 with the same exact ad?  Does anyone believe the 18 year-old high school senior in Beverly Hills, CA will respond in the same manner as the 54 year-old grandmother in New York City?  Of course not.
To use a food metaphor, everyone has their own favorite flavor of ice cream.  I love dulce de leche (or, at least, I did until I went vegan – but that’s another post).  The people sitting around me as I write this enjoy: chocalate, mint chocalate chip, cookies and cream, butter pecan, strawberry, pistacchio, coffee, etc.   (One guy kind of looked at me funny and said, “I don’t like ice cream.”  I’m not positive he was in fact referring to ice cream.)
Unfortunately for advertisers, the broadcast paradigm that has dominated advertising for over a century carries with it a limitation: everyone gets the same ad.  In our food metaphor, everyone has to eat the same ice cream.  Now if you’re an advertiser, and you can only provide your customers with a single flavor, the choice is more or less obvious.  Go with vanilla.  It’s not anyone’s favorite, but no one really objects to it.  In fact, the very word vanilla has become synonymous with bland and inoffensive.  If you are forced to pick a single flavor for everyone, vanilla is probably the least bad choice.
Enter online advertising and DCO, where (finally!) advertisers can provide customized creative!  Chocolate? No problem!  Dulce de leche? Fine!  Jalapeno mint chocolate chip?  Sure thing – want a double scoop?  Dynamic creative allows advertisers to have a virtually unlimited number of flavors at their command.   Wonderful – we can finally give everyone what they truly want.
Of course, there is no such thing as free flexibility.  I won’t get into a boring discussion of Bayesian Statistics, machine learning, Taguchi methods, genetic algorithms, and all the other topics that make geek propellers spin.  Instead, I’ll just ask you to trust me: too many flavors of ice cream can make it hard to figure out the perfect flavor for each individual.
So as we began to launch dynamic creative into the marketplace, I made a mental note to myself: “Be sure that advertisers understand that they should keep their creative variations within reason. We have to control them – don’t let them get too excited.”
And sure enough, as we went to market, I re-discovered that age old truth.  I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
“Look at what you can do! Isn’t this great?  You can have billions of ad variations!  You can find the perfect message for everyone!  You can have Jalapeno Mint Chocolate Chip!  Woohoo!”
And as the orders started to roll in, as dynamic creative started to run, I took a close look and noticed that something was amiss.  Given the power to create a virtually unlimited number of ad variations, the advertisers hadn’t created too many – they had created too few!  I didn’t see 10,000 crazy flavors of ice cream – I saw 8.  And every single one of them were minor variations of… vanilla.  Argh.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  People are creatures of habit.  The danger was never that they would over-use the power of dynamic creative.  The real danger was that they would ignore it altogether, sticking to the ideas that had been drilled into their collective industry norms for over a century.  One identical ad for everyone…  the Curse of Vanilla.
Now that we’re aware of the issue, we’re taking steps to overcome it.  It’s not rocket science: we’re focusing on education and outreach, coupled with an emphasis on those executions where there are natural sources of creative variation – large numbers of products and services, large numbers of geographic locations, etc.
Lessons learned, or perhaps, re-learned:  You can’t predict the future; change is hard; or, as Robert Burns put it: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”
Now,meone pass the sorbet!

Have you ever noticed that it’s the things you didn’t think of that always cause the most trouble?

I’ve been working on Dynamic Creative Optimization (DCO) programs for almost three years.  And looking back, the issues that have cropped up over and over again are those that I had no clue were coming.

I’ve named the one I’d like to discuss today the “Curse of Vanilla.”

A core tenet of DCO is the notion that creative variation leads to higher performance.  This occurs because of a blindingly obvious fact: people are different.  Have you ever thought about how strange it is for a major retailer to target females aged 18-54 with the same ad?  Does anyone believe the 18 year-old high school senior in Beverly Hills, CA will respond in the same manner as the 54 year-old grandmother in New York City?  Of course not.

To use a food metaphor, everyone has their own favorite flavor of ice cream.  I love dulce de leche (or, at least, I did until I went vegan).  As I write this post, the people sitting around me enjoy: chocolate, mint chocolate chip, cookies and cream, butter pecan, strawberry, pistachio, coffee, etc.   (One guy kind of looked at me funny and said, “I don’t like ice cream.”  I’m not positive he was in fact referring to ice cream.)

Unfortunately for advertisers, the broadcast paradigm that has dominated advertising for over a century carries with it a limitation: everyone gets the same ad.  In our food metaphor, everyone has to eat the same ice cream.  Now if you’re an advertiser, and you can only provide your customers with a single flavor, the choice is more or less obvious.  Go with vanilla.  It’s rarely anyone’s favorite, but no one really objects to it.  In fact, the very word vanilla has become synonymous with bland and inoffensive.  If you are forced to pick a single flavor for everyone, vanilla is probably the least bad choice.

Enter online advertising and DCO, where (finally!) advertisers can provide customized creative!  Chocolate? No problem!  Dulce de leche? Fine!  Jalapeno mint chocolate chip?  Sure thing – want a double scoop?  Dynamic creative allows advertisers to have a virtually unlimited number of flavors at their command.   Wonderful – we can finally give everyone what they want.

Of course, there is no such thing as free flexibility.  I won’t get into a boring discussion of Bayesian Statistics, machine learning, Taguchi methods, genetic algorithms, and all the other topics that make geek propellers spin.  Instead, I’ll just ask you to trust me: too many flavors of ice cream can make it hard to figure out the perfect flavor for each individual.

So as we began to launch dynamic creative into the marketplace, I made a mental note to myself: “Be sure that advertisers understand that they should keep their creative variations within reason. We have to control them – don’t let them get too excited.”

And sure enough, as we went to market, I re-discovered that age old truth:  I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

“Look at what you can do! Isn’t this great?  You can have billions of ad variations!  You can find the perfect message for everyone!  You can have Jalapeno Mint Chocolate Chip!  Woohoo!”

And as the orders started to roll in, I took a close look and noticed that something was amiss.  Given the power to create a huge array of ad variations, the advertisers hadn’t created too many – they had created too few!  I didn’t see 10,000 crazy flavors of ice cream – I saw 8.  And every single one of them were minor variations of… vanilla.  Argh.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  People are creatures of habit.  The danger was never that they would over-use the power of dynamic creative.  The real danger was that they would ignore it altogether, sticking to the ideas that had been drilled into their collective industry norms for over a century.  One identical ad for everyone…  the Curse of Vanilla.

Now that we’re aware of the issue, we’re taking steps to overcome it.  It’s not rocket science: we’re focusing on education and outreach, coupled with an emphasis on those executions where there are natural sources of creative variation – large numbers of products and services, large numbers of geographic locations, etc.

Lessons learned, or perhaps, re-learned:  You can’t predict the future; change is hard; or, as Robert Burns put it: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”

Now, someone pass the sorbet!

Consolidation in the optimization space picking up steam…

Since uncooperative conditions (rain, thunderstorms) in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico have killed my golf game, I may as well throw up another blog post….

Story released yesterday:  Mediamath Acquires Adroit, Combines DSP with Dynamic Ads

Analysis: At first blush, this deal makes sense.  I haven’t seen performance data for MM, but assume their optimization algorithms are up to snuff, and will dovetail nicely with the dynamic creative and self-service UI chops of Adroit.

As with the Adobe/Omniture move into Level 2, the question will now be – can they execute?

Zooming up a level, the pace of consolidation seems to be accelerating.  In this case, Level 1 (media optimizer) acquires Level 2 (creative optimizer).  However, if you look at each of the three levels of media optimization, there are multiple recent examples of consolidation/integration:

1.    X+1 venturing into landing pages (level 1 to level 3)
2.    Adobe/Omniture announcing creative optimization (level 3 to level 2)
3.    MediaMath purchasing Adroit (level 1 to level 2)
4.    Adchemy (building levels 1, 2, and 3 from scratch)
5.    Aggregate Knowledge (building levels 1, 2, and 3 from scratch)
6.    Dapper (building levels 1 and 2 from scratch)
7.    Choicestream / MyBuys / other recommendation engines moving into advertising/creative (level 3 to level 2)
8.    … and more that are only rumors and/or under NDA at this point

There’s an interesting dynamic (no pun intended) evident in the quotes by CEO Zawadzki. On one hand, he stumps for the simplicity of a unified solution:

“Even agencies that recognize the value […] are deterred by the complexity of navigating multiple technologies and making sense of the results. The combined Mediamath and Adroit systems could remove some of those obstacles, said Zawadzki.”

Yet in the same article he leaves the door open for working with other (now competing) creative technologies:

“‘We will and do continue to support other dynamic creative solutions,’ like Tumri and Teracent, stressed Zawadzki.”

The reason why such seeming double-talk is necessary is because it has not yet become clear whether integration via partnership or consolidation/unification via acquisition (or internal build) will become the dominant trend among the various participants in the display optimization landscape.  Consolidation yields simplicity and likely, in my humble opinion, better performance.  Integration allows flexibility of partner choice – enabling the mixing and matching of participants from each of the individual optimization tiers.

My bet, and apparently the bet of companies like MediaMath and others mentioned above, is that simplicity and performance will eventually carry the day over flexibility.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Ok, enough ad tech talk – back to vacation!

(PS – on a more personal note, congratulations to Dan Faga and Vivianna Padilla on their impending nuptials!)