The Missing Half of Programmatic

The intention of this article is to raise awareness among brand owners and their partners on the emerging trend of programmatic creativity. The article aims to provide a general understanding of the meaning of the term “programmatic creative”, its practical application, and its near-future roadmap.

Art & Technology


Art by Rika @ Cavai.

What is Programmatic Creative?

Creative here means any advertising creative. Programmatic makes it the kind of creative that is represented as code, instead of visual assets. Examples of programmatic creative include conversational and other highly interactive ad experiences, that are not possible with conventional creatives. Programmatic creatives can be captive, valuable, and as interactive as is required for a given ad experience. Programmatic creatives can be delivered on all platforms; on display, mobile, video, social, and apps. Programmatic creatives can be delivered on all buying platforms and publisher ad servers, without changing anything else in the way programmatic campaigns currently work.

Programmatic Media

The premise of programmatic media has been and continues to be the computerization of buying and selling media. In other words, the value promise of programmatic media is to unlock efficiencies in buying and selling of media. It must not be confused with the broader term “programmatic advertising”, as programmatic media can at best represent no more than half of programmatic advertising.

Communication theory uses message-vehicle dichotomy to explain advertising. The message represents the advertising creative, and the vehicle represents the media. Whereas the message is about creating a communication, the vehicle is about delivering the created communication. The message is the realm of advertisers and their partners, and the vehicle is the realm of publishers and their partners. The message is commonly referred to as the “creative”, and the vehicle is commonly referred to as the “media.”

Since the invention of programmatic advertising in 2004, industry research and development have almost exclusively focused on the vehicle/media aspect of advertising.


For a given process to be programmatic, it means that it is represented by a computer program. Moreover, its function can be readily performed by another computer program. Typically there is a protocol that certain computer programs share, and as a result, they can communicate with each other in a predictable way. For example, in the case of programmatic media, DSPs and Exchanges communicate with each other based on the OpenRTB standard. This process of making something programmatic can be referred to as computerization.

In the case of computerization of advertising creative, the objective is to represent the creative not through visual assets, but code. But the result might still look exactly the same. Such an approach permits everything possible with visual assets, everything possible with computer code, and the borderline magical synthesis of the two.

Computerization should not be confused with digitalization. Take a TV advertisement as an example. Digitalization focus on making the ad available for human consumption in a digital environment. Computerization also focuses on making the ad available for human consumption in a digital environment, but in a way that allows it to be entirely computer readable and operable.

There is a very simple way to understand this distinction. Digitalized entities behave like their pen and paper counterparts. You can store them, access them, render them (into view), and edit them. There is no way to extend their potential behavior. Computerized entities behave like vending machines. You have a way to insert a token, which gives you the right to operate the entity’s functions. In stark contrast to their digitalized counterparts, the potential behavior of computerized entities is infinitely extendable.

The basic principle is straightforward; everything possible with computer code becomes possible in a computerized system. A digital creative asset closely resembles a conventional print ad, but a computerized version of the same creative can readily adopt any imaginable interactivity or other feature to extend the ad experience.

On Pens, Papers, and Rocket-ships

To fully appreciate the opportunity with programmatic creative, we have to leap from thinking about advertising creatives as visual assets to thinking about advertising creatives as computer programs. Every imaginable visual asset is representable as a computer program. Conversely, no computer program, not even the simplest imaginable one, is representable by visual assets. Whereas digital versions of visual assets mark an end of an era of pen and paper approaches, computerized versions pave the way to a brave new world of creativity in advertising.



Art & Technology

Worked with machine intelligence for 15 years, and built the interwebs for 25. Nothing here is my own.