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How Facebook Is Replacing Ad Agencies With Robots

Jim Edwards

Facebook served $4.3 billion worth of ads last year, a staggering sum. It's forecast to sell about $5.5 billion in ads in 2013, too.

We're all used to seeing ads all over Facebook, inside our news feed and down the right-hand side of the page. Facebook is working furiously to find more ways to make ads work better inside its ecosystem.

Many of those ads, however, are untouched by ad agency art directors or "creative" staffers of any kind.

And a vast number, from Facebook's larger e-commerce advertisers — think Amazon or Fab.com — are generated automatically by computers. Advertisers can't even choose their own typeface: the text comes in one typeface only, in black or blue.

These ads aren't "created" by humans in any meaningful sense.

If you're a creative director — or a copywriter or an art director — at an ad agency, this ought to make you think. Even digital ad agencies, which employ armies of interactive ad designers, should take pause for thought.

Never has there been such a gigantic volume of advertising displayed in which professional agency creative types have had so little involvement.

Google, of course, started this. Its text-based search ads and associated products now generate $46 billion a year.

In the agency business, those ads are largely regarded as replacements for the old classified ads that used to appear in newspapers. Agencies rarely handled those (although the Bernard Hodes Group, a talent recruitment ad agency, still writes tons of them).

Facebook's ads, however, are competitors to web display ads.

Traditionally, digital ad agencies have employed teams of people to design web banners as thoughtfully as possible. A lot of design jobs that used to be about making magazine and TV ads were destroyed in favor of digital advertising jobs.

On Facebook, however, these jobs are often not needed by major advertisers.

If you're an e-commerce site selling shoes, you want to serve ads that target people who have previously displayed an interest in, say, red high-heels. Rather than serve an ad for your brand — "Buy shoes here!" — it's better to serve an ad featuring a pair of red heels specifically like the one the user was browsing for. The problem is that any shoe seller sells thousands of shoes, and it's impossible to create from scratch an ad for every single SKU.

So Facebook media buying companies — like TBG Digital or Turn or Triggit or Nanigans — simply load up tens of thousands of product images into a database, and when a relevant user appears in Facebook an ad is generated, automatically, based on the characteristics of that user.

It's called "retargeting" (because you're retargeting someone who previously displayed an interest elsewhere on the web). And it's fantastically efficient. The ads are monitored for performance, so any subjective notions of "taste" or "beauty" or "style" or whatever go out the window — the client just wants the best-performing ads. There's no need for a guy with trendy glasses who lives in a loft in Williamsburg, N.Y., to mull over the concepts for hours before the ad is served.

Creatives employed to make TV ads, for instance, should be very, very afraid.

Facebook is gunning for TV ad dollars by trying to convince clients that its ads perform better and are more trackable than commercials. That's where the money is, after all.

They should also be prepared for change. Online advertising laid waste to a huge number of boutique ad agencies that handled small, local clients who did print, radio, and local TV advertising. Facebook's programmatic ads don't necessarily require a creative director to direct them either. Might their jobs be destroyed?

"Destroy," of course, is a harsh term.

There are plenty of new creative jobs being generated by Facebook. The company has a Facebook Studio project which highlights the way advertisers can get more creative on Facebook. It also has a creative council, which draws in senior staff from various agencies.

Larger advertisers employ teams of creative people to maintain their pages and create Page Post ads — the viral items they're hoping you'll "like" the most. Many of those items require a lot of photography and skillful writing.

But note that these new teams are often not springing up inside traditional ad agencies. They're often in-house social media teams at clients, or within the ranks of Facebook's Preferred Marketing Developers — new companies with access to Facebook's API — not agencies.

Advertisers will sometimes use agencies to launch campaigns that run on Facebook, but the real money is in "always on" advertising — and that requires auto-ad generation.

The creative tasks — shooting photos that can be used in multiple formats, creating logos that can be pieced into Facebook ads — aren't so much about creating ads any more as they are about creating assets that can be assembled into ads later, if need be.

By robots. Not humans.

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