The shiftThe shift

The art and science of advertising automation

Paid advertising

Automation in online advertising has been present since the early days of paid search. With the first broad match keyword chosen, algorithms began to make decisions over who sees our ads.

There has always been a manual aspect to campaign management which has counterbalanced this, with a human eye required at every level. Whether writing ad copy, deciding on the most efficient bid or choosing the most valuable keywords, the field has been both an art and a science.

As algorithms become smarter, machine-led decisions can handle a wider array of campaign management tasks. These advances allow advertisers to run complex, personalised campaigns in less time and at a lower cost. But marketers will still need to balance reliance on machine learning with the benefits of human intelligence, experience and intuition. So, how do agencies and brands adapt to this brave new world?

Recent Developments

Digital marketers can’t fail to notice that many of Google’s recent product announcements have been new “smart” campaign types, designed to be set up and run with minimal human input.

In quick succession, they have announced: Smart Campaigns aimed at small advertisers; Local campaigns that deliver multi-channel activity from only a few creative elements and location details; Smart Shopping campaigns that assist with feed creation and optimise to a choice of goals; and new Smart Bidding strategies for YouTube campaigns.

These campaigns all use Machine Learning to make decisions over targeting and bidding. They join existing technologies like Dynamic Search Ads and Smart Display campaigns to offer an automated way to run almost every type of Google advertising.

In “traditional” manual campaigns, Google offers automated bidding strategies and attribution models. They also provide tools to build scripts and rules for anything a marketer can imagine (if they have the coding skill to bring it to life).

You might imagine that ad creative would be the last bastion of human creativity. But, even here we have Responsive Search Ads that generate thousands of ads from a small bank of text snippets, dynamic creative that reflects the browsing behaviour of individual users and even auto-optimised landing pages that match on-page text with ad creative.

Other platforms and publishers are taking the same path. “Lookalike” audience targeting is common on display and social platforms, as are dynamic ads and automated location campaigns. Campaign management tools complete the picture, automating bidding, testing and reporting functions that would take hours of work to implement by hand.

The overriding impression is that Google would like advertisers to take it easy and let the machines take over their marketing budgets, and they are not alone in the online space.

Google Marketing Live 2018, watch as Google discuss the role of machine learning in search campaigns.


These technologies can create new challenges for agencies and for the visibility that clients can expect from their campaigns.

A single client’s Dynamic Search Ads campaign has matched to over 10,000 unique queries in the past nine months. Not all were relevant, and some clashed with existing “manual” keywords in the same account. This type of campaign requires oversight to adjust targeting criteria and block irrelevant searches, just as a traditional keyword list would.

We also need greater technical understanding as the complexity of tools increases. Automated campaigns require feeds to be built, campaign parameters set, rules written, and sophisticated tagging set up to function effectively. Brand safety becomes key (as control over ad placement moves away from human decision making) and reporting on which ads are shown where is no longer a simple task.

This is where specialists can add value, and where opportunities can be found for advertisers and agencies with a deeper specialist knowledge.


Automation excels at managing advertising campaigns at scale and in detail, adapting to changes in consumer behaviour or a brand’s product offering in real-time in a way that would be difficult or impossible to replicate manually. For tasks that require less creative input this is a real bonus, and for every technical hurdle, there is an opportunity for time saved on testing, bid management or creative iteration.

This time can be used for new strategic planning and analysis projects, bringing your agency’s expertise to the fore. With less need for manual intervention, our energy and attention can be diverted to emerging areas or approaches that were once seen as a “nice to have”. Likewise, media budget saved from automated optimisation can help to fund these new activities.

A new type of creativity

New automated approaches call for a new type of creativity. A level playing field of technology (with everyone sharing the same algorithms) brings a need to stand out with messaging and design. Giving platforms characterful and relevant text and imagery to work with can provide a competitive edge, maintain brand identity and get the best response from consumers. Professional designers and copywriters will continue to be relevant while this remains true.

A level technological playing field can also bring benefits to smaller advertisers, offering entry points into areas that were once the preserve of industry leaders. “Responsive” display and search ad templates allow even those with limited resources to create engaging and relevant ads on a large scale. Google Shopping feeds can now be automatically generated from certain e-commerce platforms, and Store Visit advertising can be set up without the need for a specialist technology partner.

At all levels, advanced automation functionality is becoming standard in the Google Ads and Facebook Ads platforms. This is perfect for those aiming to outperform the competition and gain market share, putting the emphasis back on clear thinking over brute force.

The stage is set for new automated strategies to emerge for businesses large and small.

A blended approach

Automated tools can give your agency relationship a new lease of life by combatting the mundane manual work that eats away at your retainer or in-house resource. They are not, however, a replacement for manual intervention. The most successful digital campaigns will not rule out one approach in favour of another, and human intuition still plays a valuable role. Instead, they are best seen as an expansion of our arsenal and a great solution to some tricky marketing challenges. As with all marketing, the art comes from choosing the best tools and messaging to achieve the objective, whether manual or automated.