Digital creativity used to feel like an oxymoron. Not anymore

Beyond performance, digital marketing can boost engagement and channel creativity

James Chandler



On the face of it, Pot Noodle and the V&A don’t have a huge amount in common. The former is a speedy-snack favoured by students across the nation. The latter, a temple of textiles and ornaments to keep museum goers agog. But differences aside, they do share one similarity. In the past few months, both have launched highly targeted, digital-led ad campaigns that prompted the same response from me: “Bloody hell, that’s good”.

Having been ribbed online for the unappetising sound of slurping in its ‘Nothing Satisfies Like a Pot Noodle' campaign, the Unilever brand harnessed the power of data to identify people most sensitive to the slurp, what noises they would personally prefer (cats meowing, babies giggling - you get the gist), and then created 50 alternative versions of the ad to serve them. That’s customer service.

Meanwhile, the V&A launched a QR code-fueled, nationwide treasure hunt of items in its collection, including customising the clothing of TikTok influencer Shlottie’s avatar in a live broadcast of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ via Twitch. Influencer activations and contextual digital out-of-home are also part of the campaign that seeks to target people with museum objects they will personally find especially interesting.

Both brands have used digital channels to maximise the creative punch of their campaigns. This is a step-change because, until relatively recently, digital advertising was largely seen as a performance-led, box-ticking exercise in efficiency. Effective and easy, but decidedly bottom of the funnel. As Pot Noodle, the V&A and countless other brands are showing us, It’s time to think again.

Until relatively recently, digital advertising was largely seen as a performance-led, box-ticking exercise in efficiency.

James Chandler, CMO, IAB UK

The digital ad market is diversifying

The latest IAB/PwC Digital Adspend report reveals an increasingly diverse digital ad market. It is steadily growing overall - up 11% year-on-year in 2023 - but it’s telling that the channels that are growing the fastest lend themselves to the sort of creative storytelling that builds brands. Podcast ads (up 23%), CTV (up 21%) and social video (up 20%) are all far outperforming the total market in terms of growth rate as marketers look to align their brands with the rich array of highly engaging entertainment online.

While these formats are still dwarfed in terms of total spend by the likes of Search advertising - which accounts for 50% of the market - the confident growth rates that we’re seeing reflect the fact that digital advertising can deliver more than just clicks. It can do creativity in spades and smart advertisers are capitalising on that.

This is good news for many reasons, but especially given the impending demise of third-party cookies and not only because channels like podcasting are less dependent on them. I won’t attempt to summarise here the technical complexity that the cookie phase-out poses for the digital ad industry, but one thing is very clear to me. If advertisers are prioritising creativity and genuine connections in their digital advertising - just as with other forms of media - that can only be a good thing. It’s by no means a solution in and of itself, but it stands marketers in good stead when it comes to selecting targeting and measurement strategies that are meaningful and robust.

Rediscovering the joy of digital

Three decades (and a bit) since the first online ad went live, the digital ad market is undoubtedly maturing. We’re no longer in the boom period of heady market growth that defined the 2010s when test, learn and fail fast was the mantra. Whether it’s via gaming, audio, AR or digital out-of-home, we’re now seeing advertisers routinely using digital media as a core creative pillar - able to build brands and resonate with target audiences in ways that feel seamless.

This is music to the very sensitive ears of the IAB’s Chief Digital Cheerleader - Joy - who we’ve ‘employed’ as part of a long-term campaign to help marketers rediscover the joy of digital. As part of her remit, Joy chairs a monthly award that celebrates the best use of digital advertising. I’ll be candid with you: this is the first time we at the IAB have felt able to do this. For a long time, it just felt like digital advertising didn’t have the same creative credentials as other media to warrant award-giving.

Those days are over. We’re entering a new era of digital creativity - and it can’t come soon enough.

Guest Author

James Chandler



James joined IAB UK in 2017 as the industry body’s first ever Chief Marketing Officer, leading the IAB’s efforts to engage with brands and agencies and reassert positivity in digital advertising. Recently he has shared this mission with Joy, IAB’s Chief Digital Cheerleader, who reports into James (most of the time). James hosts The IAB UK Podcast and regularly writes for industry titles including Campaign, Creativebrief and The Media Leader. Prior to this, James spent nine years at WPP media agency Mindshare where, as Global Mobile Director, he was responsible for the agency’s mobile output across its network of 166 offices in 86 countries. During this time, he was voted ‘Mobile Marketer of the Year’ by Mobile Marketing Magazine, featured in The Drum’s ‘Mobile Top 50’ and helped Mindshare win ‘Global Mobile Agency of the Year’.

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