Why Humans Fail at Generating FB Ads

November 24, 2020 | Insights
Written by James Chadwick

One question we were asked after an early Pencil demo was:

“How long before I can take all our people fully out of the loop?”

We were surprised because we’d expected more sensitivity about machines replacing humans.

“We’re still 6 months or so away,” I guessed, “But why do you ask?”

“Because humans make horrible Facebook ads, and we usually just get in the way,” she said.

I thought about the dire ads in my own Newsfeed and FB Ads Library, and I realized she was right: humans usually suck at Facebook ads. I decided to study why, and identified ten design faults with human brains and organizations that get in the way, drawing heavily on the work of Dan Kahneman and Shane Parrish at Farnam Street.

Here are the 10 design faults:

Humans don’t scale. In general, teams scale linearly, so as workload ramps up, so does hiring and cost. When a creative team tries to unlock a new Facebook ad account, they usually struggle.

● First, there are an infinite number of ads they could generate, and no clear data showing where to start.

● Second, if they were only to test three headlines, three opening video frames, three format sizes, three durations, three CTA buttons, that’s already 3*3*3*3*3=243 potential versions.

● Third, I’m yet to meet a designer who can generate ten different approaches, day after day, without imploding.

Humans develop biases. Designers cope by repeating familiar techniques and habits. They often lock into a template that worked well for one brand before, but by now it’s overused, or unsuitable for a new brand. Humans tend to overrate things we like and overlook things we dislike, even when we know we’re not the target audience.

Humans resist change. To paraphrase Newton’s Law of Inertia, an object doesn’t move, or continues on its path, unless acted upon. Humans are no different. We like to keep prior commitments and stay consistent. We fall prey to first-conclusion bias and settle for our first idea to save mental energy, when optimally, thousands of different ideas should be given equal consideration.

Humans hate criticism. Despite what most people claim, humans don’t enjoy feedback, and there are only so many rounds of “constructive edits” we can take before our creative juices dry up. Especially if our creations never see the light of day.

Humans develop blind spots. When we only look at a problem one way, we develop a blind spot, which in advertising, as in driving, can kill. The human brain misses critical patterns that machines easily find, but our egos convince us that “gut instinct” is better. Denying reality can be a survival mechanism, a deliberate tactic, or both.

Humans chase incentives. We repeat what earns rewards, but for humans this gets tricky fast. Recently I saw an agency kill an adset that was working because they wanted to pitch their own creative team. I’ve seen a VP Marketing shut down a valuable test for fear of making his previous KPI performance look soft. Humans are conflicted by overlapping financial and status incentives.

Humans build hierarchies. We believe we’re free-thinkers, but research shows we seek hierarchies like any other organism. The classic Stanford Prison and Milgram Experiments revealed the dangerous power of authority. In a dominance hierarchy, we take strong cues from our leaders, even if their creative judgment sucks. To overcome this at FB, when a team was struggling, we often removed members rather than adding them, to reduce hierarchy.

Humans get math wrong. One common mistake is an obsession with CPA or ROAS targets rather than total value of sales. Performance is nothing without scale. Another issue is when teams take a small number of instances and create a general category, even if they have no statistically sound basis for the conclusion. A lesser-known type of volatility on Facebook is A/A variance, i.e. the persistent “background” randomness on the platform. Some expert estimates put this at 15–25%, so the exact same campaign that worked well today, might not work tomorrow. Data and design teams are often divided by a math gap, sometimes leading to mistrust and lost respect, but it’s important for teams to talk openly about these concepts. The best teams develop a common language, even if some members have a firmer grasp than others.

Humans follow the herd. Too often, new DTC brands enter an existing category, and launch with creative that’s 95% similar to leading brands. They miss the underdog opportunity to behave like a category creator. Humans have a DNA-level instinct to seek safety in numbers and crave social approval.

Humans panic. When an acquisition team stops acquiring, or an agency can’t hit ROAS targets, we often see panic behavior. Structured testing loses structure. Stress causes both mental and physical responses and amplifies all the other human faults. Almost all human mental biases become worse in the face of stress as the body goes into a fight-or-flight response. Stress causes fear-based decisions and short-term optimization.

The point of this survey of human design faults isn’t to hate on our species, but to highlight how and why things generally aren’t working well.

As a quick test, take a moment to dive into Facebook’s Ads Library and review how many fresh, strong ads have run in the past week for your own brand or a competitor? What process and logic was used to pick these ads, out of all the infinite possibilities? And how many of our ten human design faults might have got in the way?

These are important questions because more than 50% of performance is now explained by the strength of your creative choices, and even larger brands test very few ads.

Creative teams are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of assets needed, and then get no feedback signal. Or worse, they feel highly frustrated that their ads don’t run. According to a Campaign Magazine article, 47% of agency folks in the US reported low or very low morale in 2016, up from a third the year before.

That’s why at Pencil, we believe MGC is an inevitable technology, and Humans + MGC = Superhumans. Many companies are already experimenting with this new technology and getting strong results.

As Sebastien Au, Strategic Marketing Projects Manager for L'Oréal explained:

“We tested Pencil’s machine generated content as part of our recent ecommerce conversion campaigns for Lancome Genifique. The brand teams were excited by the AI-generated ideas and amazed at how fast new ads and formats could be generated and approved. In the end the media team saw a 23% improvement in ad efficiency using MGC over a month-long Facebook A/B test. This is an exciting new technology.”


Explore www.trypencil.com to see examples, data and to find out why the world’s best marketers and agencies are using Creative AI.

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