Television (or movie theater) screens don't break into multiple boxes and run multiple advertisers simultaneously. Radio stations don't play two commercials at the same time. You can tell me Outdoor does -- but that's if you look at Times Square as one ad spot. Each billboard, however, displays one advertiser per sheet.
Only the classified sections of newspapers and magazines run multiple ad messages on a single page. How much branding value do buyers and advertisers place on these cherished sections? Does anyone know the name of the creative award classified advertisers vie for every year in Cannes? Multiple ad messages on a single page view are to blame for the diminished value of online display advertising.
But if clutter is really the issue, why haven't buyers and their clients insisted it be cleaned up, the way they demand competitive separation and full edit adjacencies in their print insertion orders? Buyers are far from dumb -- so why do they allow this clutter to continue without taking exception?
Because they intuitively know clutter allows them to a discredit the value of branding that does occur with online display ads, paving the way for them to focus exclusively (if not predominantly) on the performance of the campaign, which helps further drive down the cost of what they get paid to purchase. That's why they look the other way, instead of recognizing clutter as an issue they should likely care about.
And if you ask publishers about the number of display ads they have on their pages, they are likely to smirk like a young boy pointing at his sibling when he gets caught with his hands in the proverbial cookie jar: "We only have three ad spots. Forbes.com has seven on theirs."
So online publishers eat their cookies and dine on denial that their greed degraded their own value. Then they bellyache that the lack of "creative excellence" is to blame for their dismal value proposition. They're unable to see they haven't provided the one-ad-at a-time proposition other mediums deliver, in order to invite excellence to rise above mediocrity. Less is more has always been lost with online publishers, who mistakenly believe more sophisticated targeting will overcome this fundamental anchor lowering the value of the exposure they sell.
The error of publishers' ways can be tied to the medium's age. Online display advertising is only 14 years old. The insecurity of not knowing who they really are is the core issue contributing to online publishers' self-inflicted wounded value. Peer pressure has led them to believe they are a direct response vehicle; having multiple ads on their pages is like their version of acne. They want to be a branding vehicle but don't believe they can be. They try to fit in by being great at both but fail to excel at either.
At some point, many online publishers will learn what some have already figured out. Online display advertising is a dynamic, time-sensitive promotional outlet for branded advertising communication. I am Dove and I have something new for you to try. I am a movie release and here is a sneak peek. I am a car with a nifty new offer on a nifty new vehicle. I am a soda, a snack food, a fast food chain or a cell phone plan, and I want to introduce you to my product and its cool promotional cousin. In order to ensure that this form of ad communication advertisers pay for can be seen, heard and valued, we need to allow advertisers the opportunity to speak one at a time.
This wouldn't negate any of the targeting wizardry we can offer. We can still do that in conjunction with stripping our page view souls down to two ad units above the fold, and serving the same advertiser into both spots all of the time -- not some of the time or by accident. One hundred percent page view exclusivity for display ads is the solution to online publishing's problem. Unsold inventory will decrease, ad recollection will increase, site aesthetics will improve -- as will the perceived value for the brand exposure publishers seek greater recognition for creating. The only ones who lose in this overhaul are the ad networks that have driven prices and value down for inventory they didn't create.
Fuller disclosure: online publishers need to stop whining and start winning back their value by earning it from one advertiser at a time.