Solving Our Identity Crisis

In a recent post, Dave Morgan spun what many may be feeling: Something is amiss inside our own ad revenue growth.  He points out that 20 years into this business, online spending is still predominantly driven by other online companies.  He asks, where is Pepsi, and where is P&G?

Where is the branding money?

First, let’s recognize at this point that advertisers and their buyers rarely admit to a primary buying objective of branding online. They know that drives prices up.  Second, let’s define what branding really means in advertising -- you know, between us.  Branding is when your clients feel a pat on their backs from their colleagues and bosses on a Monday morning after seeing the company’s ad campaign over the weekend.  

Online ads don’t deliver pat-on-the-back moments.  Ads on "Mad Men" and pages in People do. 

For starters, our ads don’t naturally activate enough senses to stir consumer emotions the way TV does.  We’re a silent medium for the most part -- and an annoying one at that, when we try to auto-play our way into consumer’s eyes and ears.

Now factor the fraction of time spent on a page view online compared to the average time spent on a page in a magazine, and you’ll recognize the absence of any window of time for an online ad to visually tell a brand’s story.  Making matters materially worse, we throw multiple ad spots at the problem, fracturing what little attention consumers donate for us to parlay. 

All this is compounded by the lean-forward mentality of users with attention deficits and strained metacarpals, and you can see our identity crisis.  We want to be bought for something we’re clearly not.

The truth is, we want to hear that an online campaign is meant to drive more ambiguous branding goals, so we don’t have to rely on pure back-end performance metrics to validate a campaign's value.  Yet from our very beginning, we sold ourselves as a medium of measurement -- and therein lies our industry’s identity crisis.  We want our clients to think of us as a branding medium, and they think of us as a direct-response vehicle -- leaving us wandering into sales calls like a twentysomething struggling to choose his path in life.

It's only when you really know who you are that others truly gain from knowing you.  We don’t know who we are.  So we wear these multiple hats, which is an antiquated sales approach that confuses our clients and ourselves. It’s time we pick one hat to wear that shows our truest color.  We are not a branding medium -- and yet we are more than a direct-response one.  Our true identity lies smack in the middle: We are a promotional medium. 

Our unique advantage beyond measurement has always been immediacy and scale.  We can get an advertiser’s message in front of hundreds of millions of people in just a few days. It is our greatest strength relative to other media, and aligns us perfectly for dollars from the biggest brands in the world, who spend on product promotions that need to cume awareness quickly and then count the stuff that happens. That’s who we are.  Our ability to create “promotional ideas” from a blank whiteboard for our clients plays perfectly with this clearly articulated value proposition.

So what’s holding us back?  Us, of course.  To be seen as a powerful promotional medium -- which is a clear step up from a direct-response medium and shy of our distorted branding aspirations -- we must fix how clients look at us, literally. 

Parading out oversized “all-star” ads won’t get it done unless we fundamentally change page views to display one single advertiser at a time.  That advertiser can use multiple ad units to convey its promotional message -- but when you have more than one brand talking at the same time on the same page view, no one listens, and clients don’t feel any pats on their backs.

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1 comment about "Solving Our Identity Crisis".
  1. Pete Budlong from Retailigence Corporation , March 24, 2012 at 9:46 p.m.
    Great article Ari. I completely agree with your premise that you must know who you are before others can gain value from you. Your article could well have been titled, "why mobile ads won’t suffer the same identify crisis as online ads”. While online display ads lie just to the right (DR side) of the “promotional” center you refer to, I believe mobile display ads lie just to left (towards brand). Why? For many of the reasons you point out: high SOV per view, ability to reach people when they’re most receptive (e.g. while watching TV no less), and a strong offline call to action capability via location targeting (zip level for those not opting in, lat/long for those who do). I’m not claiming that mobile ads are as good as TV or print at driving the highly Immersive, “pat-on-the-back” engagement you get in these mediums, but for offline brands they are much better at making the on2off connection. So what I’m hoping is that this seemingly subtle, yet potentially game-changing shift to the left will be all that offline marketers need to open the floodgates and let the brand dollars flow into mobile. And if those of us in the mobile space know that this is what we are, we just might make it happen.