The Elephant in The Room: A 'Creative Stimulus' Plan

Publishers are challenged to generate revenue on the Internet that is economically sufficient to support the creation of high-quality content.  Low CPMs from advertisers are one reason for the challenge. Media buyers have successfully put publishers on the defensive, as if the success of an ad campaign is the publisher's responsibility.


My fellow Online Publishing Insider, Ari Rosenberg, wrote an interesting column recently proposing the positive consequences of moving to a more proactive permission-based tracking cookie policy.  Rosenberg speculates that advertisers might be forced to do a better job with their creative if cookie-based targeting required permission from each user. 

I agree with Rosenberg that the advertiser/agencies' top job is to create effective creative.  We wonder - among other things -- why an advertiser would run the same creative on as on  Content publishers have responded to the capabilities of the Internet with innumerable varieties of content.  In specific interest areas where there were once four magazines, there are now 40 content, community, and blog sites, all with a different point of view and environment.  Why wouldn't that trend to specialize apply to the world of advertising creative?



This raises a critical point of strategy and tactics for publishers and advertisers in this most accountable of media.  Let's consider ROE -- or Return on Effort.  Great efforts have been made to increase ROI on media spending with greater targeting.  But there is a bigger return just waiting to be tapped: publishers need to urge advertisers/agencies to provide better-adapted ad creative, tailored to the content environment in which it appears.

Optimizing ad creative

Lame creative is the elephant in the room.  No publisher or salesperson wants to criticize the agencies that are placing business with them.  But experts who see a lot of creative tested know that far greater lift in results can be had from improved creative than from "optimized" media targeting.  And a great way to optimize creative is to tailor it to each audience.

Bad advertising is everywhere, and mediocre advertising is commonplace.  And on the Internet we can easily measure the result.  But is an advertising agency going to tell its client, "Our ads are50% less effective than our competitors"? No, they'll say "It's the publication's fault. We're working hard to negotiate for better targeting, pricing and optimization."

Steve Greenberger, former head of print at Mediacom, founded Creative Diagnostics, for just this reason.  The big gains are to be had from better creative.

Smart advertisers know that the total value of the advertising is not encompassed by the click-through itself.  They know there is a brand-building effect for advertising run in trusted editorial environments.  But they also suspect that the CTR is an indication of how well their ads are working.  So we can assert the relative CTR vs. competitors is an indicator of relative effectiveness of the creative, other things (size, position etc.) being equal. 

In this information age, information is the weapon to counteract this situation.  Publishers have collected the click-through-rate for all the advertising on their site stored in their ad-serving systems.  Of course the CTR for any given advertiser is confidential to that advertiser.  But the publisher can easily point out to an advertiser that a particular piece of creative is underperforming the average for its size and position.  And leading publishers with the greatest databases of past advertising can help create clarity for their advertisers by comparing CTRs for one advertiser against the average for other advertisers in their category; a travel advertiser leaderboard against the travel leaderboard average, or even more specific hotel vs. the hotel average.

This strategy appropriately directs the advertisers' attention to the greatest ROE: where the greatest improved results lie; improving creative to be better than the competition's.  And this approach puts publishers where they want to be: in service of the advertiser rather than in opposition.

When a publisher adds value by reporting comparative results to its advertisers, it allows the publisher to concentrate on helping the advertiser make their advertising more valuable, and the publisher's inventory more valuable rather than reacting to advertiser disappointment with lower prices.

Would a car advertiser like to know how the CTRs on its leaderboards compared to the CTRs on leaderboards of the average automotive advertiser?  You bet. Would more versions of creative, specific to various interest groups and site environments, drive better results?  If course.  Let's do our part for the economic stimulus, by initiating a "Creative Stimulus" plan to show advertisers and agencies why they should hire more creative  talent.  The ROE from better-adapted creative will lead directly to ROI. 

7 comments about "The Elephant in The Room: A 'Creative Stimulus' Plan".
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  1. Brian Ferrario from Rocket Fuel Inc., August 21, 2009 at 3:28 p.m.

    i agree -- good creative definitely helps, along with all sorts of optimization to make sure when that beautiful ad finally shows up on whatever page is chosen, that it matches the intended user's experience perfectly.

    It will be interesting to see how the term "good creative" will be defined online -- probably a few things that differ from what are considered "best practices" offline i suspect. As more and more brand advertisers turn to online branding, which might not be overly DR focused, there will hopefully be lots of learning that spread "effective beauty" for all advertisers. And A/B creative tests, or A-Z, will be an easy way to measure effectiveness on any creative variable.

    We ran a campaign for a consumer electronics company with what they called older creative -- they couldn't wait to get out the new improved creative. Turns out that we still ran some old creative to test along side the supposedly "more attractive" new creative. Guess what -- the old creative gave twice the ROI. So i guess beauty is in the eye of the viewer.

  2. Stuart Long, August 21, 2009 at 4:12 p.m.

    It sounds like you're proposing a process of benchmarking new creative based on past performance of similar creative. The problem with basing new ads on what has worked in the past is people move on and tastes change. The creative that was effective 5 years ago might be a complete flop today.

    Relying on focus groups can solve most problems with creative and put an end to any good creative versus bad creative debate. How new creative is perceived and responded too shouldn’t be left to chance. Even something as innocuous as choosing a color scheme shouldn’t be a judgment call, it should be chosen based on solid research.

    Using publishers and salespeople as marketplace guinea pigs for new creative is a waste of resources all around. Publishers and salespeople need to hold advertisers accountable for creative that fails to deliver solid performance.

  3. Peter Rosenwald from Consult Partners, August 21, 2009 at 6:33 p.m.

    Very thoughtful piece but...

    The creative content is important, of course. But much more important is the target group and the medium to reach this target group. You have to fish where the fish are and if there are no fish, it doesn`t matter how `creative` the fly end of the line is, you won`t catch any.

    No one ever produced an ROI on creative content except where one breative execution is tasted against another with no other variable and where there are `response` metrics to measure comparative effect.

    The elephant in the room may not be the `creative stimulus` plan but the need for very creative media targeting.

  4. Lee Baler from Digitas, August 23, 2009 at 11:49 p.m.

    Good creative certainly helps although what the author proposes is at times quite a bit of sweat/equity.

    Rather than try and modify the creative for each site, we're trying to modify the creative based on user's past behavior.

    For a couple of recently launched American Express campaigns, our aim is to serve contextual video based on content they're reading and if you've engaged with us in the past. show you something new and pertinent, even if it was on a different site.

    On you can see our Access player that includes Golf & Music content.

    On other places, users can find our more B2B centric version. We're going to be continually rotating in content including our Shine A Light promotion with NBC

    Both examples recently launched. Love to know what people think. Thank you.

  5. Daniel Ambrose from, corp., August 25, 2009 at 12:21 p.m.

    Thank you, Brian, for your example supporting my basic point that differences in creative execution matter to results. You say your client had a 2x better result. It would be very hard to improve results 2x with better targeting...though I'm not saying don't try.

    My key point is that agencies should recognize that their job is to make better creative for their client than the competition has for a competitive product or service.

    And clients should understand where their creative fits in the battle for attention and action; where it fits vs. their competition.

    Contrary to Stuart Long's assertion, we are not talking about the opinions of sales people. I assert the data from the ads performance, compared to the average of its peers, is very important. And a focus group won't tell you that.

    Not one of the comments seems to understand that what matters to a client is not how one creative execution does against another for the same product, but how they do against the competition.

  6. Stuart Long, August 25, 2009 at 1:16 p.m.

    Daniel Ambrose makes a good point (and does so very effectively) which makes it clear that I didn’t. What I should have written is this: Using the marketplace as a testing ground for new creative puts valuable resources like publishers and sales people on the spot. Whether new creative is effective or not should be tested by using focus groups first.

  7. Mark Lewis from Corus Radio Edmonton, August 27, 2009 at 10:52 a.m.

    Imagine telling a bedtime story to your 2 year old granddaughter. Would the same story still hold up if told to your 10 year grandson? Media buyers purchase a demographic, say 18-49, and use the same message/story across this demographic. Make sense? Where do your customers go for information? Select one or two of those choices and be...creative.

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