Drugs, Weapons And Display Ads

It is easier to buy nuclear arms in the former Soviet Union than complete an online display buy.

On the other hand, buying search clicks is like buying crack: easy to get into, but hard to stop.

And like any good drug, the first hit is free. Every week as an advertiser, I receive a $100 credit in the mail from Google for search advertising. I can sign up online at no cost, and 15 minutes later my ads are live on Google. I don't have to hire an agency, I don't have to pay creative fees, I don't have to understand insertion orders, and I don't have to wait. Google offers immediate gratification with no upfront cost.

Contrast this with the average display ad campaign, which takes weeks and costs thousands in creative fees and media buying commissions. Publishers compound this problem by forcing customers to deal with salespeople, advertising agencies, insertion orders, CPM negotiations, and page view accuracy concerns, among other factors.



It should be no wonder that many advertisers, particularly small advertisers, choose the simplicity and certainty of search advertising.

We are all so conditioned to buying and selling online display ads, that we have stopped asking ourselves if the buying process is any good.

I believe it is severely flawed, and one of the major limiters of growth in online display advertising.

Why? There are five key problems:

1. It takes way too long to buy display ads. Small businesses, which are more than 17 million strong in the U.S. alone, do not waste time doing long-range strategic planning. They are focused on survival, not branding. They are looking to buy ads that bring customers into the store today -- and most display ad buys take too long to deliver this. There are a few basic self-serve ad creation tools out there, but the ads they create fall short.

2. It's too hard to try. Small businesses work with Seat-of-the-Pants-ROI. They want to see returns immediately. The $100 Google credit gives businesses enough incentive to try out online advertising without risk. It is nearly impossible to do the same thing in display.

3. Ad creation consumes too much of the media budget. The secret to success is great ads and constant optimization. Unfortunately, the average rich media ad costs $2,000-4,000 to create, so multiple ads for A/B testing would consume way too much of the overall media budget. This situation leaves advertisers with no ability to optimize, and publishers with less money getting spent on the media buy itself. We need to eliminate creative fees.

4. ROI is hard to measure. I have argued before that the efforts to create new metrics to measure advertiser success are a huge mistake. This is doubly true for small business advertisers that will only measure results in one way: short-term sales. You can claim (perhaps correctly) that they are being short-sighted, but no salesman ever got rich trying to convince customers they are wrong.

5. There's no easy way to buy. The majority of large online publishers do not have a simple, self-serve process for buying media, and the ad exchanges are too complex for the average business. This is a monumental shortcoming, as it prevents the most glorious of American traits to shine brightly through: impulsivity.

Fixing these five issues would finally allow display to finally give search a run for its money.

I have spent the last year hard at work with a small team solving one of these problems. Who is going to step up and solve the other four?

16 comments about "Drugs, Weapons And Display Ads".
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  1. Brad Boekestein from Wallrich Landi, March 25, 2010 at 11:53 a.m.

    I would LOVE to see a solution to # 3. As the web becomes increasingly cluttered, businesses are forced to become more creative in how they capture the attention of consumers. I've almost completely given up on clicks as a measurement of worth. Which of the 5 issues is your team working on to resolve?

  2. Amber Boone from National RV Trader, March 25, 2010 at 12:02 p.m.

    "You can claim (perhaps correctly) that they are being short-sighted, but no salesman ever got rich trying to convince customers they are wrong." I thought the job of a salesperson was to educate the consumer- if needed- and sell them solutions according to their needs, not their wants.
    Other than that, I agree wholeheartedly. Our print advertising for RV dealers is very similar to search advertising in ease, simplicity, and measurability.

  3. Mark McLaughlin, March 25, 2010 at 1:16 p.m.

    David, you are right of course but you are myopic. Small business does not look at online advertising in a vacuum. Yellow pages, newspapers, classified, local radio, flyers and direct mail are all on their radar screen.

    Most of the issues you raise apply to analog advertising opportunities as well but these channels remain popular and effective for local small business.

    Display advertising online is way too hard as you say, but becoming more like search is an incredibly narrow way to look at the opportunity. Perhaps you are staring too hard through the wrong end of the telescope.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 25, 2010 at 1:45 p.m.

    David, what you say needs to be said more often and don't forget to include what Mark and Amber are saying. One more thing, that eliminating of creative fees. Which side is going to absorb them? You really are going to find out who is going to pay for them. After all, why do you need a paycheck?

  5. Julie Muckleroy, March 25, 2010 at 2:18 p.m.

    To combat the issues outlined by David there are new tools emerging to add to your arsenal. One such example is a new DIY display ad creator from Theorem launching next week - CreativesOnTap.

    With CreativesOnTap, agency quality display ads are whipped up in a matter of minutes with COT's drag and drop interface. An included image library and automatic resizing of ads to IAB banner standards make the development process even easier. Add to that the ability to add animation, sound clips and video and you've got the creative end covered.

    CreativesOnTap is easy to try, users simply log-in via the home page with a username and password and they are just a few clicks away from a campaign that's ready to launch. With an end-to-end payment gateway built-in, nothing could be easier.

    Creating multiple ads is a snap too, as mentioned before CreativesOnTap automatically generates IAB standard banner sizes and allows you to tweak each if desired.

    ROI WAS hard to measure, not so much anymore. COT provides built-in, easy to use and easy to understand measurement tools that give small advertisers the data to make informed, quick decisions based on campaign stats.

    And finally, touching on that oh so difficult media buy - CreativesOnTap is positioned to help those large online publishers monetize their inventory by making it available to smaller advertisers. What was once and incredibly complex process for the small business owner has now been simplified and streamlined... and that benefits everyone.

    Check out the temporary site for an overview or request a demo, the full site launches April 5. Stay tuned…

  6. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., March 25, 2010 at 2:38 p.m.


    Interesting comparisons you mentioned, so let's look at them more closely:

    Classified Ads & Newspapers: Declining 30% year-over-year, and on an inflation adjusted basis are now doing less revenue than they did in 1965.

    Radio: Declined 15% in 2009 alone.

    Yellow Pages: Of the two largest companies, one is bankrupt, and the other hired a banker to deal with their enormous debt.

    Search Advertising: 13.2% GROWTH in 2010.

    Perhaps the real problem is you think you need a telescope for a problem I can see with my eyes closed.


  7. Robert Leathern from, Inc., March 26, 2010 at 2 a.m.

    Good post, David. Display advertising is indeed still really hard to buy which is why we have built the technology we have. We're focused on 1, 2, and 5, and looking to partner with companies on any of the others. We're also realistic about the need for large-scale advertisers needing additional hand-holding and so we believe services on top of the execution and automation are also very important. But I encourage everyone to check out and let us know what they think of our media buying system. It's a good start.

  8. Allan Segebarth from AdLogix, March 29, 2010 at 5:54 a.m.

    Interesting post, thank you.
    We are a technology provider, focussed on solving issue 1 and 5, be it by providing the selling side of the equation the tools necessary to accelerate, optimise and organise the process of selling display ads. We believe this is a necessary step to achieve overall market efficiency and to allow publishers to set up self service procedures.
    Don't hesitate to contact me if you would like more info about Adlogix.

  9. Jonas Halpren from Federated Media, March 29, 2010 at 1:31 p.m.

    David, nice Beckian headline. I picture you writing this one in front of a chalkboard.

    You do make some good points. Yet, only give enough information to make your point. I've elaborated in you five points a bit.

    1) Why bash a branding tool for SMB's when you point out that they don't want or need branding? Adsense and a few other do have decent systems for creating & purchasing banners. How long should it take? What is reasonable? an hour? 24 hours?

    2) Display is too hard to try? You can 'try' display ads on adsense and run them along side your text ads. and not spend more than a few $ "trying". Is that so hard?

    3) Creative costs to much? You get what you pay for. In #1 you said the banner generation services are no good, but we should fire all the real creative people. So in on your internet we are all subjected to only terrible creative (think flashing neon colors) and text ads. Good creative is and always be a defining factor in advertising. Even for a SMB. Good news is there a ton on very good creative folks our there that won't cost and arm and a leg.

    4) ROI is hard to measure. Well yeah. Search, however, is NOT the ROI silver bullet. Once again you suggest that display is not good to SMB advertisers. It depends on their goals. Not every SMB advertiser is looking for short term sales. Some actually do understand the need to creating a brand and building sales over time. It is rather insulting to characterize the SMB advertiser as so myopic.

    5) There is no easy way to buy. Wait, isn't that the same complaint as #1? Once again, Adsense, Adready and others make buying display just as easy as buying search.

    So basically, in your world advertising your business should be a thoughtless, automated impulse buy.

    How can that be good for business?

  10. Britta Meyer from Loomia, March 29, 2010 at 5:41 p.m.

    This is a pretty good analysis of the problem set small businesses are faced with when trying to get into display advertising. Luckily, more marketers are aware and ready yo address the problem with smart marketplaces and technologies, such as, which is really an advertising search engine. It's meant to provide a community around ad buying, and marketers like me would also offer advice and share our experience.

    To me, though, the bigger question is how will display advertising evolve if the long tail of marketers would actually use it? Hopefully, it would further new and creative approaches that respect and enhance the user experience, rather than interrupting it. And that's a big other reason why I hope SMBs will succeed with display.

  11. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., March 30, 2010 at 3:28 p.m.

    @Jonas, "in your world advertising would be a thoughtless automated impulse buy."

    You don't have to put words in my mouth, I write a column every month to do that for myself :)

    My view is really simple: making advertising easier and faster to buy is good for the industry.


  12. Jonas Halpren from Federated Media, March 30, 2010 at 5:34 p.m.

    @david sure "making advertising easier and faster to buy is good for the industry"

    Purchasing media is relatively easy. Your article would lead one to believe this is not the case at all.

    If you want a fast solution there is adsense, adready and a few others. You can even call a publication directly. Not that hard.

    You had two points that covered buying, your other 3 points have to do with testing, creative development and analysis. Automated tools have been built for all of these as well. There is also a certain art in these things that cannot be solved with a algorithm (of google is trying to develop just that). Planning, testing and analysis do take some effort. Just like for the business you run.

    Easy and faster buying may not be the best thing for the industry. Just ask all the creatives you'd like to put out of work or the publisher who's sites will be cluttered sup par automated DR ads.

    So yes you make a good point, you just left out most of the information.

    Still would love to hear your solutions for solving these 5 (really 4) issues. Now that would be a good read.

  13. Kristin Shamberg from Centro, April 2, 2010 at 5:05 p.m.

    Good points and comments above. I agree that buying media is extremely difficult, and it is a major aspect of our industry’s inability to scale. It’s unfortunate that the digital media buying industry operates in a world where 21st century problems are being solved with 20th century technologies. It’s 2010 and we’re still using outdated tools like email, spreadsheets and faxes to plan and buy campaigns.

    David, I’d like to know more about your solutions to the problems you listed. For our part, we’ve been developing, using and perfecting our web-based media buying system, Transis, for the past five years to create efficiencies and help with the pain points you discussed above. We launched it publicly last month, check out a demo video on So, we believe, completing an online display buy can be easy. There are smart systems out there to help with efficiency and scalability so marketers can concentrate on more important activities such as strategic planning, client interaction and creative thought.

  14. Myles Younger from Canned Banners, April 5, 2010 at 11:55 p.m.

    This is a fantastic summation of the obstacles facing would-be buyers of display. You sell the arguments somewhat short by limiting the problem to the small business world. I come from a corporate client side background and those same five obstacles still manage to wreak havoc.

    However, I have to take issue with the end of point #1. Please take a look at Canned Banners. We're new, we're by no means "basic," and we take ad creative seriously. And yes, I agree that most of the other "make your own banner ad" websites are a total joke. We're at

    Sorry for the shameless plug, but have faith that these problems are being worked on. One way or another, the inefficiency will be wrung out of this business!

  15. Edward Omeara from MediaHound, May 25, 2010 at 7:55 a.m.

    Interesting take, and I tend to agree with you.

    I'd also argue that many publishers don't want to sell SMB, especially when it means small slices of revenue that are hard to collect and expensive to bill.

    On the metrics front, for those that do invest on a larger scale, you can now track competitive creative and share-of-voice along with other media via (disclosure: I was a co-founder).

  16. Connie Miller from Mixpo Corporation, May 26, 2010 at 5:36 p.m.

    David, thanks for the interesting article.

    Display ad impressions are up 15% over last year in part because technology is eliminating the barriers you describe.

    Your article prompted me to write a blog post about how Mixpo, which makes it easy for advertisers to buy and run online video ad campaigns, is solving each of the problems you list. If you're interested, you can read it here:

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