Getting Digital Advertising To Work

There continues to be a mismatch between the future promise of digital display advertising and the current reality. It may be the fastest-growing ad channel, aided by the most advanced technology and data and the best targeting we’ve ever seen. But can you remember a single digital ad in the last month?


The reason is we’ve forgotten the message -- focused only on the delivery. No other channel places such focus on the science of how, who and when the ad is served, and so little on the art of what the ad should do.


It’s not that the delivery isn’t vital; it’s incredible that we can target people by location, demographic and time of day. It’s of huge value that we can retarget, based on social connections and recent search history -- but that’s not everything.




For too long, digital advertising has been dominated by engineering, it’s a world driven by data, logic, efficiencies, automation, cleverness. But it’s not working. Take the retargeted ads that stalk you online for jeans you’ve just bought, served at the moment in your life when you are least likely to buy that item. Take the cleverly served ads about France, intelligent enough to know I am in other country, not so smart as to know I don’t speak French.


And yet the future seems even more technology-centric, a world of the automated, led shortly by programmatic buying but soon to include automatically produced creative. If this trend line continues, we could have an entire channel of advertising made with no human involvement, other that writing the algorithms and setting the inputs and outputs into computers. I think we need the opposite.


We need to build on it with the art of making connections. On this platform of science, we need to add the art of empathy, to understand the context of consumption, how to relate and seduce people at the right moment in time. We also need to be more creative.


It’s remarkable how similar the digital ads of 2014 look to the ads in newspapers of the 1700s. It’s astonishing to me that pre-rolls are still identical to TV ads. The legacy of the past closed our minds to the incredible potential of what digital advertising can do.

  • What should video ads online really look like? Let’s not start with TV.
  • What is the potential for true native advertising, let’s think of what happens when brands and channels become true partners?
  • What is the real potential of real-time creative?
  • What happens when digital advertising becomes more functional and provides a benefit?
  • What other data can be used to shape ads?  (Your phone knows it’s about to rain.)
  • Why don’t we use more interesting calls to action, why not allow a click to ad a grocery item to a basket or to send money off a coupon to a mobile phone?

I see a bifurcated future, a world where 90% of the cheapest digital advertising inventory becomes automated, a long-tail approach where nothing is valuable enough to make human involvement worthwhile and ads are tactical and transactional.


But for the prime digital spots, I see the opposite, a chance for science and art to come together to exploit the real potential for the best medium the world has ever seen.


The future of digital advertising is bright, and it will look quite different from today.

3 comments about "Getting Digital Advertising To Work".
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  1. Terry Heaton from Reinvent21, June 11, 2014 at 9:07 a.m.

    Great piece, Tom, and so true. The problem is that the entire infrastructure has no stake in whether digital advertising works. It's all about the targeting. I've yet to see one honest piece of research that examines the matter from the consumer's view, because that might actually produce something useful. The relentless bombardment of unwanted messages is a business model of tolerance, and the same technological advancements that allow for such precision in targeting can also be used to block out those messages. We have a serious problem here, and silence won't even begin to solve it. Kudos to you for trying.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 11, 2014 at 10:17 a.m.

    Great piece, Tom and good points, Terry. The problem for now is the fact that branding advertisers, who are wedded to the long established TV model, are trying to convert digital into what they know as TV. Just look at many of their digital video ads----they are exactly the same as what you see on TV. And the way they deal with the sellers------they are using the same tried and true metrics, namely CPMs, GRPs, simplistic targeting methods, etc. Eager for these new found ad dollars, the digital folks seem perfectly happy to comply. And, in the short term that may make sound business sense. But eventually, someone will have to take stock and evaluate the effectiveness on online digital video ads, relative to their costs. Hopefully, the medium will take the lead by helping advertisers to test new ad formats, targeting mechanisms and ways to document ad impact, instead of waiting until it's too late and systems, based on old knowledge, get locked into place. Experience tells us that once that happens it's very hard to make changes.

  3. Tom Goodwin from Tomorrow, June 11, 2014 at 11:50 a.m.

    Thanks Ed and Terry,
    I agree with both your points, I think the problem stems from the fact that those with the most power to change things, to ask the awkward questions, are those furthest away from understanding the technology. We have senior figures who believe its working, who think it's a great way to get reach, who see reports about the movements of budgets to online and who are fine with how things are.

    The digital ad industry is staffed by people who get the digital world , but don't see the bigger picture, or even if they do, it's not in their interests to change it.

    We need to get media buyers, creative people, ad tech people, planners and brands together to work on better solutions. It shouldn't be as hard to do that as it sounds.

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