Why Digital Advertising Is Anything But 'Creative'

Several years ago, when people really cared about Windows vs. Mac OS, I heard a joke that went something like this: “If cars were designed by Microsoft, we would constantly have to stop to reboot them.” Today, I am compelled to make a different joke: “If our highways were designed by advertisers, billboards would jump in the middle of the highway whenever we tried to drive by.”

Bob Liodice, President-CEO of the Association of National Advertisers, recently reminisced about a time when digital advertising was seen as a way to create two-way conversations with consumers and create a level of loyalty impossible to generate with other media. Today, digital advertising has become nearly unbearable, interfering with virtually anything in which we may be interested. In a recent humorous but pertinent blog post, Ari Rosenberg eloquently points out that publishers and advertisers are effectively abusing consumers at every turn.

The transition from the physical to the digital world opened up incredible new opportunities. Today we can find information and discover new things at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger; we can communicate with people on the other side of the world as easily as if they were next door; we can purchase items and have them delivered to our door in less than 24 hours.

Along the way, this transition has spawned wonderful new technologies designed to make our lives easier and more enriching. For example, HTML5 delivers astounding capabilities for interactive media. In the right hands, interactivity can be used to improve childhood learning, to help people with disabilities, to simplify complex tasks and generally to improve our online experience.

In their frantic hunt for eyeballs, advertisers have perverted these new technologies to peddle their offerings by interfering with anything we try to do -- and publishers have gleefully jumped on the same bandwagon. In the hands of advertisers, HTML5 can create overlays that block access to content, expand ads when we scroll by them, pop up ads when we make the mistake of hovering near certain words, and place annoying banners in our way.

In my opinion, the current state of affairs reflects an utter lack of creativity on the part of advertisers. Successful advertising requires that an ad reach and engage the consumer. Engaging the consumer requires creating good, high-quality content that the consumer will find valuable.

But creating good content is hard and requires true creativity. Instead, most advertisers focus on reaching consumers -- through whatever means are necessary. It seems a majority of creative energies are focused on how to get ads in front of consumers whenever and wherever they are trying to do something interesting. Visited my site recently? Let me make sure you keep seeing my ads wherever you go. Want to watch a video? First you have to swallow my pre-roll. Want to leave my site? Let me throw up a lightbox or popup begging you to stay.

This focus on “being seen” is both short-sighted and dim-witted. It is short-sighted because in the long term consumers get annoyed by intrusive advertising and loyalty disappears, eroding the long-term value and trust that publishers (and brands!) are trying to create. It is dim-witted because the reaction of any consumer to advertising contains an emotional component as well as a cognitive component. Even if the content is good and relevant (a rarity these days), interfering with what consumers are doing will at best be forgiven, but more often lead to rancor and disapproval – not exactly a sound strategy for building a brand.

Publishers need to focus their resources on creating high-quality content. Advertisers need to focus their creativity on making ads that engage and move consumers. And both of them should resist the temptation to chase quick hits, focusing instead on technologies that can better align content and advertisement while improving the consumer’s experience. Only in this way will digital advertising live up to its promise and generate true and lasting value.

16 comments about "Why Digital Advertising Is Anything But 'Creative'".
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  1. Dan Patio Dalton from Content That Works, October 9, 2014 at 5:12 p.m.

    Paolo, you knocked one out of the park with this column! Well put! Our industry is better than this. Cheers, Dan

  2. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., October 9, 2014 at 5:22 p.m.

    Thank you Dan! Glad you enjoyed it. And yes, I agree that our industry has the potential to be much better. I am hopeful that eventually many of the negative approaches to digital advertising will be flushed out by market forces as consumers rebel against many of these invasive, predatory techniques.

  3. Dan Patio Dalton from Content That Works, October 9, 2014 at 5:32 p.m.

    I agree, Paolo, what we are up against now is legacy media attempting to protect profit margins via the business model that got them to where they are today. CPM has to go. "Show me you delivered a customer" is the coming thing.

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 10, 2014 at 10:41 a.m.

    So, are we saying that creative advertising on the Internet should be engaging---agreed----but also unobtrusive? If the latter is the case, how will anyone notice the creative and engaging ads? The problem seems to be that there are no standards for ad placement or positioning as well as the amount of promotional clutter that is shown on a given page. On TV, there is an informal but fairly well held to standard for most dayparts as to the amount of commercial time in a break. Most of the players adhere to such rules, so the typical TV viewer isn't bombarded with 20 or 30 commercials in one break but only 5 in another. The dosage, while slowly rising, is fairly predictable and is something that TV audiences can get used to. If the Internet could, somehow, adopt a reasonable but lower number of standard ad formats and get publishers to see the wisdom of not interrupting the user's access to content or continuity of exposure once access is attained, much of the problem would be solved. In other words, find some way to regulate the number of interruptions between pages and limit the ad clutter per page. Were this the case, users will become accustomed to the way online ads are displayed; then, those who wish to, can devote whatever attention they choose to the ads without becoming so upset about their intrusiveness..

  5. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., October 10, 2014 at 11:20 a.m.

    Ed, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with your premise but I am not sure that your suggested course of action could ever work. Unlike TV, online publishing does not follow a standard, linear format, and coming up with a standard for advertising would be extremely complex if at all possible. I would rather see the creative minds out there come up with more compelling ways of using technology to make promotional information accessible to users but not intrusive. There are some companies (including my own) making inroads, and the success of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest confirms the idea that it's possible to include ads that are not overly annoying and still generate healthy response rates. Also in all fairness there is a ton of work that happens behind the scenes (such as targeting and site optimization) that do a good job of boosting ad performance -- without necessarily being intrusive.

  6. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 10, 2014 at 2:46 p.m.

    Paolo, I totally support your goal. My experience has been mostly in "linear TV", where many creatives seem to go about their business in a media vacuum. That is to say, when developing TV campaigns, they assume that their messages will run in primetime shows on the major broadcast TV networks---which happens---- but, as a rule, such exposures represent less than 25% of typical ad campaign's "impressions". The remainder are garnered in more ad cluttered breaks in daytime, early and late evening programs which, often, can not compare to the big primetime shows in terms of quality or audience engagement. As a result, the "creatives" take no account of the varying media environments where their ads will be exposed to consumers, or the problems inherent in such situations----such as the need to grab the viewer's attention at the outset and get the message across in a highly cluttered ad break. I suspect that the online situation is similar----at least in many instances. Unless some degree of standardization is created to provide the creatives with a contextual reference point, they will have to fashion ad executions differently for a variety of online editorial environments and ad positioning options, without knowing in advance where or when their ads will appear. Human nature being what it is, this will probably lead the creatives to assume that some stereotyped exposure situation will be the rule----just as in TV----when this isn't true. While it may be difficult, as you say, to inject strict rules of ad positioning discipline across all online publishers---- of course, you are right----I believe that many of the larger players might accept some forms of standardization if they realized that this would help advertisers to present more effective campaigns without turning off so many users. Just my opinion, of course.

  7. Matt Cooper from Addroid, October 10, 2014 at 5:24 p.m.

    Some of this feels pretty hysterical and over the top for me. I mean, I was able to read this article without running into a single concern or issue mentioned in the post. In my experience the overwhelming amount of sites that I visit hit a very reasonable balance between their need to monetize and the presentation of their content. Does anyone really feel like their experience has been "perverted" or that ads are "interfering with anything we try to do"? Anything we try to do. Really. That's just overdramatic. Also, expandable rich media units aren't even popular anymore. Even Yahoo abandoned their full page take-overs. This is a tempest in a tea pot.

    "Want to watch a video? First you have to swallow my pre-roll." Seriously, we're swallowing preroll? With no preroll can you tell me who's going to pay the CDN invoice much less the content creators? What solution do you propose? What are trying to accomplish with a statement like that?

    Lastly, I think it's best if you don't refer to ad targeting technologies as creative. The creative is the thing the user sees. It's made by people and can't be cranked out by an algorithm. The creative is a graphic, animated, or video execution of an idea that tells the story of a product, service, or brand. This post is conflating the technology with creative.

    Sure there are a minority of small time publishers who are short sighted in their attempts to make money. The internet is pretty big and the barrier of entry is low so you'll have some bottom feeders. However, if you don't like the ad placements on a publishers site then don't visit the site. No need to throw the entire industry under the bus with exaggerated rhetoric.

  8. Dan Patio Dalton from Content That Works, October 10, 2014 at 5:58 p.m.

    So, Matt, how do you explain getting .10 on the dollar for digital advertising? Everybody it seems keeps thinking in the legacy mode: Mass media = mass exposure. It is not about that; it is about finding a better way to engage a reader, viewer, listener, based on their specific wants and needs. Don't get me wrong, I am not sure what the answer is either, but I know a better way is out there. Online advertising, in its current state, mirrors the legacy model. It is like attempting to pound the proverbial square peg into a round hole. It is very frustrating for both media owners and advertisers.

  9. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., October 10, 2014 at 6:07 p.m.

    Matt - I received at least three emails from people who had an annoying pop-up video ad as they were reading this article, and found it ironic (and MediaPost to their credit is pretty lad on that kind of advertisement). And the whole point of using the word "creative" was meant to be a subtle pun. The advertising world has co-opted that word to mean "the advertising the user sees" but a major point of my post is that calling ads "creative" is silly and inappropriately self-congratulatory. Video pre-rolls are anything but creative.

    And yes, I took a somewhat extreme position, but I think your statement that this is "a minority of small time publishers" is equally if not more extreme.

  10. Matt Cooper from Addroid, October 10, 2014 at 6:16 p.m.

    Dan, not sure which aspect 10¢ on the dollar is referring to but I think the value proposition for Display was articulated very well in a recent rebuttal by Ben Kunz. While there's always room for improvement, the business does actually provide an ROI for digital advertisers or they simply wouldn't throw their money away. It's hard to argue something is broken when it's actually working. It's been 20 years now since we deployed the first banner. While it may feel legacy, it's still effective.

  11. Dan Patio Dalton from Content That Works, October 10, 2014 at 6:17 p.m.

    ...and don't get me started about click-bots, and paid-for-views (and the companies that are supposed to give us accurate counts), the whole online landscape reminds me of a carnival midway. "Step right up!"

  12. Matt Cooper from Addroid, October 10, 2014 at 6:38 p.m.

    I don't think you can say the word creative has been co-opted when it's Creative Agencies who build the creative. It's been that way for a long time now so that feels pretty cut-and-dried. I understand this whole thing sounds pedantic to even bring up but currently the industry is myopically focused on increasing performance by fine tuning everything but the actual thing the user sees (the creative). You can target, re-target, use location, leverage big data for insights into my buying habits, algorithmically try and determine which phase of the purchase funnel I'm in, and even dynamically tailor and optimize the offer and call-to-action but if the image or video in the ad unit isn't appealing... then I'll pass. I try to defend the creative because it's become so much of an after thought. It's being treated like the script to to a Michael Bay movie. Who cares what they say or what the movies even about. We have big robots! I believe the creative is 50% of the equation while the technology and multitude of tools we have at our disposal makes up the other half. I didn't see the pop up video ad so I can't comment. I supposed we could go back and forth about how many publishers have crossed the line and find the place where we agree but without any research this is all just opinion and speculation.

  13. Dan Patio Dalton from Content That Works, October 10, 2014 at 6:59 p.m.

    Matt, banner ads still effective? See John Oliver's rant about native advertising here: Go to the 2:30 spot. Classic stuff! Enjoy!

  14. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., October 10, 2014 at 7:37 p.m.

    Matt, I totally agree with you about the over-reliance on algorithmic approaches - which by the way are a great source of fraud, as people are starting to realize. And I also agree that an argument about whether a majority of publishers have crossed the line would be futile. It would be interesting to know if anyone has done research that clearly' addresses the level of "ad saturation" of sites, and how prevalent it is.

  15. Jonathan David from Tapstone, October 16, 2014 at 12:42 p.m.

    With the quantity and quality of data available there is little excuse for advertising that interrupts rather than compliments a users online experience. Used effectively, data should ensure advertisers present a relevant - dare I even say it - useful addition to a user, at the right time and the right place.

  16. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., October 18, 2014 at 6:18 p.m.

    Jonathan - I couldn't agree with you more!

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