Data-Driven Creative Still Needs Good Creative

Online advertising’s evolution is largely driven by technological innovation. But with each new iteration of technology, advertisers are forced to decide how they want to reach consumers. These decisions have as much impact on the industry as the technology itself.

Case-in-point: the recent scare over brand safety was a direct result of advertisers prioritizing audience targeting over content, a strategy that cannot guarantee harmless conditions. At the same time, we’ve seen a rise in intrusive ad formats, such as out-stream video, as advertisers race to capture dwindling consumer attention. Finally, we’re seeing long-gestating privacy issues peak, as companies like Apple build tracking prevention tools into their browsers to curb unwanted retargeting.

Faced with questions of brand safety, heavy competition for attention, and increased consumer control over their data, advertisers are worried their strategies are no longer effective.

One big reason advertisers suddenly face these problems is, all their choices led to a poor user experience. Display ads, taken as a whole, have stagnated, failing to improve creatively in the past decade.



But advertisers still get excited about new channels that are akin to display, as Instagram and Facebook come up all the time. These channels showcase creative that is far better than traditional display ads served on the desktop.

Logic would dictate these ads look better because newer platforms have better technology, but that’s absolutely not the case. No matter what Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat would have advertisers believe, there is no exceptional technology powering new-age ad units on these channels. Actually, the level of creativity on social is quite limited. These ad units are simply pictures in a box or videos, with minimal ability to add interactive elements.

This isn’t a knock against social as an ad channel, which is successfully combining data-driven advertising with good creative. Across the open web, this remains more of an either/or scenario -- either there is data targeting audiences yet delivering poor creative, or there is solid creative delivered without data playing much of a role.

Social networks also maintain great control over the user experience. The open web has larger scale and options for reaching consumers, but the ad experiences look and feel the same across websites. Leaderboards and skyscrapers are all in places that consumers don’t look, because they’ve been trained to avoid them. Out-stream video hasn’t replaced existing ads either, but only added to the consumer fatigue. The ad experience is not something that stands by itself, nor can it be a binary good or bad. It’s part of the consumer experience; publishers and advertisers need to start treating it as such.

Social’s success is a result of focus on experience, and advertisers choose to fill it with beautiful, captivating imagery. They bring in creative agencies to build something distinctive, even though the ad units don’t require any unique building or coding. Then, they combine that creative with data signals to reach the appropriate audiences.

Imagine if marketers paid as much attention to branding across traditional display units as they did on social. With the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s guidance on flexible ad units that adhere to the LEAN principles, maybe we’ll soon find out what that’s like.

Display is struggling because it’s not getting the same recognition, and has been reduced to a tactic that emphasizes audience above all else. As the trends we’ve seen in the first half of 2017 begin to take hold, advertisers have no choice but to leverage the digital landscape for branding efforts. If they want to be successful, they’ll need to devote as much time to their display creative as they do to other facets of their digital campaigns.

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