We can be better advertisers, showing content that resonates ethnically, demographically, and more

Calling something an existential threat definitely gets everyone’s attention.  After all we want to continue to exist and so when we hear of an existential threat, we have one of two reactions — acceptance and action or denial and delay.

Mark Howard, Chief Revenue Officer of Forbes Magazine, called ad-blocking an existential threat to publishers earlier this week in a podcast.  It is hard to argue with the numbers he presented.  He also suggests that subscription models are very hard to implement even for prestigious publishers with high value content like Forbes.

To counter this some publishers’ have resorted to a variety of solutions ranging from blocking ad blockers to making ads leaner and somewhat amusingly to creating so called “native” ad experiences to try and blend in ad content with site content so they can’t be blocked.  While native ads do have their place, it seems like a perfect example of the wrong solution to the problem. It gets even more annoying for users: now the ads which were on the rails and easily ignored are sitting right in the middle of content, truly disrupting the consumer’s experience and making it even more difficult for the consumer to determine what is content and what is an ad.

If ad-blocking is truly an existential threat to publishers and perhaps the digital advertising industry as it exists today, all of these solutions seem to mean even more costs to publishers trying to make their content profitable, even more annoyance to consumers and even more inefficiency to brands. It sounds very much like the equivalent of “shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic” and we all know what happened to the Titanic.

As a graphic illustration of why people block ads, I just flew to Singapore on United Airlines two days ago.  Today I am seeing this ad re-targeted to me:

This is pretty bad for many reasons, first, it is an awful looking ad.  It was a large ill-fitting ad and occupied the entire top of the page of the site I was on. Second, it is trying to sell me a ticket to Singapore AFTER I not only have purchased the flight from United but completed my travel!  In addition to the absurd timing of the ad it is also absolutely bankrupt of any creative idea — “Get United’s best fare” — hmm, that really excites me, and the large block of white space with an odd arrow in the middle — is so visually appealing, I am going to stop writing this article and buy a ticket right way from United!  How could things go so wrong and why are we surprised about ad-blocking?

Where did we as an industry go wrong?  Advertising is as old as media itself and has always accompanied media on TV, Newspapers, Magazines, Taxi cabs, Radio etc.  While consumers would rather have a world without ads, many actually view ads as a necessity to help offset the costs of good content.  In addition, as we have seen for many years now, many consumers actually like ads that are funny, entertaining or informational.  The ads for the Superbowl each year are watched willingly by millions each year even after the Superbowl.

If you compare the creativity behind Superbowl ads with the banner ad on the web page you are probably reading this on, you will understand where we went wrong.  With the rush to automate and “scale” digital advertising, creativity and relevance have been thrown out the window.  As marketers and brands we seem to have forgotten that each purchase decision is as much an emotional one as a logical one.  Just delivering thousands of ads to me with no regard to how awful and disruptive they are is clearly not going to win me over as a consumer.

It’s time we brought both back creativity and relevance if we are to have any hope of winning these consumers back.  Thanks to the use of programmatic media buying, creativity has gone from back seat to the trunk.  The reason being that programmatic buying relies on “standard pipes” which means that any ad format that is creative and has a larger and more engaging user experience is very difficult to deliver programmatically.  This means it cannot be done at scale and will often cost too much and provide very little impact for brands seeking to reach large audiences.  So what’s a brand to do — go with the flow?  Well, consumers are revolting and perhaps we do have an existential threat brewing which could become reality if we continue to be in denial of the issue.

Creativity and maybe advertising itself needs to be re-invented.  It needs to be re-defined as not just about making things look good and finding that one size fits all TV commercial or jingle but making each interaction with the brand meaningful to the consumer.  I don’t care how many ads for a product I already own you show me by re-targeting me, I am not going to buy another. Similarly showing me ads for a retirement home or college education annoys me and makes me want to go figure out how to install an ad blocker.  Even for brands I already own and enjoy, how about showing me the products I should add on to what I have already purchased or perhaps products I didn’t even know the brand offered.

Many brands are embracing personalization or data driven dynamic creative technologies to create experiences customized for the individual.  This is proving to significantly increase engagement by as much as 60-500%.  In a recent example with a travel brand I saw data from a campaign that was testing the effectiveness of personalization on getting user engagement.  The creative employed methods like sequential storytelling and location data to try and engage the consumer and compared results with a public service announcement as a “control”, the results were an astounding 500% improvement in user engagement.  Another consumer packaged goods brand saw that showing relevant food items in the ad depending on time of day i.e. breakfast food when the local time was early in the day and dinner foods while late in the day increase engagement over 100%. David Moore, WPP’s President of Digital and Chairman of Xaxis describes the technology as “nothing short of amazing”.

Some folks have bashed programmatic advertising technology as having created the problem by enabling brands to “blast” billions of mind-numbingly boring and annoying re-targeted ads to consumers.  However, that is like saying we should not have built highways because it increased the number of auto accidents by allowing cars to drive faster.  Yes highways did increase the number of fatalities on the road initially, however technology in cars ranging from airbags to lane departure detection, anti-lock brakes and soon to come, self-driving cars help significantly bring down the accident rate.  In fact since 1996 the number of traffic fatalities in the US has declined every year except for 3 years while the population increased from 265 Million people to 315M Million people , mostly due to technology enabled safety measures in cars.

Technology can now help us deliver much better and deeply relevant creative experiences and in fact help brands communicate almost on a person-to-person basis to consumers by using their preferences and data the brand already has about their likes and dislikes to craft precisely personalized creative experiences for that consumer.

Similarly instead of the old one-size fits all content developed for an ad where the presumption that a single image of a nice looking family and kids will appeal to everyone is again up for question. Why not show an image or content that resonates ethnically, demographically, weather and location wise with the consumer?

Some are labeling idea of personalization creepy and yes it can be creepy or just plain stupid if misused (like the United ad above) but is not unlike you walking into your favorite restaurant and the maitre d’ remembering your favorite table, ordering your favorite drink and telling you about specials knowing you are allergic to shellfish.  Now, if that same maitre d’ also asked you about why you went to see your doctor yesterday — that would be creepy, so clearly brands have a responsibility to ensure relevance does not cross over into stalking.

Next week at the beautiful seaside town of Cannes, France, all of the key stakeholders in the media and advertising world will converge for a week to recognize creativity and award the much coveted Cannes Lions awards which are the advertising industry’s Oscars.  A big part of the event will also be discussions and debates about the future of advertising and pundits from the worlds of media and entertainment, brands, agencies and marketing technology companies are getting together to discuss the future of creativity and advertising and once again, the industry is moving quickly into action to avoid what could very well become an existential threat if we take the path of denial and delay.  Cary Tilds, Chief Innovation Officer of GroupM recently spoke about the need for the industry to adopt standards for making creative dynamic, personalized and relevant.

It is indeed the balancing of creativity and scale that historically has keep the industry from becoming irrelevant.  Embracing changing consumer attitudes and recognizing the big voice consumers now have in the success of the industry will go a long way towards not just surviving this threat but thriving as the world moves from traditional media and advertising to the digital world.

Let’s Talk