How did the vast majority of digital advertising become such a hated disaster?

Digital… digital… digital…

How did it come to this?

I know there are some really great examples of online advertising, but like those of the offline variety such examples are few and far between.

But fucking hell… how did the ad industry mess it up so badly – and why does it continue to do so.

Let me start by stating the ghastly, obvious truth: nearly all digital advertising is either ignored or clicked off the second it is possible to do so.

The first category takes into account all the banner ads and pop-up that populate the pages and videos you were actually looking for. When did you last click on one deliberately in an attempt to find out more? My own personal research (sample size: 1) comes up with a single occasion last year. That’s right: out of all the thousands and thousands of paid for digital ads that have appeared on the pages I’ve browsed only a single one has ever caught my attention. Your own number might be higher, but if it’s in double digits chances are you can’t count. And the bloody things are supposedly targeted at you carefully enough to hit the kinds of bullseyes a TV ad can only dream of. I occasionally shop on the Matches clothing site; as a result I am inundated on a constant basis by further messages from that company. Amazingly enough I actually find this too be both irritating and creepy. How odd of me. Imagine if I popped into Tesco for a Twix only to be followed around by the representatives of that chocolate bar until I agreed to buy another one. The mentality behind all this seems utterly deficient in one way or another. The mind boggles at the degree to which the reality has fallen short of the intention.

The second category includes all that delightful ‘pre-roll’ stuff, which appears just before the YouTube video you want to watch. Have any five seconds ever seemed longer than the ones that count down before you get to that vintage Neil Young clip? Have you ever failed to click on that option within a nanosecond of being able to do so? Possibly, but again I’d hazard that the occasions that has happened are fewer than 10. And that’s also fucking crazy: does no one involved in any of these think that the first five seconds are utterly critical? Do they not think about making those five seconds slightly more compelling than the usual first five seconds of an ad? After all, let’s be clear here: these are almost always TV ads that have simply been placed online. But that’s a very important change of location: the mindset of the viewer is completely different; the 5-second mechanism is like a ticking time bomb that will destroy your ad; and the interruption will most likely leave your brand hated (get in the way of my TV show? No problem. Do the same with my video of a Russian man falling over in the snow? Fuck you, you piece of shit). Don’t those circumstances make the ads worth a reappraisal? Millions of people are paid millions of pounds to create things that are loathed by the exact same people they want to please. As they say online: WTF?????

Last week Vic of Sell! Sell! tweeted the following: 90% of online ad clicks are generated by people trying to close them out of the way of their dodgy football stream. #madeupstat

To me that sums the whole thing up perfectly: hoodwinking, annoyance, interruption, bullshit…

And that’s where our industry has positioned the greatest advertising medium to arrive in the last fifty years.

Comments 41

  1. steakandcheese wrote:

    Do yourself a favour and install AdBlock if you’re using Chrome. Haven’t seen an ad in years.

    Posted 02 Feb 2014 at 12:28 am
  2. ben wrote:

    I use Safari.

    But does it even block YouTube pre-roll?

    Posted 02 Feb 2014 at 7:20 am
  3. vinny warren wrote:

    I clicked on one digital banner in my life. It was a promotion for Aer Lingus, and it was a bullshit offer. The thing a lot of marketers and ad types fail to understand is that, unlike previous media, the Internet doesn’t rely on ads for its existence. Advertising simply doesn’t belong there and continuing to pretend that it does is a bad idea.

    The internet is great for demand fulfillment, terrible at demand creation. And yes, get adblocker.

    Posted 02 Feb 2014 at 4:39 pm
  4. Anonymouse wrote:

    Digital is an excellent medium for direct marketing (email) and for small businesses to expand (which is a brilliant thing, to be fair.) And if you do community management like Paddy Power do, then that’s going to add some magic to your brand too.

    But yeah, generally brand advertising, just stuck on the internet is surely more harmful than helpful. It will do everyone associated with the lie harm in the end. The only winners are the platforms.

    Posted 02 Feb 2014 at 8:10 pm
  5. Martin wrote:

    My personal favourite pre-roll –

    Black screen….

    “Coming Soon” fades in

    “Coming Soon” fades out

    Black screen…

    I click skip.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 3:58 am
  6. Martin wrote:

    More seriously, I think there’s a few reasons.

    1. Most people (not clients or agencies or anyone specific) still don’t understand what the internet is. This applies equally to people who are paid to understand it as it does to my grandparents.

    2. Advertising had already evolved to a place where creativity was considered a bonus (Incremental Share of Voice), and reach would buy you the effect you needed. Many clients just ported this thought over to digital, where reach is cheaper (was cheaper).

    3. The decoupling of media and creative means that media agencies get to advise clients first, and media agencies make money selling volume. (In most cases)

    4. Being interesting is really hard work. (Insert joke here)

    5. A lot of the better digital things you can do (using Twitter/Facebook for decent customer service, constantly updating your website with new stuff, creating content that people might want to look at) are best done by the client. This means adding headcount and resource. Marketing clients are terrible at arguing for this and organisations in general don’t like adding headcount.

    6. Even if they did, finding people able to do it well is impossible.

    7. The internet is set up to make it difficult for brands to stand out. Google in particular makes it much easier for a 17 year old with a passion to outrank a multinational corporation.

    8. The backbone of the internet (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) conspire to convince their “traditional” counterparts that spending is the only way to reach anyone, while quietly ripping them off.

    9. A ridiculous stunt will win you a Cannes Lion. Quietly beavering away for two years to dominate your category in search, optimise landing pages for conversion, create a great experience on the site, develop the infrastructure to deliver, follow up with sensible, useful CRM and innovate constantly wins you less than fuck all.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 4:21 am
  7. ben wrote:

    Fascinating (sincerely).

    Thanks.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 7:18 am
  8. Ed wrote:

    The internet works like a high street. Websites are shop windows, Youtube is your cinema and adverts are assholes with clipboards.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 9:18 am
  9. Britney wrote:

    Banners don’t really fit the definition of digital, Ben. Nor do pre-rolls. These things don’t really do anything that couldn’t be done 50 years ago. The former is basically small space print and the latter, as you allude to, is just a TV ad that you can skip.

    There are a lot more exciting things happening in technology that could be applied to market brands but it requires foresight and imagination which, as you know, few clients have any more.

    Nike made Nike+ which is a good example. But Sony could have invented Shazam, British Airways could have created Trip Advisor, Cadbury’s could have created Candy Crush. A good definition of a good digital campaign is something that you want to get involved with because it serves a purpose in your life and there are some examples of these out there.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 9:36 am
  10. steakandcheese wrote:

    @Ben: yes, it does. And get Google Chrome. Safari is…well…bad.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 9:43 am
  11. ben wrote:

    Britney: I know all that. There are indeed a few excellent uses of the medium out there. My point is that the way the vast majority of brands advertise online (I think that fits the generally held definition of ‘digital’) is as I described.

    All the things you mentioned are/were indeed possible, and yet they didn’t happen.

    That’s what I was trying to say.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 10:29 am
  12. D. Jected wrote:

    Ben, that’s the perfect response to this load of old tosh from the bloke at RGA. The industry is bad and getting worse. No wonder there’s more scam than ever as people try to make something to keep their brain alive http://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2014/jan/17/never-a-better-time-to-work-in-advertising

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 10:42 am
  13. Matt wrote:

    @Britney – No, those companies couldn’t and shouldn’t do those things. If Cadbury’s had made CandyCrush it wouldn’t be CandyCrush, just as great TV wouldn’t be great TV if an advertiser had made it (and they tried that too – it didn’t work, so they stuck to making ads).

    Cadbury’s should make chocolate. Game makers should make games.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 10:48 am
  14. Britney wrote:

    Well good : )

    It’s frustrating. I presented an idea to car brand a few years ago that a start-up since did and sold to a google for a billion dollars. I’m not saying the client’s short-sightedness cost them a billion dollars (making the product isn’t enough) but you have to wonder.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 10:57 am
  15. Britney wrote:

    @Matt ‘Couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, should, should’

    Why x 7?

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 11:02 am
  16. Anonymouse wrote:

    I don’t think British Airways could have created trip advisor.

    Because you’d hope they were too busy getting planes from A to B.

    The argument is that an agency would come up with trip advisor for an agency to sell to British Airways.

    But the only way they could do that is to find one of the best digital entrepreneurs to come and work for them and to syphon their ideas for no money. Agency creative people aren’t clever enough to come up with trip advisor. Otherwise they wouldn’t be working in an agency. Despite what the people who work at agency ‘labs’ might pretend.

    More likely that BA will go direct to the source if they want that.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 11:09 am
  17. Matt. wrote:

    I tend to press mute on the 5 second pre-roll, especially when the music comprises of some Drake infused Euro dupstep or Paolo Nutini.

    If I can’t skip and have to watch the whole 30 seconds I’ll mute and open another window.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 1:13 pm
  18. Sell! Sell! wrote:

    I agree with Matt.

    What loads of marketers and digital people and ad people don’t realise is that most of the time, punters just want a Chocolate brand to be great at making chocolate. Beyond that they could barely give a fuck.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 1:26 pm
  19. Allan S wrote:

    All that stuff that Martin said but also, I think one of the reasons digital advertising is hated by everyone who doesn’t work in digital advertising is because we can recall the internet without it.

    You weren’t always required to watch an ad before you could access the thing you want to see. And there was a time when you could use the internet to shop and not be hounded by ads for doing so.

    Like Vinny said…advertising doesn’t belong on the internet, the internet doesn’t need advertising and people know this.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 1:49 pm
  20. George Lucas wrote:

    I agree with Matt too which is why I stayed out of the toy business.

    My friend Steve who used to run a computer company made the mistake of getting into the music business and completely tanked his company as a result.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 3:21 pm
  21. Mister Gash wrote:

    @Vinny and @Allan S

    Of course I can’t lay my hands on it now, but read a great article last year about how ‘there isn’t enough advertising in the world to pay for the internet’. Bottom line – if your URL business plan has ‘with advertising revenue’ in the box that says ‘how does the site make any money?’ then you can screw the thing up and toss it in the bin.

    There simply aren’t the ad $$s to fund the 8 million URLs that opened for business since I started typing this response.

    The internet ‘doesn’t need’ advertising – but a lot of individual websites are clinging on the ad revenue as the thing that’ll get them through to pay day (when Google buy them for zillions).

    Or not.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 3:51 pm
  22. Matt wrote:

    @Britney “Couldn’t” because they are incapable, and “shouldn’t” because it’s not within their area of expertise.

    Do Red Bull send one of their Ad guys along to the X-Games and ask them to do a few tricks on their bike? No, they just give some money to the people that can do tricks on a bike and make a nice ad about it.

    Make adverts, and stop insulting people that make great products by thinking for one second that something studio knocked up for your most gullible client could ever come close to being a successful app/site/game/thing in it’s own right.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 4:03 pm
  23. Anonymous wrote:

    I wish the internet had been around when I invented my restaurant guide.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 4:14 pm
  24. Anonymouse wrote:

    Gash. That is fascinating.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 5:30 pm
  25. Britney wrote:

    @Matt, I’m sorry mate but that’s a really rubbish response on so many levels.

    For starters, digital agencies are familiar with the idea of outsourcing and we do it a lot, just as ABL agencies do.

    And the idea that me or you or anyone should just get back in our boxes is really worrying from someone who is supposed to have an fertile imagination.

    Who the fuck are you to say what people are capable of? I suppose Alan Parker should have stuck to doing ads and that bloke who started Innocent should have stuck to being an account man. Maybe Ben should stop wasting his time writing novels as well.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 5:40 pm
  26. Sell! Sell! wrote:

    Hello Mr Lucas. You’re my hero. I’m not sure your mate Steve got ‘into the music business’ in the sense you make out – rather he made more (brilliant) pieces of computer-based technology and software (which was already his primary business and specialism, the thing they were known and trusted for) – some that became a lucrative way to sell music, he didn’t head down to a recording studio and start bashing out tunes, nor did start a funeral director business, or for that matter a chocolate company. Why? Because he knew what the fuck he was doing, and stuck to doing it, albeit innovating and leading his area of specialism.

    That’s the difference between using a misleading example as a spurious reason why, say, a chocolate manufacturer should become a software company – and a genuinely useful piece of advice. So much piss-poor advice based on poorly-drawn comparisons goes down in the digital agency world, which gives it an unnecessarily bad name.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 6:44 pm
  27. Boyble wrote:

    Mister Gash, what you say may be true but it’s only relevant for the future of websites not the future of internet advertising. Also,

    http://valleywag.gawker.com/mark-zuckerberg-is-making-fucking-insane-money-this-yea-1515040290?utm_campaign=socialflow_gawker_facebook&utm_source=gawker_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 6:46 pm
  28. Elias wrote:

    What’s Innocent?

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 7:29 pm
  29. Elias wrote:

    And who’s Alan Parker?

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 7:29 pm
  30. ben wrote:

    Isn’t there a difference here between Cadbury becoming a company that makes video games and Cadbury engaging an ad agency who suggests an addictive confectionary-based video game as a digital engagement idea?

    Red Bull didn’t make the rocket that sent Felix Baumgartner into space, nor did they make his parachute. They just got a fantastic piece of unconventional brand messaging.

    Cadbury (or, more appropriately, Rowntree) could have made Candy Crush and had a massive success from it.

    But that has nothing to do with my original post.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 9:01 pm
  31. Matt wrote:

    @britney I think your examples are people who have changed or diversified in thier careers, not agencies that have suggested or created anything “digital” of worth with a brand attached. Where are those examples? There aren’t any. Why? Because the brand ultimately cares about selling more of the brand than they do about creating a “digital product” of genuine worth. It is, like anything else advertisers (and by that I mean agencies, not people who work in advertising that have other interests) do that isn’t honest, up front advertising, a concept diluted by the need to sell more product.

    Remember that person in the car company that you pitched the multi-billion Google idea to? Well that person thought you were an idiot.

    Posted 03 Feb 2014 at 11:54 pm
  32. George Lucas wrote:

    @Sell Sell You’re wrong about Apple. It’s a media company now, as well as one that produces hardware and software. You might want to argue that it only did that as a way of selling more computers but you’d only be proving my point it you did.

    If you think setting up the iTunes store was just a case of building the right software you know even less about the music business than I do. What about all the deals that had to be done with the record companies? Do you think he knew anything about that when he started? And then there is the app. store. For a brand that makes software to open up the opportunity for anyone to build and sell software through its store is a radical step and something no traditionally minded business would have considered in a million years.

    Now, of course, it finds itself behind the curve having been looking in the wrong direction when someone came up with Spotify but that’s another story which simply reaffirms my point.

    Sticking to your core business is, despite what you might think, not a safe strategy. And that includes advertising agencies that think that the only thing they should ever do is traditional ads.

    Also, just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s spurious.

    Posted 04 Feb 2014 at 9:56 am
  33. Sell! Sell! wrote:

    “You just don’t get it do you” I get that a lot.

    People tend to assume that because you have an opinion that is different to theirs, that you don’t understand what they understand. That’s okay. I can take it.

    Crack on, I’ll be genuinely interested to see the long-term commercial benefits of Cadbury making a game or Ford building their own social media, or other things.

    Just like I was genuinely interested to see Fosters make that online comedy programme thing – because everyone was saying how brands making their their own content made more sense than making ads in other people’s content. Interesting stuff.

    To your last two points – these days it isn’t always correct to assume that because someone holds a healthy skepticism towards the value of some digitally-based ideas, that they think “the only thing they should ever do is traditional ads”. To that particular point, we have actually made a game for one of our clients – not just a theoretical concept once pitched, a real, actual finished game that hundreds of thousands of people played. This was four years ago. No big deal, no great shakes. But the idea that there are battle lines with all digital on one side and all traditional on the other seems very old hat to me. And the idea that only reason you might disagree is because you don’t understand seems a little short-sighted.

    Posted 04 Feb 2014 at 11:09 am
  34. George Lucas wrote:

    Well it seems you do get it which makes me wondering what the hell we were arguing about. And I couldn’t agree more about the division between traditional and other. We have one job and that is to solve the clients problems. We should do it however it can be done best. That we don’t isn’t down to an inherent flaws in anyone or any thing with the possible exception of the immutable presence of the human ego.

    Posted 04 Feb 2014 at 2:54 pm
  35. vinny warren wrote:

    slightly off topic, slightly on topic. Anomaly NY came up with this hit product all by themselves. it’s killing it over here. http://evolutionofsmooth.com/

    Posted 04 Feb 2014 at 4:25 pm
  36. Martin wrote:

    In my experience, “traditional” planners and creatives approach digital with a healthy skepticism and a high degree of insight. Digital planners/creatives approach advertising with preconceived ideas, an embarrassing lack of understanding about how it works and a closed mind.

    If only there was some kind of carbonated beverage we could all share and in doing so, learn about what we have in common rather than our differences.

    Posted 04 Feb 2014 at 5:49 pm
  37. Britney wrote:

    @Martin Agreed. First step would be to learn about what the other actually does. The second step would be to refrain from cherry picking the worst examples of what the other does in order rubbish an entire medium. Although I may just be saying that because I can’t recall ever seeing a bad tv ad ever.

    Posted 04 Feb 2014 at 8:39 pm
  38. Cynical wrote:

    George Lucas got battered.

    Posted 04 Feb 2014 at 8:48 pm
  39. Toby wrote:

    The things that @ben is talking about are the digital equivalent of classified ads. The really good digital stuff that @britney refers to is (arguably) up there with the really good ATL stuff: The Great Schlepp, the DDB Hibernating Bear, Spot the Bull etc. Like ATL, there’s good digital and bad. The best digital takes advantage of the internet in some clever, useful, witty way like Nike+. Whether that comes from the client or an agency is down to us.

    Posted 06 Feb 2014 at 2:02 pm
  40. ben wrote:

    But bad ATL doesn’t piss you off in the same way as bad digital.

    Posted 06 Feb 2014 at 2:33 pm
  41. Andrew Bent wrote:

    @Mister Gash

    http://peakads.org/

    Posted 06 Feb 2014 at 10:11 pm

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