Rethinking the Way We Buy and Sell Display Ads

Marketers Need to Tailor Their Efforts Toward Direct Response or Brand Enhancement, Not Both

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Bryan Wiener
Bryan Wiener

Display advertising: Can it be both a branding and a performance marketing tool? I'd argue yes, but not at the same time. And that's where some of the recent debates over the art-and-science approach to display have gotten it wrong.

You see, we need to rethink the way we buy and sell display advertising in a way that clearly distinguishes between various marketers' objectives -- whether that is direct response (e.g., e-commerce sales or generating web leads) or enhancing the brand (influencing purchase intent, favorability ratings, etc). We'll be best served by treating it not as a hybrid but as two different tactics.

Direct-response display is primarily a science with some much-needed art to entice consumers to engage. If the goal is to drive web sales, the tactics must be about scale, efficiency, behavioral marketing and ultimately cost per action. This efficacy has motivated direct-response marketers to allocate nearly one-third of their budgets to online initiatives. To continue to get the most out of digital marketing, direct-response marketers should continue to focus on the science of digital marketing -- the data, technology, scale and automation to improve results that can be tracked down to the sale. The art is really in the deployment of the science. That's not to say that ad units for direct response are not in need of a facelift, but it's unrealistic to view this as a panacea.

In contrast, creativity is integral to the success of brand-enhancement campaigns. Science plays its role here, too, but it's a supporting one, where digital insights inform creative ideas and technology powers a higher level of targeting to match the brand's message to the right audience at the right time. When talking to brand marketers, the emphasis should be on high-impact ad units that maximize creativity in high-profile, well-lit digital environments. The most effective creative serves as a distribution platform for marketers' content rather than a digital billboard. These efforts should include success metrics around cost per interaction or cost per time spent -- not cost per click. It's important to remind brand marketers that digital provides an unprecedented level of interactivity and ability to engage with their customers.

Marketers face the greatest challenges when they try to achieve both objectives -- brand awareness and direct response -- with the same advertising unit. Martha Stewart Living CEO Wenda Millard is absolutely right when she argues that the ad unit is devalued when math, automation and instant measurability are overemphasized to a brand marketer.

When the lines are blurred, brand marketers -- many of whom are not yet fully comfortable with the lingua franca of digital -- assume that the cheap costs per thousand available via networks are the appropriate pricing model for all digital advertising and that click-through rate is the right metric for gauging the success of their media buy.

Bryan Wiener is CEO of 360i, a digital marketing agency whose clients include NBC Universal, H&R Block and Office Depot. Bryan's background includes senior management positions at Net2Phone Global Services,, and Standard and Poor's. Read more thoughts and opinions from 360i at

To drive the most value from their inventory, media companies and agencies alike need to tailor the sales and packaging of digital media to solving specific marketing objectives. We need to clearly segment between direct-response display and brand display in terms of the 4Ps of price, positioning (premium vs. remnant) product (customized creative ad units vs. dynamically created ads) and placement (direct site placements vs. networks). Each unit should be planned, created and priced differently.

The well-being of the digital economy and media world at large is largely dependent on chief marketing officers appropriately valuing digital as the most diverse and powerful medium ever invented. It's also up to agencies and media sellers to make sure that we're clearly communicating the appropriate value of digital marketing to the appropriate marketer at the appropriate time and prevent display advertising from being caught in the inevitable undertow of declining CPMs for direct-response advertising.

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