When Will Digital Ads Finally Generate a 'Water-Cooler Moment'?

It Will Take More Stress on Great Storytelling, Less on Tech

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One of the most common refrains in online advertising is that digital is not a suitable medium for brand advertising. Direct response drives conversions, which is fine, but consumers rarely remember online display ads or speak about them in the same reverential tones reserved for Super Bowl spots or the vintage creative in episodes of “Mad Men.” Even at major events, as in Cannes this month, it’s rare to applaud digital creative.

Online display advertising hasn’t had a water-cooler moment, the one where everyone talks about the ad execution they saw. But the question isn’t if online advertising is a medium that can deliver a great branding message; it’s why brands have failed to do so thus far. There are a few issues, including a lack of planning, and a failure to be creative, but mostly it’s a flawed focus on tech over storytelling.

The first thing to ask is if brands are thinking big enough. When big brands enter digital, they move down the checklist. They will hire an SEO agency, a search agency, a creative agency and a few display/ad serving partners. Rather than addressing the challenge of presenting their brand in a way that appeals to new consumers, they look at the technologies and the corresponding tactics needed for delivering ads. If all those boxes are checked, then they are officially advertising online. But are these brands challenging themselves to develop messaging that resonates? Ads may be delivered, but they’re useful only if they impart a message.

Many reading this probably remember Oreo’s real-time Super Bowl tweet and would likely classify that as a watershed moment for marketing via social media. We must give the teams working on this credit for their impressive speed of execution. However, the creative message did not transcend into the mass consumer dialogue. While Twitter was buzzing about the ad, you didn’t hear “dunking in the dark” in everyday conversation the same way people used “whassup,” “where’s the beef?” or even “got milk?”

So, why are we forgetting the creative? As a fully entrenched ad-tech participant, I can say that we focus too much on tech talk, preparing proposals highlighting queries per seconds, scale and efficiency. We spend nine hours a day deep in these conversations, but when someone on the outside of our ad-tech bubble asks what we do, the best (and easiest) explanation is that we put ads on the Internet.

The demand side is to blame as well. The amount of bad creative in digital is overwhelming. It’s so easy for a brand or agency to complain that a click rate is low, but maybe it’s the creative hurting the campaign, not the company serving the ads. Agencies will say it’s their job to conceptualize creative, but catch them in an honest moment and they’ll agree that they’re stuck with a bunch of banners that the client barely cares about.  

Everyone working in digital advertising right now is a house painter, not an artist. Both are painters, but putting display online is closer to running a roller on the wall than it is to making something beautiful on a canvas. There is a template that is optimized -- we plug things in and move them out. Digital advertisers are technologists, not storytellers.

This is an issue that marketers will need to confront soon. Young consumers are graduating from college, and rather than pay $100 a month for a cable plan, they’re watching video online. Print has been in decline for years. Marketers can no longer buy a placement at a certain time or in a magazine and consider themselves covered. There is so much media consumption online that brands will need to deliver great creative executions that spark conversations in the real world, beyond an online bubble, to capture the attention of consumers. Digital needs a whiz-bang moment soon, and for that to happen, we all need to think about storytelling a bit more than technology.

Christopher Hansen is President of Netmining.


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