Online Ad Lessons Learned: Creativity and Content Matter

Viewpoint: Centro President Shawn Riegsecker

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Shawn Riegsecker
Shawn Riegsecker

At this point, I don't need to lament anymore the ailments of the print-newspaper industry. It's a well-chronicled and covered story.

It's a tough time for the newspaper industry. As digital-media choices continue to grow and technology allows for better audience targeting, the need for mass-market advertising vehicles, such as print newspapers, continues to wane. However -- and this is important -- the need for quality journalism doesn't. And the need for advertisers to reach consumers in highly trusted journalistic environments doesn't either.

Early internet companies and digital gurus have attempted to change the fundamentals of advertising by promising a world of measurability, interaction and precise targeting. The first 15 years of online advertising was littered with portals, ad networks and pay-for-performance "spray and pray" advertising. It was a direct marketer's dream: buy billions of squares and rectangles on the web as cheap as you can, add some basic audience-targeting parameters and presto! You're considered a successful internet marketer.

This method worked in the beginning when online-media consumption was under 10% and great brands were still built through offline channels (e.g., newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, etc.). However, with the average person now spending close to 35% of his or her media consumption time online, the facade and fallacy of online marketing "success" is quickly crumbling. Brands are being forced to use the internet for positive brand-building experiences. Unfortunately, algorithms can't build great brands.

Today, marketing executives I speak with, who have collectively spent billions in online advertising, recognize certain truths:

  1. You can't build a positive brand identity by simply buying billions of squares and rectangles on unknown websites; in fact, littering the web in this manner will, in almost all cases, hurt your brand more than it will help it.
  2. Creativity is still everything.
  3. The environment in which your ad is seen is more important than how many of your ads are seen.
  4. The decline in offline-media consumption has left a void in helping advertisers build strong brands.

These executives are turning to the web but find the digital industry's focus misguided and the fundamental brand-building tools lacking.

Digital marketing is moving to a world of more creativity and less commoditization. Successful marketers want engaging creative units, not more IAB banners and buttons. With click-throughs as low as they've ever been and continuing to decline every year, buying more of the same units at cheaper prices only helps one fail faster. The leading marketers realize this and are setting a course for an improved direction when it comes to web marketing based on successful marketing principles.

Shawn Riegsecker is founder and president of Centro, a firm launched in 2001 to make the buying and selling of online media easy. Before forming Centro, he worked at Real Media, helping advertising agencies place campaigns across thousands of local sites. Before that he led sales and strategic initiatives for start-up internet companies including Everstream, and

The movement taking place at the brand level is to place higher-quality creative in higher-quality and trusted media environments on the web. It is in this movement the sun begins to shine for the newspaper industry and traditional branded media companies in general. In the first 15 years of online advertising, when advertisers didn't care about great web creative or being seen in well-lit and well-respected environments, it was hard for established media companies, such as online newspapers, to win. Although they had worked hard and spent billions of dollars to create journalistic products of the highest integrity that advertisers would be proud to have their messages be associated with, early online-direct-response advertisers didn't care.

The lure of billions of cheap banner impressions with over-hyped and ill-defined targeting capabilities attracted many brands to what was being touted as the panacea of marketing: online advertising. Unfortunately, the digital industry spent almost all of its resources trying to get really good at quantitative analysis, predictive measurement and audience targeting while ignoring the fundamentals of great advertising.

The reality is creativity matters. Brands matter. And the environment in which those ads and brands appear matters as much as the first two. It hasn't changed; it just took billions of dollars and a decade of declining performance on the web for the industry to recognize this.

A T.S. Eliot quote sums up the first decade of online marketing: "We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

We explored, all right, and we ended up back where we started. The next thing everyone will be saying is, "Hey, did you know we can use the web for branding?!" It will be treated as new -- almost as if we are discovering it for the first time.

Although the road will remain tough for high-quality journalistic media brands such as newspapers, the forward-looking trend lines are in their favor. Newspapers will emerge from these difficult years smarter and leaner than they were before. Most of them will also have had the opportunity to greatly improve (and reduce) their cost structures so they're better able to adapt and compete in the rapidly changing 21st century.

Great creative placed in high-quality editorial environments has been a lovely marriage for more than a century and, although it has gone through some tough times in the past decade, it's here to stay. Only this time it will be in a digital format.

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