Why the display ecosystem might implode

(Originally published in iMediaConnection, November 2011) by Eric Picard

I sat on a panel at OMMA display on Monday, and the discussion was designed to determine if ad exchanges were going to be relegated to the land of direct response advertising, or if they would foster brand-friendly environments.

I’ve written a lot over the past few years about the future of display, and the issues we face and need to overcome. But this panel brought up many key issues that I thought I’d take a quick look at in this article.

Creative formats for display are really awful
If we don’t solve this, we might just need to give it up. Display ads are just too small to really give an effective brand experience. Even the “brand-friendly” banner units like the venerable 300×250 are too small. Are we really saying that pre-roll is the best we can do?

I suggest we think through the issue of brand-friendly space, and fix websites to accommodate it. We should strip all the banners off every page of a major publisher, and replace with a brand-friendly unit that gives the advertiser a great venue to show brand content and is still user friendly. It’s not so hard — there are all sorts of vehicles to use here.

“Sliding ad units” that move the content down for a moment on page load, then retract to reveal a “leave behind” unit that can be explored by the consumer (and re-expand the ad) if they’re interested are my personal favorite. I like this better than over-the-page ads that cover the content in general. But even expanding ads (my last startup, Bluestreak, pioneered expanding ads back in 1997, so I’ve thought about this a lot) work well for this kind of thing as long as they don’t expand on mouse-overs. They should expand for one to three seconds on page load, and only re-expand on clicks. If they very quickly expand on page-load, retract to show that they’re “there” and interactive, and the entire expansion and retraction takes less than three to five seconds, consumers won’t backlash too badly.

Targeted reach is critical to brand advertisers
Brand advertisers will pay to reach audiences that they define. They don’t need to have a conversion tracked, nor do they need to track CPA during the life of the campaign. They don’t need to track clicks — except you’ve fought so hard to convince them of this, that they finally have shrugged their shoulders and said, “Fine, show me the clicks.” Too many people in our industry are drinking their own Kool-Aid.

Why do I still have people argue with me that GRPs and TRPs are not what we should use? They’re good enough metrics for massive amounts of ad spend — tens of billions of dollars, in fact. And we have the arrogance in this industry to simply refuse to adopt and promote something that people with money have been requesting for more than 15 years. Really? The customer isn’t right? You know better? They have money to spend.

I get worked up on this topic — it’s ridiculously stupid that we won’t sell a product that customers with big budgets would like to buy from us. And the argument I continue to hear come out of the mouth of smart people? “We can do better.” This is a fool’s errand. When people say, “I’m thirsty, and I’d like to buy a nice bottle of seltzer water from you”, the response isn’t, “No, that’s not what you want. We sell the water and bubbles separately. It’s much, much more effective that way — I have data to prove it.” And they keep saying, “But I just want a nice bottle of seltzer water.” And we keep telling them to pound sand.

More than this — we keep building incredibly complex tools to manage buying and selling in our space. That makes it very hard and inefficient for brand media buyers to adopt online display since they can get massive reach at a reasonable price from traditional media — but not so much from online.

So I have an idea: Let’s sell the customers something they want — gross and targeted reach and frequency (GRPs and TRPs) that mesh well into the combined cross-media plans that they do, and let’s give them tools that don’t require them to get an advanced math degree to use.

And still I’m going to have comments on this article that “we can do better than GRP and TRP.” Fantastic — you go do that. But why not give them GRP and TRP too? Does it hurt to give them what they’re asking for? Calculating GRP and TRP isn’t that hard.

Build tools that are ideal for brands to use and that make it really easy to buy online display advertising in ways that make sense in the context of all the other money they spend. Give consumers better ad formats that actually are great venues to showcase brand ads with emotional impact. It’s not hard technically. It just requires some group consensus. And I fear that we’re not going to pull it off — despite its relative simplicity.

On the OMMA panel I was on, three of five panelists said that they felt that there was a real chance that the economics of display advertising could implode over the next few years. I was on the dissenting side of this panel. Let’s not make me a liar, shall we?

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