Why is digital advertising so lousy? Industry is too smug to innovate.

By Frederic Filloux
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Is advertising the next casualty of the ongoing digital tsunami? For now, advertising looks like the patient who developed an asymptomatic form of cancer without realizing how sick he is. Such behavior usually results from excessive confidence in one's body's past performance, mixed with a state of permanent denial and a deep sense of superiority, all aided by a complacent environment.

The digital graveyard is filled with the carcasses of utterly confident people who all shared this sense of invincibility. The music industry and, to some extent, the news business built large mausoleums for themselves. Today, the advertising industry is working on its own funeral monument.

Before performing media oncology tests and discussing possible treatments, let me describe which soapbox I'm standing on. Each time I raise the issue of advertising trailing behind the digital train, I get two responses: Media execs nod sagely and later explain how they intend to progressively circumvent the ad food-chain. Advertising people breezily dismiss my remarks: "Anyway, you don't like us." Untrue.

First, I'm in the same boat as many of my friends in the news media: A significant part of my income, past and future, rides on advertising. Therefore, my pragmatic self-interest is to see digital advertising thrive.

Let's face it. On digital media, advertising hasn't delivered. In the news business, we have a rule of thumb: An electronic reader brings 15 to 20 times less in advertising revenue than a print reader does. I'll stop short of saying this dire state of affairs is attributable only to advertising. Between inadequate interfaces, poor marketing and the certainty that, just by itself, intellectual superiority entitles it to success, media carry their share of responsibility. But for the most part, the advertising community missed the digital target.

Digital advertising stinks. Both on the Web and on mobile. There are two main reasons.

No. 1: Poor design.

Where is the creative talent? Not in digital, that's only too clear. Look, most banners, skyscrapers, sliders, pop-ups, you name it, merely act as repellents to readers. They end up as fodder for ad-blocking systems. Unfortunately, these defense mechanisms are thriving. A Google query for "ad block" yields 1.25 million pages that send you to dozens of browser add-ons. On Firefox, AdBlockPlus is the most used extension, with more than 80 million downloads and more than 10 million active users. The same goes for Chrome, whose ad-blocking extension is downloaded at a rate of 100,000 times a week and now has more than 1 million users. For Internet Explorer, there are simply too many add-ons to count.

I spotted this comment in an excellent Guardian ad-blocking story:

I work for a digital advertising agency. Along with microsites, iPhone apps and long-form digital content, I make banners. Loads of them. And I use Adblock Plus. I also advise my friends and colleagues to use it too. This is because most advertising, online or otherwise, is utter crap. And banners contain some of the worst of the crap. Flickering, squirming, buzzing crap.

Another sign of the ad-design failure is Apple's decision. Not only does Apple enter the mobile-ad business as a sales house, but Jobs's company will also design ads, for a hefty $50,000 to $100,000 fee. Apple's message is that the profession needs to reboot advertising graphical standards. How strange to see a technology company giving lectures on design to the very people who prided themselves for their creative brilliance.

No. 2: Badly sold, badly bought.

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