Imagine Thanksgiving without the turkey, or Halloween without candy, or Christmas without the tree, and you've pretty much got the current conversation about digital advertising.
Quality creative work is integral to good advertising. Yet when our industry discusses its biggest obstacles, we hardly ever grapple with a central concern: Creative work in digital advertising too often lags in quality behind our work in print and on television.
Take the recent Digiday Programmatic Summit. At the conference, speakers and panelists griped about plenty of familiar issues: the lack of scale from PMPs; the ads.txt fiasco; ongoing difficulties with transparency and bidding; and brand safety issues with the social media platforms.
These issues range from annoyances to major pains. But when we focus on them, we're ignoring the heart of the matter: the creative work.
Last month I wrote this about the significance of high-quality creative work: "Let's remember that programmatic advertising's primary function is – well, to advertise a brand. What makes a good ad? At the most basic level, it needs to be pleasant to look at; it needs to find the right audience; and it needs to be adjacent to premium content."
These brand-building tenets represent the fundamentals of advertising. Reaching the right people, in the right context, with striking creative work remains the ideal outcome that publishers and advertisers alike should strive for.
Yet again and again, in digital advertising spaces, the conversation reverts to issues of infrastructure, backend technology, transparency, and safety. The creative gets forgotten; we put our brands out in the digital world in a way that is just… alright. We have become too comfortable with a status quo digital ad that many internet users and marketers simply find unappealing.
Instead of actual creative, our industry has lately been absorbed by fraud issues in ads.txt, the debate over buy-side fees, and programmatic advertising's initial flirtation with first-price auctions.
These are problems, to be sure, and each one is concerned with supplying the right ads to the right people in the right place. But solving these problems will be meaningless if we do not prioritize creating great ads in the first place.
Ask yourself: What's the use of fixing the pipes if you're still delivering polluted water?
Advertising is about building a connection with people, showing up in a way that people remember, making an impact - and generating that emotional response not only benefits from good creative, but requires it. We all know which ad campaigns have stuck with us - the ones we’ve talked about with our colleagues and families, that we’re reminded of whenever we think of the brand (P&G’s Olympic Thank You Mom, the Fearless Girl, Spotify’s unusually named playlists campaign, Gatorade x Serena Williams). We need to see more like this in digital. We need to see less of the low-quality standard work that results in negative experiences for marketers, publishers, and audiences.
My advice for marketers going forward is to ignore the technical clutter and noise, and to return to the roots of advertising. Embrace premium creative work, and embrace the publishers that allow you to display that work to an engaged audience.
In part, this means working with partners who can deliver both scale and a canvas for custom, premium creative. Don't settle for one or the other: Demand that your work shine, and that it shine brightly where many can see it.
It also means collaborating with publishers and partners who really know their audience. The best ad in the world means nothing if it's being forced upon an uninterested party. Find partners who can make sure your ads are being funneled to the right people—not just to random internet users based on sketchy targeting data.
This does not mean that all marketers should avoid the social media platforms, but they should know what to use them for. Social platforms offer huge scale and efficiency, and they can deliver very targeted audiences. But when you sign up, you're settling for a standard format that's going to be placed in front of a distracted viewer. Consider those limitations and be careful to maximize your impact in that landscape.
Speaking of standard ad units: Avoid them if you can. Marketers should take advantage of the many creative formats out there that allow for unique, mobile-first storytelling. When you get stuck thinking inside the box, your brand does, too.
These recommendations all spring from the same general idea: that your creative work, and nothing else, should be driving the conversation in digital advertising. So let’s get back to talking about that.