The advertising industry is evolving at an unprecedented pace. One can imagine how the titans of 1960s Madison Avenue would marvel at the complexity, agility and creative potential of today's advertising landscape. But they would also be dismayed to see that, with digital's emergence, we have in some ways lost our roots as an industry founded on truly great creative that captured the hearts and minds of consumers.
But before tackling the issue of creative, let's take a look at what, in a way, has been holding it back.
As digital advertising enters its third decade, branding dollars continue to lag in the medium. Approximately 20 percent of people's media consumption time occurs online, yet the medium attracts just 5 percent of branding advertising dollars, according to the TVB Media Comparisons Study. This isn't entirely surprising - after all, an industry that thinks in terms of the "science" of ones and zeroes does not have a natural inclination toward valuing the "art" of the creative. It's all too easy to forget that these ones and zeroes are simplified representations of human behavior and the highly complex thoughts, feelings and emotions behind them.
And so, this measurable medium naturally tends to reduce digital advertising to impressions and clicks. Capturing the very essence of why digital has been a laggard in attracting branding dollars - the commoditization of impressions - marketing executive Wenda Millard implored advertisers to "educate one and all about the value our digital offerings provide marketers and not trade advertising space like pork bellies."
Over the years, display ads have been treated mainly as commodities. Because these "pork bellies" generated almost no click-throughs, advertisers and their agencies were reluctant to give the creative the time of day. It wasn't until a few years ago that our industry began to give credence to the importance of latent branding impact, aka the "view-through." This shift in thinking is helping to illuminate the need for considering display ads in terms of their creative elements, but it's clear that we still have a long road ahead of us.
Now that the industry has come to accept the fact that display ads actually have a latent branding impact, it's time to advance the industry into the next critical phase of its ascent. It's no longer sufficient to simply acknowledge that creative may be important in online advertising - it's time to demonstrate the value of our medium by turning online creative testing into a discipline.
Research from Comscore ARS indicates the importance of creative in driving sales lift. In fact, we've found that 52 percent of sales lift variance is attributable to the quality of the advertising creative, four times the importance of the media plan. In other words, advertisers are currently assuming no control over the single most critical variable in determining sales performance.
By way of comparison, consider the amount of emphasis currently being given to the media plan. This is, of course, an important component to a successful strategy and well worth optimizing. But if the creative isn't persuasive in the first place, then what's the point? Even the most perfectly optimized media strategy cannot make a weak campaign effective.
The stakes have never been higher in the digital ad arena. Advertisers are plowing more money into the medium than ever before, with the largest individual placements - like roadblocks on large portal home pages - topping $1 million a day! With that much money on the table, one might expect advertisers to hedge these risks through testing the quality of their creative. And yet, many continue to resort to the "spray-and-pray" approach -- slapping banners up wherever they can and hoping that they work.
There truly has never been a better time to begin optimizing digital creative. As rich media gets richer, and new and interesting digital ad units emerge, advertising creatives finally have the canvas they need to develop their masterpieces. Digital also serves as an important extension of broader multimedia campaigns with the ability to effectively engage consumers and reinforce the message of the campaign. But this canvas needs to be utilized to the fullest extent possible, and not merely as an afterthought.
As advertisers begin to gear up for the all-important holiday season, the question is how many advertisers will continue to adopt this basic approach to advertising in the digital environment and how many will get smarter and start testing their creative? Those who get their creative right can amplify their effects tremendously, while those who don't will run the risk of flushing those valuable marketing dollars down the drain. It is time for advertisers to ask themselves: What would Don Draper do in a digital world?
This post was originally published at Adweek on November 10, 2010.