Banner “Fraud” Doesn’t Matter

A Message from brand marketers to publishers

Rick Webb
Rick Webb
Jul 13, 2015 · 8 min read

Here’s a message on behalf of brand marketers everywhere.† We know about banner fraud already. We just don’t care. Seriously. It’s fine. I mean, you got us into this mess years ago, and sure, it was kind of annoying, but you know what? It is what it is. To your immense credit, you have adjusted prices downward as you’ve made banners an ever-increasing s**tshow, so, actually, it’s totally cool. We like them.

That’s right. I said it. We like banners. So stop telling us that they are useless. Everyone does not hate banners. You’ve thrown, god, what is it, something like 400 different, new, “better” ad formats at us now. But we keep buying banners. It’s time everyone accepted the truth: we’re not buying banners from you because it’s the only thing you can sell us, we’re buying banners from you because they’re cheap and they work.

That’s right. I said it. Banners are awesome.

So here’s the thing. It’s been over twenty years since you foisted the banner upon us. And it was pretty cool. We liked it right away. But along with this cool little piece of digital real estate, you sold us this dream: that everything was trackable. It sounded awesome. I mean, we like advertising on billboard, they’re cool. They work. But we can’t really track all that much with them. So this seemed, like, even better.

So, yeah. For like a decade or so we thought “okay, cool, maybe this banner is like a billboard but also a traffic driver.” Like, cool! Double your pleasure. And for a while, it did drive traffic! I once took part in what was, at the time the single largest banner buy ever. This was probably about 2003. And boy. It drove a lot of traffic. But then? It wore off.

Since then, as you keep pointing out to us, clickthroughs have fallen through the floor. They’re just… I mean, horrid. So then we realized that yeah, no. That whole click thing was a flash in the pan and is kinda B.S. now.

Notice how I used billboard as an example up there? We actually can track billboards. Some things, anyway. But we don’t track who “clicked” on them. We track who saw them. We had a whole host of tools. We took surveys. We parked dudes on the site of the road. We did interviews at gas stations up the road. They had a use. It wasn’t EVERY use, but it was a use. And we used them as one tool in our arsenal. .

So, then, banners turned out to not be awesome traffic drivers. So you adjusted your price down accordingly. And now? Banners are so. freaking. cheap. It’s just awesome. I mean, you know how mailing a letter with the USPS is a good deal? Buying a million banner impressions is a stellar deal.

We don’t care about clickthroughs.

Secondly, banners are still little billboards.

We know this. We use them like this. We don’t care anymore if anyone clicks through on our banners. So stop pointing that out as a reason they suck. Our industry internalized this reality like eight years ago.

We use banners as little billboards now. We use them strategically as incredibly cheap (so cheap) repeat impressions for brand awareness. We know many people don’t see them, we know most people don’t see them. That’s okay. We use them accordingly, and the cost has been adjusted down to make them a perfectly great buy even though most people don’t see them.

We use them to measure the efficacy of campaigns we run our way, using our metrics. We’ll spend a million bucks on a literal f**k ton of banners (I mean, just billions of the things, it’s crazy). And then we’ll do targeted brand sentiment and purchase-intent surveys using our internal peeps, online along with companies like Nielsen and Foresee, and offline with a bunch of (really quite awesome) companies you’ve never heard of. Then we’ll see whether the banners moved the needle, and if they did (and they often do), we’re happy.

And no one ever has to click on one of those things for all this to work. I mean it’s weird to me you haven’t just sold us banners that don’t have clickthroughs. (Well, they do exist, but not at scale and they’re generally very small). And yeah, we still build some “experience” there for the clickthrough, but we either augment the potential traffic driving to that experience with other media (native, social and, well, let’s face it, TV), or we just half-ass the experience or send ‘em to something we already built. We don’t waste time or money on the clickthrough experience of a display campaign anymore. Because we’re not buying banners for click through.

We’ve known about banner fraud forever and we’re cool with it.

So, now, here it is in 2015 and you start going on about a multi-billion dollar “fraud” in the industry. Honestly, at first when that article got posted I thought you were going to talk about something else: like maybe how the entire dream of the internet is a bit of a fraud for advertisers in general. But then I read it and, oops, no, it’s just you guys confessing that, hey, you know what? We’ve been showing a lot of banners to people who aren’t people. And not only that, you guys have been “bribing” the media buyers to buy this crap.

It’s kind of cute to see your industry coming to us with your tail between your legs now saying “oh hey, we have something to confess to you. No one sees 99.99% of your banners.” Like we didn’t figure that out on our own. We do have some pretty good statisticians ourselves, you know. It’s not like we hadn’t done the math and realized that you were showing a bunch of banners to no one. It was totally cool with us because you just kept making them cheaper along the way.

We know that most banners aren’t seen by humans. We’re okay with it. Because they’re so stinking cheap. And, thanks to your article, they’re gonna get cheaper. Thanks!

I mean, the whole thing did seem a little weird to us — like maybe it’s not the best business model to keep making more and charging less, but hey. It’s no skin off our back. And we get it. We know there’s immense competition online, and you guys didn’t want to be in this hellish spiral. And we sympatize. But it’s really immaterial to us.

An aside on “bribes:”

By the way, if you think you guys are bribing anyone, you might want to consider working in any. other. medium. Because, honestly, you peeps in digital are still rank amateurs when it comes to bribing our colleagues in the media departments. You wanna see real bribing? Buy a broadcast spot from a large local TV station.

Look. Everyone knows all this. We, as brand marketers, are not the beneficiaries of your bribes. We’re over at “creative” agencies, or working at the brand. Those “bribes” all go to people at the media agencies. We generally feel bad for them because they work in really boring grey buildings in a crappy part of town and have no fun in life and spend their whole lives in front of spreadsheets and the way we see it, if someone wanna suck it up and take one of them to see Tay Tay or the Mets, that’s just compensation for working those relatively less “glamorous” (ha!) jobs. And again, you guys are totally not very good at this compared to old school media. Even with your “bribes,” you’re waaaay cheaper. Because you know the cost of those “bribes” is built back into our rates, right? Because we know that too.

Okay, now on to the main point:

Fixing banner fraud isn’t going to do us any favors.

So, now that you guys have “confessed” (and, really, god bless you you’re so cute), what’s going to happen? Nothing. You know why? Because you’re not really confessing. You’re trying to sell us something else.

What’s really happening here is you’re trying to convince us the way we buy banners now sucks (even though it’s fine), so you can sell us the same banners at a higher cost.

There are only two scenarios here:

First, somehow you magically fix banners, and now we’re only paying for banners actual real, live humans see. Okay, great. You know what happens to the price? The price per banner goes up commensurately. If you fix this perfectly, absolutely perfectly, then basic supply and demand curves indicate that the price should go up exactly the amount to compensate for the lost fraud and it won’t matter to us at all. I mean, our (awesome) statisticians (they really are quite good) will have to adjust certain coefficients in their models, but that’s about it. So, sure. if you could fix the whole problem perfectly, then hey. Why not. We’re down that that.

But that’s a big if. Because the reason you got into this whole mess is because you couldn’t stop this slide to begin with.

So that leads us to the second scenario. You sorta, kinda fix it, for a small part of the web, occasionally. Which effectively means you offer a new ad product. Call it Banner+. Banner+ will be run on certain sites, not all. Maybe you get the IAB involved and Banner+ runs on all the major sites. And maybe it runs on networks too. And not just the big ones but the weirder, niche, small ones we like for certain clients. But it’s not gonna run everywhere, it’s probably gonna cost a lot more, and all the publishers involved will still have an incentive to cheat on us.

Now, I’m not much a technologist, but call me very skeptical that you guys are gonna make a perfect, cheat-proof system. If you do, see scenario one. If you don’t, then I’m just paying more for the same crap.

Neither of these are particularly awesome for me, so forgive me if I am not all bent out of shape about banner “fraud” and “bribes.” Methinks thou doth protest too much.

A recent “expose” on this “secret” “fraud” mentioned “incompetent, greedy agencies.” That’s rich. Like we made this problem. Like we’re unaware.

You know why your display CPMs keep falling? Because we freaking knew about this whole thing, and took our pound of flesh out of your CPMs.

In conclusion.

None of this, by the way, has anything to do with the utility of a banner in our ad campaigns. They still have a use. They’re great, for example, in papering over the whole web to launch a movie or a new soft drink. All I have to do is run upstairs to my wife’s office and look at the (really very smart) companies who are using display ads effectively for myriad endeavors. These companies make a lot of money. Really. A lot. They are not dumb. And they love banners.

It’s an indicator to us that you don’t get this by the fact you’re still always talking about clickthrough, which was kind of BS when you first sold it to us twenty years ago, and doubly the case now.

So yes. The whole thing is screwed. We would love for it to be better. But it’s not like we’re unaware, and banners still have their uses. Finally, we didn’t make this situation, publishers did. Forgive us if we are dubious of you fixing it.

† Ok, I am not a brand marketer anymore. But I was one for twenty years, and built banners for 15+ years for everyone from the local used car dealership to Apple. I build my first banner in 1998 for General Motors. I just searched my hard drive and there are 2,135 banner gifs and .flas on there. Still. And my wife still makes banners for a living. And she loves it. Because banners are awesome.

Rick Webb

Written by

Rick Webb

author, @agencythebook, @mannupbook. writing an ad economics book. reformed angel investor, record label owner, native alaskan. co-founded @barbariangroup.

Rick Webb

Written by

Rick Webb

author, @agencythebook, @mannupbook. writing an ad economics book. reformed angel investor, record label owner, native alaskan. co-founded @barbariangroup.

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