Display advertising is shit; because it tries to be clickable over being memorable

A thesis for the industry: display advertising cannot be expected to deliver direct response metrics (clicks through), and the form is not designed to deliver engagement.

I know this flies in the face of the engagement-focused digital advertising narrative. But that argument is simply bullshit. It assumes people are on a website with nothing to do. The ads people engage with are the absolute pinnacle-level exception.

Note: I am not talking about the conversion opportunity which retargeted ads can afford; that is a very different form which concerns itself with demand fulfilment, not demand creation.

The primary role of display advertising is to produce brand effects, as part of a wider media mix. Therefore the first job of display advertising is for the display ad to be noticed; to literally make an impression. In order to make real impressions, we need to stop creating display advertising like it’s a multiple-frame narrative, where a story can unfold over time. The media space and attention afforded online doesn’t permit us to do that.

In addition, you cannot rely on media placement to ensure that users will see the narrative of your ad, if it’s constructed as a multiple-frame story. They may see a couple of frames, or perhaps only one frame, as they read the digital content they came here for. If they spend some time on a page, your ad may be reduced to the static end frame, so they only see the final frame of the ad.

In that way display advertising is a lot less like TV, radio and press. It’s actually a lot more like outdoor:
- There is little dwell time
- What you are aiming for is to be disruptive or interruptive
- The job to be done is firstly to be noticed, secondly to be remembered

Techniques such as animations or transitions should be used to help us to be noticed, rather than used to tell a story over multiple frames. Just because digital advertising can be animated and interactive doesn’t mean that it should always be so. I don’t see magazine ads using every colour in the CMYK spectrum, just because it is possible to do so.

This approach actually extends to HPTOs, rich media, large formats and the like. Remember that the vast majority of people will be exposed to your ad, but they will not interact with it. This is particularly appropriate when it comes to mobile display formats. There is even less of a physical creative canvas, and even less attention available. The job always remains firstly to be noticed, secondly to be remembered.

A great example of rich media which knows its place is this rich media ad for Channel 4 series Utopia from the guys at 4Creative & Supernatural. Large format canvases. A simple interaction requiring no additional user effort. Noticeable, with a brief, memorable message.

Good questions to ask when interrogating a digital display ad is:

- How is this ad going to be noticed?
- In what way is the content memorable?
- Can users come away with a googleable phrase from the ad (e.g. “VHI Kids go free, IDA web summit, PTSB switch, Irish Rail seat sale”)?

The implications for creative approaches to display advertising in general are as follows:

- Stop attempting unfurl “stories” over multiple frames
- Have a very good reason for using multiple frames
- Be noticed: Use animation and transition to arrest, interrupt or disrupt
- Be memorable: Create an impression, be memorable, be ‘googleable’
- Don’t make the mistake of thinking display is simpler to churn out and less worthwhile, because it’s shorter/smaller; in fact what we’re doing here is making it more difficult and more worthwhile.

Of course if you want to break these rules that’s good. Just make sure you bring an exceptional creative idea which justifies breaking moulds.

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