Why Does Digital Advertising Suck?

It’s easy to blame the platforms for the blandification of advertising on the web, but the truth might be a little less palatable…

A year or two ago I was pitching a piece of work to a very senior, hugely experienced creative at an advertising agency. As an example of the sort of content that amuses and is shared on the web, I showed him Double Rainbow Man — not the most up-to-date reference, I know, but a crowd pleaser 40million times over.

Or so I thought.

As I chuckled along to the film (“It’s full on double rainbow all the way across the sky. Oh My God!”) a glance across at my colleague’s furrowed brow suggested a worrying lack of amusement at Rainbow Man’s psychedelic ramblings. Indeed, when I paused the video his reaction was could best be described as disappointment tinged with anger.

At first I thought that these emotions were directed at me and my taste in reference videos. But now I think the truth was a little sadder. My ECD — a man who has devoted his career and creativity and intellect to creating funny, emotional, engaging content — simply couldn’t understand why 40million people had chosen to watch a zonked-out hippie in raptures over a rainbow. There was no craft to the film, no strategy, no execution. It was, quite literally, absurd.

A few weeks ago I did a talk about marketing made from the internet vs marketing on the internet. I attributed the current (imho) lack of imagination, creativity and exuberance in digital advertising to the fact that marketers have been seduced by Facebook and Google, swayed by a vision of art and science combining to deliver efficient creativity at scale.

We know that the relentless chase for eyeballs is bad for publishers whose brand value is being eroded. We know it’s bad for consumers whose online lives are increasingly reduced to data trails and sold to the highest bidder. And, I reasoned, it’s bad for creative marketers who are corralled into making ‘optimised’ but undifferentiated work that fits the parameters of the platforms with the greatest clout. Who would dare to make a ‘Whopper Sacrifice’ these days?, I asked. Has digital marketing lost its flair and its nerve?

But thinking back to the awkward presentation to my ECD, I wonder whether the reality about the quality of digital advertising is a little more uncomfortable. Whether, in fact, the reason most digital advertising isn’t very good is because most people in advertising don’t really get the internet.

Traditional advertising has a body of work stretching back decades that can be referenced, reappropriated and recycled. And traditional advertising craft skills derive from traditional cultural formats — photography, film, literature, art! — that themselves have decades of critical study and analysis devoted to them.

And then along comes the World Wild Web, evolving and morphing with its users, unencumbered by legacy, the newest of new, new things. Its norms have yet to be established. Nascent online habits and behaviours are being learned and forgotten every day. There are no digital standards or classics, no canon to be revered or rejected. There’s precious little critical theory, no Chicago Manual of Digital Style, no maps for these territories.

via madmenintegrated.tumblr.com

For advertising, a business which has the tendency to drive towards the future with its view fixed on the rear view mirror, applying ‘advertising’ thinking to a space not built with advertising in mind is a huge challenge. And when craft and executional excellence are the measures by which advertising judges itself, how can it thrive in a medium with an aesthetic that can charitably be described as schizoid and a sensibility that is nothing if not hyper?

In 2013 Yahoo bought Tumblr, keen to make its creative, digitally-native community available to advertisers desperate to engage with millenials. Things didn’t go according to plan — just three years later as Yahoo prepared to sell itself, it hinted that the $1billion acquisition was mostly wasted money:

“Nobody at Yahoo ever understood what they bought and what Tumblr was. That fundamental issue is the core of lots of problems. If you don’t understand something, how can you sell it?”

Maybe Yahoo’s problems selling Tumblr mirror advertising’s problems selling on the wider internet. Lack of cultural fit, lack of empathy with web sensibility, lack of appreciation of internet nuance — the web is full of tonal minefields. And when web phenomena appear from nowhere (Such dress! Many puddle! So #saltbae!) and disappear just as fast, attempting to bottle the spirit of the internet to satisfy a client’s demand to ‘make me a viral’ will send any adland creative completely covfefe.

(Via integratedmadmen.tumblr.com)

No wonder marketers are drawn to the safe harbours operated by Facebook and Google, where teams of ad agency exiles exist to handhold brands and agencies, offering best practise advice, audience insight and green smoothies, cajoling more than $106billion (20% of all advertising spend!) from them in the process. For this vast sum, marketers get the potential to reach a huge audience with highly targeted communications, but at what creative cost?

If digital marketing wants to rediscover its mojo it needs to learn to love the internet not just for what it can do, but for what it is. A roiling mass of contradictions and chaos, a place where algorithmic certainly and human foible coexist, where whimsical absurdity and predictable reason carry equal weight. A home for brands, for the people who love them and the people who despise them. A haven for Facebookers, Twitterati and the Something Awful goonswarm. The territory of 21st century heroes, be they men who jump from space, chewbacca moms and yes, most definitely, hippies who cry at rainbows.