Media agency CEO on display ads: "A $5 billion industry that never contributed anything to a sale"

Mar 4, 2016

A grand, unscrupulous scheme has taken over the world and is too established, too entrenched in our society, too complicated to be fought. It's sounds like an opening line from the synopsis of a science fiction novel that is probably very bad. Or: Perhaps just the story of display advertising?

Could be both. Definitely could be the latter. Digiday has an interesting confessions-series going in which they offer "anonymity in exchange for candor". In this week's edition, they spoke to a media agency CEO who has spent the last 17 years working in the digital ad industry, both client and agency side.

The veteran CEO, who is basically under oath right, has some harsh words for display advertising. He pretty much toes the line of calling it institutionalized fraud:

What rankles you most in advertising currently?
It’s all “the display banner is dead,” when in truth it’s never really been alive. The industry has to perpetuate that the humble banner works because there are so many people employed off the back of it; so many businesses looking to sell or be acquired off the back of it, and so many tech players built on it. There’s a lot built on the premise that standard display advertising works.

Ouch! 'Never really alive'. That's almost worse than dead. But there is more:

Some works though, right?
Not all display advertising is created equally. There are cleaner ecosystems for display like Facebook and Google. When you start talking about things like fraud and viewability, you’re compounding the problem. I’m referring to standard display creatives bought programmatically or any other way, that appear on ad exchanges and networks. I’ve never seen any evidence that works for clients. It’s a rare thing to be able to say that a £4 billion ($5.6 billion) industry has maybe never contributed anything to a sale; and consumers wouldn’t miss if it disappeared tomorrow. Yet it’s still worth so much cash.

Those two final lines burn. The good CEO extends his scepticism to Programmatic, apparently just a newer version of old trash:

So has programmatic trading helped perpetuate the issue?
Programmatic for online display has been an exercise in polishing a turd. We’ve tried to sex up something that was fundamentally broken. It doesn’t matter how you buy it or phrase it. If it’s still something no one ever responds to, what’s the point? Whether I’ve bought this turd by cash or credit card, it’s still a turd. You can give me as many fancy tech presentations as you like. But to make it sound more sophisticated than it is, the myth that’s been perpetuated is that people need to get involved with it, because if they don’t they’re not sophisticated marketers. Whereas in many ways the opposite is true. If you fundamentally don’t understand what it is you’re buying, you shouldn’t be buying it.

There is more interesting stuff in the article, so you should definitely read the full version. Just an anonymous man with nothing to lose as long as he remains anonymous. Wonderful.

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