Damien Venuto: It’s been 26 years. Why is online advertising still so terrible?


A horde is chasing me online. Incredibly well dressed, they flash their whitened gnashers as they promise to give me the secret to a passive income. All I have to do is listen to their wisdom and give their product a try.

These are the modern-day snake oil salesmen, using digital channels to sell hope to anyone with an internet connection.

They’re only part of the multibillion-dollar online advertising industry, but their ability to reach viewers around the world goes a long way to illustrate the opportunity at stake, and the curse that it brings.

The grand democratisation of advertising that was offered by the internet simply hasn’t lived up to its hype.

In the past, the prohibitive cost of much advertising meant that people actually had to put a bit of effort into producing and publishing their material. Advertising simply wasn’t as accessible to the random person brewing up their particular snake oil in the spare bedroom.

But as a corollary of having advertising accessible to everyone, quality standards and the old rules of engagement have fallen by the wayside.

Mike Larmer, a director at local creative agency Chemistry, says that in many ways, this is a case of history repeating itself.

He points to the example of unaddressed mail, or flyers, which proliferated and attacked mailboxes across New Zealand. The result: homeowners responded by putting up “No Junk Mail” signs – the operative word being “junk”.

Larmer says we’re now seeing something similar online, with users downloading ad-blockers and literally paying for services to avoid the blight of online advertising.

He notes that there were also good examples of targeted direct mail being used to offer value to loyal customers, but the reputation of the industry as a whole was affected by the annoyance people feel when they get unsolicited messages.

The problem now is that anyone in the world with a credit card could potentially target you based on your interests, likes, dislikes, or whether you’re prematurely greying (and no, I don’t want your special hair-darkening shampoo).

The problem for major advertisers now is that they have little choice but to step into this sullied environment and try to engage audiences that are already turned off by the sleazier side of online ads.

Joseph Silk, Larmer’s business partner at Chemistry, says an added challenge for New Zealand’s brands is that the internet we have today isn’t the same as the one we had five, 10 or 15 years ago – never mind going 26 years back to when the first online ad was published.

“We’ve had so many changes drop on us recently,” explains Silk.

“The GDPR [data protection] rules out in Europe, Apple changing its policies around tracking, and Facebook and Google constantly changing their algorithms.

“It’s very hard for the average media person or marketer to keep up with all of that.”

To illustrate the scale of this change, colour television was only introduced three decades after the first black and white broadcasts in the UK in 1936. In New Zealand, everything was broadcast in black and white from 1960 until the eventual rollout of colour TV in 1975.

Things are moving faster now than they ever were before. And just because you were good at something previously, it doesn’t mean it will remain relevant as the industry evolves.

What this means is that the time advertising professionals previously had to learn their skills is luxury that just doesn’t exist any longer.

Add to this the pressure of tighter budgets and it becomes challenging for marketers to produce suitable content for different channels.

“There’s a hands-in-the-air thing going on,” says Silk.

“There’s a majority of the market that currently says ‘I know this is where my audiences are, I know I need to be in these channels, and I will work out how to be there’,” he says. But then they use matching advertising material across different channels.

“It’s understandable but it’s disappointing,” says Silk.

He advises local businesses to consider what they actually want their online advertising to achieve before just getting staff to push out material.

“I think businesses need to look very carefully at what KPIs they are putting onto their people, because those KPIs 100 per cent drive what they do,” he says.

The point here is that if workers are given targets to hit a certain number of users or produce a certain amount of content, they’re going to focus on that above all else. In this context, quality becomes an afterthought.

Silk says it is possible to produce good online work, but there needs to be an acceptance that it always takes time to produce that work – as it would in any media channel.

He says that when an agency is given media specs only a few days before a campaign goes live, there simply isn’t time to produce something that’s bespoke and really complementary to the campaign.

He says marketers, creatives and media agencies need to work together more collaboratively to ensure the best possible versions of a campaign make it into different channels. That way you don’t end up with an awkward TV ad popping up in the middle of a YouTube video on how to make classic carbonara.

The old disruptive strategies that have long been used in television advertising are not as well accepted on digital channels.

While viewers were historically willing to accept the tradeoff of having to endure ads during a show on broadcast television, the exchange is far more difficult to tolerate when you have pre-rolls, mid-rolls and banner ads in a 10-minute online video.

It sometimes almost feels as though platforms are trying to serve as many ads as possible in the hope of converting the viewer into a paying customer. And maybe it’s not a bad strategy: there’s only so much snake oil you can tolerate before you eventually collapse.

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