Does enough creative thought go into online advertising?

After WPP's Mark Read said adland puts too much emphasis on targeting the right consumers and not enough about the message, industry leaders respond.

Clockwise from left: De la Fosse, Orleans-Amissah, Bidon, Read, Gayfer, Ghafoor
Clockwise from left: De la Fosse, Orleans-Amissah, Bidon, Read, Gayfer, Ghafoor

“We spend a tremendous amount of time worrying about media targeting and programmatic media and optimisation but we don’t do nearly enough, I’d argue, to think about how to personalise the creative messaging that goes to consumers and that has to have equal weight.” So said WPP chief executive Mark Read in an interview with Campaign published last week.

It’s hardly a new or contentious view that digital advertising often still leaves a lot to be desired. Paul Feldwick may or may not have been right when he argued in the March issue of Campaign that it’s better for advertising to be popular than clever, but the sad fact is that there is still so much of it online that is neither.

Five years ago at the launch of the Coalition for Better Ads, industry leaders warned that the challenge for digital advertising was as much creative as it was technical. A memorable headline from the following year, “The web looks like shit”, remains all too true of many corners of the web – and advertising plays a pretty major part in that.

The Advertising Association warned at its Reset conference in January that the issue of bombardment that it first identified in 2019 as a key threat to public trust in advertising is not a problem that has been solved.

And too often targeted ads that are served are those that are irrelevant – sometimes because they are for a product a consumer has already bought (sometimes the exact same brand).

A memorable column in the Financial Times earlier this month asked: “If Big Tech has our data, why are targeted ads so terrible?”

Targeting aside, how much of this is really to do with creative?

Emma de la Fosse

Chief creative officer, Digitas UK

No, not enough creative thought goes into online advertising. That’s because many marketers see social as a channel rather than a platform. Brands who understand social start with listening to what the community is talking about and build from there. They understand the different roles platforms play and know how to pull the various levers to deeply engage with an audience, not just talk at them. Unfortunately – and this in my opinion is where the biggest problems lies – many marketing decisions are based solely on media effectiveness models which show cost and reach. This fails to take into account the important role of organic, owned and earned. With a little more thought about the role each platform can play in building not just the brands but the community around your brand, marketers could achieve so much more from than just reach.

Naana Orleans-Amissah

Strategy director, MediaMonks

As consumers we have all experienced the irritation of interruptive display advertising that we consciously block out when we are online. There is a lot of online advertising that misses the mark in connection and relevance in an age where we have high expectations on what digital can achieve. Advertising performance is one component in the mix, and it need not sacrifice storytelling — you have to understand the consumer and then relate to them in the fullness of their experiences and behaviour! Data alone can only do some of that. Creativity does the rest. Our mission is to change this industry problem from the inside, to use data to create stories that are relevant, and are also persuasive and interesting to customers, stories they remember and want to talk about and that hopefully make them buy something.

Sol Ghafoor

Director of strategic services, AnalogFolk

Many creative teams work hard to make their idea work in various formats, while trying to maintain the integrity of the idea. Yet the problem of modern targeting means that it often manifests in irrelevant contexts. For example, if you're not in the mindset of buying trainers but are constantly served ads for trainers, this brings annoyance no matter how creative the ad is. Elimination of third party tracking will force a rethink of relationships. Obtaining consent means we better understand people - so we can better address needs, create better experiences and serve ads that are hyper-relevant for the consumer.

Paul Gayfer

Planning partner, Goodstuff

What kind of creativity is Mark Read asking for from online advertising? The kind that leverages digital platforms to advance creative innovation? That which explodes bold ideas across new contexts and moments? Or the kind that continues the relentless march towards the over-optimsation of digital media through ever increasing targeting and personalisation? There’s a huge creative opportunity in the online space, but already too much energy is wasted on the pursuit of absolute precision and personalisation. We should absolutely refocus on creativity, but let’s start with how big we can make an idea, not how small.

Nicolas Bidon

Global CEO, Xaxis

Programmatic’s unique ability to automate sophisticated audience buying at scale, led us as an industry to often focus more on executing complex targeting strategies than on creating great creative led experiences for consumers. As the industry comes to terms with the demise of third-party cookies and an ever-increasing audience fragmentation, being able to efficiently produce and adapt creatives that are optimized to the strength of each channel, device and media environment will be key to drive results for brands and to make advertising better for everyone.

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