Towards a better future for display

Now and then, a few of us at PHD get together to discuss thought-provoking articles from the industry. Last week it was this piece that drew a parallel between the display ad industrial complex and fake capitalism – a house of cards, if you will. It’s a good piece of writing that’s well worth reading.

fake capitalism

In theory it would be silly to argue against much of what the article says: display advertising is a selfish product made by people who are invested in it, and as such it is against capitalism which encourages market disruption in favour of goods which people actually want.

Display advertising, much like mobile, still hasn’t come into its own as a creative medium. Yes, it’s the equivalent of irritating TV ads, but it is important to remember that all ads aren’t crap. There are plenty that are educational, entertaining and uplifting. The same, I’d say, applies to display ads, or to print, or any media for that matter.

Let’s  assume that they didn’t exist, or that no one was invested in making them better, in exploring technologies that took it that bit further. What are our options if we are to avoid paywalls on the internet, and a situation where the internet became a ‘country club for the privileged’? It would be great if everyone could pay for everything they consumed on the web, but that’s an elitist view that’s not realistic. Eric Schmidt openly admitted to Alan Rusbridger during an interview at the Guardian’s Big Tent Activate event in India last month that Google ‘loves advertising’. When you’re working on open platforms, there’s a responsibility that till today, display ads help fulfil. It doesn’t sound great but it’s the truth.

Of course digital marketing today is fricking hard, as Andrew Eklund says in the article. But creating compelling digital content and telling interesting stories can in fact be accomplished through display as it can through other platforms. Display isn’t just about a static MPU as much as mobile isn’t just about a smartphone but about mobility.

Also, display ads and good content aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The Louis Vuitton ads in Vogue definitely meet the discerning tastes of fashionistas. The problem is that most brands force-fit content into a standard format when as an industry we should be doing all we can to change it and make it better. That requires technology, creativity and investment, which together are not as common as we’d like to think. Kontera and Flashtalking are a couple of companies that are trying to experiment with the traditionally held notion of a display ad. We are a long way off from liking display ads of course, the way at least some TV ads are liked – they absolutely do need to have more relevance in our lives, and if we keep trying hard enough maybe we’ll get there.

Display ads can be the many lightweight interactions that support the big heavy brand interactions online. It isn’t right for every brand: Nike doesn’t need it at all; smaller shoe brands like Keds probably do. Byron Sharp’s ‘How Brands Grow’ logic applies here – brands need to grow the breadth of their base if they are to grow volume; not having signposts to the lovely online community you’re trying to build could mean it takes that much longer to become popular. I’ve seen great online communities in my time that have needed the support of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of TV support just to get people to hear about it, when that objective could have been achieved much more easily and quantifiably.

With so many things competing for people’s attention, out of sight often means out of mind. The smaller, challenger brands should put a stake in the ground and build stories that embed themselves in popular culture like Hiut Denim, in order to slowly become more and more profitable and challenge the dominance of one or two bigger brands. Every brand should have a passion and a purpose. But think about it: display could be the means to surfacing that end, to spreading the brand message. Maybe clicks results in funds for a new product, maybe they help shape a product. Think of CentUp, whose business model is based on people contributing to the otherwise sparse coffers of most content creators. Or Chrome’s Give As You Live extension where purchases (yes, clicks) see donations to charity happen simultaneously. Display could be a way of reinventing the web’s business model.

Eklund says ‘but in today’s marketing world, awareness sometimes comes less from advertising and more and more from socially connected stories and other scalable digital touches’. The definition of a scalable digital touch is subjective. A crowdsourced online community, a ‘scalable digital touch’ like My Starbucks Idea or Dell’s Ideastorm doesn’t necessarily work for all brands. To scale, a relatively small brand, a startup even, might want to experiment with things like A/B testing – testing of site content, of design, and even – wait for it – display ads, to assess user interest.

The beauty of the world in which we live today is the fact that we have the tools and skills to put all forms of media into action: from analog to digital, from print to cross-media services that might, for example, be a part of the internet of things.

We’re accustomed to seeing display ads in a certain way. It’s a bias, a human tendency well-covered by behavioural economics. What we need to do is stand up, put that aside and work together as an industry towards changing that. Because what the display advertising industry is is not what it was and not what it needs to be.

[PS: Also worth reading this blog post by Jody Biagini, also a rebuttal to Eklund’s post.]

Posted by Anjali Ramachandran, Head of Innovation, with Salva La Rosa, Media Manager



  1. Hello, and thank you for a really well thought-out response to my original post. One area that I’d like to clarify is that scale is relative to the size of the market an advertiser/brand is pursuing. For Coca-Cola, scale is the world, so socially connected interactions may or may not scale. For much smaller brand that serve a particular niche, scale can be accomplished through well targeted content and social connections. Thanks, once again, for responding!

    • Hi Andrew, thanks very much for your comment and clarification – quite agree with you regarding scale and size of brands/clients. I think it’s important to have these discussions, and am glad you took the time to respond! Best, Anjali (PHD UK)

  2. Pingback: ‘I don’t like the look of it’… (via @newyorker @dsearls) | One Size Fits One

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