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Rid the world of digital pollution

By Patrick Collister, CEO


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September 10, 2020 | 6 min read

In 2016 Google worked out that 600 million people had installed ad-blockers to their devices. It’s been called the largest protest movement in history. Four years on, that number must surely be larger.


In 2019, GlobalWebIndex reported that 48% of people think there are too many ads online. 47% think the ads are irrelevant and annoying. 44% say they are too intrusive. Frankly, I’m amazed those stats aren’t a lot higher because by my (not very precise) calculations, 99.9% of digital display advertising is utter crap.

This is a serious problem. Crap, you see, is toxic. People don’t just hate the ads, they hate the people who are responsible for them. In an Ipsos MORI survey eighteen months ago, ad execs were ranked below politicians for trustworthiness. Ad-Lib’s founder, Oli Marlow-Thomas, more reviled than the fibbers who’ve been leading us all astray on both sides of the Atlantic? ‘Fraid so.

Marketers don’t come out of this well either. After all, they are the people paying vast sums of money to spray the crap out across the worldwide web and to hell with the consequences.

Marc Pritchard, CMO of P&G, has said: “We tried to change the advertising ecosystem by doing more ads and all we did was create more noise.”

In short, advertising is cannibalising itself. It’s the law of diminishing marginal utility at work. The first few ads you see may influence you. In fact, the very first banner ad ever, in Wired magazine in October 1994, got a 44% click-through. But the more you see, the less you are influenced.

The problem is tech. In 2018, over 80% of all digital display advertising in America was delivered automatically. Remember how one of the reasons behind the banking crisis was the financial instruments they were using were (and are) so incredibly complex hardly anyone understands them? Programmatic is the same. Ad space is auctioned, sold and the ad placed placed in a nano-second. I get a nose-bleed just thinking about it.

It’s not just that there are too many ads, the problem is they are almost all either irrelevant or dull.

Google is painfully aware of what is happening. In hundreds, nay thousands, of presentations to marketers, Google execs tell their clients that creativity is responsible for 70% of the success of a campaign. Some decks say 80%. Not frequency, not reach, not laser-like targeting. Creativity.

Creativity is the degree of interestingness to your piece of communication. It is the degree to which a headline and/or an image attracts, intrigues and persuades the viewer to look, look closer and maybe even to consider the proposition.

My point is this: creativity is nothing more and nothing less than solving a problem. If your problem is that only 0.01 of all people who are served your ad actually click on it, it behoves you to be more interesting.

And nothing is more interesting than yourself. Why then, when the tech exists to deliver the right message to the right person in the right place and at the right time, are 97% of online ads not targeted to a specific audience segment? It’s even more mystifying when you learn that 54% of a big Google survey said they would actively welcome personalised messages.

Room to breathe

I think there are several answers to the question. First is the media/creative divide. Creative agencies still don’t really ‘get’ digital. And media agencies are in no hurry to help them. What they (the media shops) are selling is back-end expertise. Numbers. ROI. The stuff every CMO needs these days to prove to her CFO she’s doing a good job.

Everyone seems to have forgotten the front end

Second is fear. Or alarm. A lot of marketers think that personalisation is synonymous with pain. They believe it is incredibly complex to manage. They imagine mile-long email trails as they try to manage the process of generating hundreds of ads from a single template.

I ran a workshop for a cosmetics company – ‘Putting the C into DCO’ – and the marketing director was stridently insistent we did not talk about signals. In other words, taking the C straight out of it.

Not the most successful workshop of all time.

Thirdly, there is still a tendency for marketers to take assets from one medium and shunt them into digital, thinking it’ll be fine. Yeah, sure we can squeeze that press ad into a banner and that TV spot can run as a pre-roll, of course it can.


TV commercials are almost universally designed to a 16 x 9 aspect ratio for the widescreen telly in your sitting room. But online, over 70% of the people you push it to will be watching on their mobiles. Vertically. Not to mention the fact that most TV spots start slowly and build to a resolution at the end of their 30 seconds. By which time most viewers will have skipped 25 seconds earlier.

It all adds up to the inescapable truth identified by Forrester in October 2019 that the advertising business faces “an existential need for change.”

My ex-boss Sir Martin Sorrell sees this clearly. As do my colleagues Oli and Adit Abhyankar.

Fanfare of trumpets here. Ad-Lib to the rescue. This is neither the time nor the place for a full-blooded pitch, (email me if you want one of those) but if you’re a marketer, what you should know is:

1. Ad-Lib is obsessed with the front end. All the back-end wizardry (and there is a lot of it. Ad-Lib is actually a software company, not an agency) is designed to deliver better ads. Better ads work better. Not complicated.

2. Ad-Lib makes life easier. Within the platform you can manage all your assets and all your stakeholders. It saves huge amounts of time and angst.

3. We’ll make you look good. You’ll save a ton of money on production costs. And on top of those efficiencies, the real-time data can help your campaigns be more effective.

When he’s had a couple of pints, Oli likes to say that his mission is to save creativity. He’s an environmentalist, as am I. But the environment we’re anxious to protect is the worldwide web.

*Dynamic Creative Optimisation. But you knew that, didn’t you?

Open Mic Technology

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In an internet world overloaded with ad-blockers and switched-off consumers, there’s only one hope: creative, personalised and data-driven advertising. Content...

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