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Media Zone: The Twisted Logic Behind Online Ad Reforms

1 May, 2009 By: Response Contributor Response


Gloomy statistics illustrate that the online ad juggernaut is slowing. As publishers and advertisers gripe that viewers don't respond, media analysts seek solutions and scapegoats. According to Advertising Age, average click-through-rates have tumbled to 0.1 percent. While a direct response marketer's reaction would be simple — try to improve that response with different creative and media buys — many in the broader ad community blame the DR model itself.

Timothy R. Hawthorne
Timothy R. Hawthorne

An old proverb among developing economies describes a pot full of lobsters being readied for dinner. As the water begins boiling, many scramble upward towards safety. But right when it seems their fleeing brethren may triumph, the remaining lobsters at the bottom pull the climbers back in. In the potboiler of marketing, we see the same thing. Rather than strive to overcome negativity for themselves, certain industry crustaceans lash out instinctively against those who adapt quickly and would leave them behind.

A recent comScore study suggests that metrics attributing online response to "the last ad unit seen" unfairly ignores other marketing factors that contribute to influencing behavior. Thus, firms like Coremetrics seek more sophisticated measures that share the credit among variables for driving a purchase. But others simply advocate that advertisers abandon response metrics because they can't tell the whole story ... and return to CPM measures that never show the complete picture.


 

More aggressive are the arguments suggesting that the direct response model fosters unreasonable demands. Billing only for click-throughs has conditioned advertisers to want to pay only for impressions that conclusively perform, while simultaneously coveting the mass coverage of CPM strategies. While there is truth in this argument — what advertiser wouldn't want to have it both ways? — "Did my advertising work?" is the best question an advertiser can ask.

You can't reasonably expect companies to spend millions of dollars on campaigns whose success you can't gauge. Yet this unwarranted leap of faith under-girds the new online strategies that many now champion: reducing direct-response creatives in favor of (less accountable) brand-focused ones. To my way of thinking, this inevitably triggers an untenable sales pitch:

MAVERICK ONLINE AD GUY: I get it — your stuff isn't working. You need to do better. So forget about click-throughs. Nobody's clicking anyway. So just make the 1-second fleeting impression count. You don't need a clicked Web site to do your work. You just need your ad to do all the work itself!

BRAND MANAGER: I'm listening ...

AD GUY: We go the brand route. You're a brand manager. You know you keep throwing your name out there. So we do like the TV thing. "Beautiful people, hot imagery, sexy message, punchy slogan, one message — but don't say much about your product." Stick it in front of viewers like 20 times daily. Boom! You're front and center. You're into their subconscious like Old Spice.

BRAND MAN: Sounds good, but I have a question. You're recommending this because our current stuff isn't working, right?

AD GUY: Exactly.

BRAND MAN: How do you know our current stuff isn't working?

AD GUY: Nobody's clicking.

BRAND MAN: So a direct response metric is your reason to abandon direct response?

AD GUY: Uhh ...

Timothy R. Hawthorne is founder, chairman and executive creative director of Hawthorne Direct, a full-service DRTV, print, mail and digital ad agency founded in 1986. A 35-year television producer/writer/director, Hawthorne is a cum laude Harvard graduate.


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