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Advertising opinion

The problem with internet advertising

The online ad industry has done the advertising world a massive disservice, and there is no easy way to fix the problem...
Before the days of the internet, the media owner had the responsibility to create high-quality content for their consumer base. They had the task of not only creating engaging and interesting editorial pieces, but of placing high-quality memorable advertising in the optimum positions. Brands paid a premium for access to this audience, and had to comply by creating high quality advertising material. The concept was the same across media - be it print, TV or radio. Print, radio and TV ads are still the epitome of advertising creativity - so what went wrong when we went digital?

Along came the internet, surging in popularity in the '90s. Promising global reach beyond traditional media, accurate tracking and measurements, personalised targeting unavailable to mass media all at a fraction of the cost. Advertisers and brands flocked to it in droves. Indeed, advertising revenue is what keeps the internet going today - it is the lifeblood of search engines, social networks and publishers around the world.

But, there's a problem. Advertising that looks like this in print:

The problem with internet advertising

Now has a tendency of looking like this online:

The problem with internet advertising

Not that one ad is "worse" than the other is - the latter might indeed be getting superior performance in terms of overall lead generation, while the former is probably geared towards memorable brand awareness. One of the problems with internet advertising is that the landscape has become fractured and segmented. Even the most astute agencies have a tough time traversing through this mess - with data management platforms, demand and supply side platforms, ad exchanges, real time bidding platforms, and thousands of different ways of targeting audiences each with different metrics and reports, how can one not become confused? If you want to see how segmented it really is, simply have a look at the ad technology lumascape. And remember - each one of these platforms takes a cut from the overall ad pie.

Lost control

Another issue with internet advertising is that media owners have in many ways lost control of their own ad inventory. In the past, advertising had to be vetted and carefully placed among content. These days, ad networks run algorithms that target advertising to individual users. In principle, this works pretty well, but if you look at South African ad inventory across the major publishers, you get low-budget forex and insurance ads with very little variation. The digital battle for the lowest CPMs, low barriers to entry for new players, proprietary algorithms controlling ad displays and lack of sufficient quality control across the exchanges has led to this. The results are a commoditisation and cheapening of advertising that brings the entire industry into disrepute, and makes many brands wary of significantly investing digital.

Bring back the quality

This isn't a complete rant. I love the fact that digital is more measurable, targetable and personalised than any other media format. I love that social media has added a two-way conversational dynamic to brand communications. But we need to bring the quality back into cyberspace, and this will take a concerted effort from all parties. Media owners need to stop cheapening their digital properties with low-quality inventory, ad networks need to put better quality control measures in place and advertisers need to get more creative and be willing to place larger budgets into digital.

The IAB is trying to fix it in some ways by introducing rich media formats that allow for animations, video and larger ad formats. Publishers are also trying by rendering high-quality "pre-roll" ads before viewing an article. The ad networks are also getting better - you have new exchanges that are focused around quality content (like Outbrain) that have an active vetting process before each media item is loaded. We are heading in the right direction, and the digital advertising future looks very bright. As we see more consolidation and standardisation in the industry, we will see progress. Lower quality inventory will eventually be phased out, especially on premium publishers. Advertisers are also investing into more than just ads - they are creating mobile and social apps and mini-sites that create unique and interesting experiences for their customers.

For the time being though, we have to remain creative with the options available to us while understanding that digital is a crucial component of the greater marketing pie.

About Michal Wronski

Mike is technologist, entrepreneur and MD of Fuseware (, @fuseware), a company specializing in social media analytics and digital research. Mike's experience involves working with technology in its various forms to enhance the way businesses operate and disrupt the way brands connect with customers. Contact Mike at or follow @mikewronski on Twitter.
Kobus Rudolph
Kobus Rudolph
Not only on the Internet Michal. You should just listen to some radio ads. It is like the local Afrikaans music market. If one has a microphone, mixing desk and computer, you "own" a studio. You suddenly have become a copywriter, a producer and a lyricist. Excellence, quality and the correct use of the language just don't exist. And nobody seems to care. Thanks for those who are still serious - and those with experience, the background and high standards.
Posted on 7 Feb 2014 09:34
Justin McCarthy
Justin McCarthy
Nice to see a digital "diva" speak honestly about the shortcomings of digital. Lots of messy stuff to tidy up, but that's the job of the IAB and related bodies.
Print, outdoor and radio all went through the same process of professionalisation before being taken seriously. The sooner the better, and the sooner the metrics are comparable the better.
Posted on 19 Feb 2014 07:35
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