Confessions of a media agency CEO on display advertising: 'We’ve tried to sex up something that was fundamentally broken.'

Online advertising is under the microscope, thanks in large part to the rise in ad blocking. The use of ad blockers continues to rise across Europe — 22 percent of U.K. adults online use a blocker, according to IAB/YouGov’s figures released today. Although it has caused some serious short-term headaches for publishers, there are some that have breathed a sigh of relief.

In this latest installment of Digiday’s Confessions series, in which we offer anonymity in exchange for candor, we spoke to a media agency CEO who has spent the last 17 years working in the digital ad industry, both client and agency side, and who wonders why we squander millions on display ad formats no one looks at, let alone clicks on.

Excerpts lightly edited.

What rankles you most in advertising currently?

It’s all “the display banner is dead,” when in truth it’s never really been alive. The industry has to perpetuate that the humble banner works because there are so many people employed off the back of it; so many businesses looking to sell or be acquired off the back of it, and so many tech players built on it. There’s a lot built on the premise that standard display advertising works.

Some works though, right?
Not all display advertising is created equally. There are cleaner ecosystems for display like Facebook and Google. When you start talking about things like fraud and viewability, you’re compounding the problem. I’m referring to standard display creatives bought programmatically or any other way, that appear on ad exchanges and networks. I’ve never seen any evidence that works for clients. It’s a rare thing to be able to say that a £4 billion ($5.6 billion) industry has maybe never contributed anything to a sale; and consumers wouldn’t miss if it disappeared tomorrow. Yet it’s still worth so much cash.

So has programmatic trading helped perpetuate the issue?
Programmatic for online display has been an exercise in polishing a turd. We’ve tried to sex up something that was fundamentally broken. It doesn’t matter how you buy it or phrase it. If it’s still something no one ever responds to, what’s the point? Whether I’ve bought this turd by cash or credit card, it’s still a turd. You can give me as many fancy tech presentations as you like. But to make it sound more sophisticated than it is, the myth that’s been perpetuated is that people need to get involved with it, because if they don’t they’re not sophisticated marketers. Whereas in many ways the opposite is true. If you fundamentally don’t understand what it is you’re buying, you shouldn’t be buying it.

So what would you say to those who say display performs well for them?
The reason display comes out in econometric models looking like it should be on the plan is because it shows incredibly high reach — and can show it’s dropped a load of cookies. But what influence has that really had? That’s why the results are often inconclusive or people say they’re clear on the role of display when they run tests. But I would question anyone who says they’re really clear on the role of display. The bottom line is the industry fudges the metrics to make it work.

You’ve had this conversation with clients?
Yes, we’ve tried. The odd thing is a lot of them agree — they also don’t see any evidence standard display works — and yet they just carry on spending money. Partly that’s because if you’re just running the digital part of the campaign, display is one of the main options in terms of where you can spend.

So where would the money be better spent?
Ad blocking could really help this. What we need is far fewer, more effective ad formats. It’s an unfair example but the reason TV ads are so effective is they take over the whole screen, and there’s one format. Just go to the IAB website and see how many ridiculous rectangles there are on there. There should be a currency of one or two formats we all use. Digital video also runs on a clean ecosystem, and is therefore a more impactful format.