Rebuttal: Dear Faris, you’re wrong about banner ads

Ben Kunz is vp of strategic planning at Mediassociates, a media planning and buying agency.

Faris, I must politely disagree with your column, “Why banner ads are broken beyond repair.” Yes, banner ads may be a less-effective form of advertising communication than others, but holding tiny online billboards up to 30-second mini-movies on TV as a binary judgment that “one works and the other doesn’t” is as unfair as saying 10th-grade soccer players can’t score goals because they’re not Beckham.

Small levers and big players can both play positive roles in any ecosystem. Banner ads can work wonderfully, and we know, because we’ve measured their performance for hundreds of marketing clients. Let’s break this down.

First, banners get knocked because some are unseen. Welcome to advertising. All forms of advertising have waste or “blindness,” and all have anemic response rates; for instance, on average, the U.S. consumer is theoretically exposed to 6,000 TV commercials a month (calculated as 270 minutes TV viewing a day * 30 days * 30 percent commercials * 2.5 for 30-second spots and other short promotions), so if you respond to three products seen on TV a month, your response rate is 0.05 percent — about the same as banner ads. And I would challenge you to recall more than 100 of those TV commercials. Meet “TV spot blindness.” The same goes for newspapers where you don’t turn to page B6 or radio where you switch the dial for a commercial break. Someone is always paying for ads that never make it to your eyes or ears.

Second, response rates of all advertising tend to aggregate around a common mean of 0.05 percent (with direct mail the outlier), which makes sense since in a free market the supply of advertising dollars would meet the demand of ad inventory around a common balance point. If one form of advertising had dramatically higher response rates than another, dollars would immediately flow there.

Third, many marketers and publishers are getting great results from banners. Facebook makes the majority of its billions in revenue from what in essence are banner ads, thanks to its ability to offer incredible audience targeting far beyond what TV, radio, print or OOH can offer today.

And fourth, your allusion to newer forms of advertising such as “native” working better is aspirational, but the truth is because there are far more marketers wanting to intrude on any consumer’s life than he or she is willing to listen to, native and in-stream ad units will face the same constraints as social media — there’s not enough space to meet marketer demand without breaking the platform with clutter, so marketers must go back to one-way ad communications pushed to the side.

Yes, banners are a tiny, small visual medium with limitations. So … where do they work best?

Typically, banners are a terrific component when audience targeting is required — because digital advertising remains the most targetable form of advertising yet invented. Banners can be placed based on more than 10,000 data attributes, signals that people are in-market, job titles, geo-locations, even specific IP building addresses.

Banners also allow you to control frequency and storytelling in ways other ad media cannot. If we cookie your computer, and you are one of the 70% of people who leave cookies alone, we can then sequence a series of banners with controlled storytelling over time. Yes, most marketers do this stupidly with oversaturated retargeting. But dial it back, sequence the creative messages, and the impact on an audience can be amazing.

And banners can be synchronized across multiple devices — phone, laptop, PC, streaming radio, coordinated with TV — to provide cross-channel advertising communication that meet the emerging challenge of consumer concurrent device usage. A businesswoman who sees one ad at work and then goes home with her laptop and segues to a tablet can receive three touches across three different devices with a clever retargeting and home WiFi targeting approach.

We incorporate banner ads in almost every client campaign, using innovative tactics such as IP targeting of specific organizations in the business-to-business space (so a maker of engineering software can control frequency of ad communications only in your building, Faris Engineering, if you were the target prospect), job title overlays, creative-based retargeting that can lift the audience of the Wall Street Journal CEO edition to reach top executives when they go over to or, etc. Banners can work for both branding and direct response. However, they always work best in conjunction with an integrated media campaign, where other major levers (experiential, print, TV) do their own heavy lifting.

Banners are simply a modest but effective media in the communications ecosystem. In the competitive game of advertising, they are the 10th-grade soccer player who’s a bit underweight but just moved to town from Italy and can control the ball with pinpoint accuracy. They may not be as strong as Beckham, but they sure can score.

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