Complexity and the Online Advertising Industry

In his Online Spin this week, Cory Treffiletti asked "Why Do We Make Things So Difficult?" (Link requires registration) That column went in a completely different direction than I thought it would, but it got me thinking more about how the complexity of what we do in this industry hurts us. Specifically, we have problems with client education and agency/client process that repeatedly put our business in jeopardy.

To hone in further on what I'm talking about, let's explore the status quo. If an agency puts together a print campaign, it can tell the client "we recommend P4CB insertions in the following 20 magazines" and the client will immediately understand what that is. That isn't always the case with online. "We plan to run ad banners across the following 20 websites" has a whole lot more complexity below the surface than a simple print buy.

For example, what sizes are the banners going to be? Will they be rich media or animated GIFs? How many impressions are we buying from each website and what share of voice will that give us on each site?

The intricacies behind a print buy are easily conveyed by the standard terminology. Not so for online. A 20-website buy has the potential for a lot more variation than a 20-magazine buy. Two web buys on the same roster of sites can look completely different, even if they use standard-size ads.

When you're working in integrated media, and a client is spending upwards of $50 million on broadcast and significantly less on interactive, it doesn't make much sense to allocate more time to understanding the issues inherent in interactive when that represents a much lower percentage of the spend. Many clients would not rather deal with the intimate details, until there's a snafu. Therein lies the crux of the problem. If you're a brand manager and you're dealing with distribution, in-store presence, big television buys, the FSI that drops next week, etc. the details inherent in interactive tend to slip through the cracks. You may not consider it an efficient use of your time to delve into the details of why every Flash banner on an online campaign requires a GIF backup. (And rightly so.) Unfortunately, attention to these types of details is what is required to make an online campaign run smoothly.

So the client pings its agency to ask what sort of creative it will be running. Instead of saying something simple like "Page 4-color bleed," the agency has to put together a complex spreadsheet, detailing a variety of sizes, technologies and caveats. Somewhere in the process of communicating these intricacies internally or to external creative agencies, the details tend to be overlooked. Someone will forget to produce GIF backups for the Flash banners, or they'll forget to adhere to the click commands standards in putting Flash ads together. And the process hits snags.

I'm just using the above as a convenient example. The bigger issue is that clients understand what a print campaign looks like. They know what a TV campaign looks like. They don't necessarily know what an online campaign looks like.

And this is because we do tend to make things more complicated than they really are. When we say something like "Flash ads" to a client, it should generate an understanding that there will be a banner, a skyscraper, and a rectangle of certain standard dimensions, GIF backups for all sizes, and standards-compliant click commands.

Instead, everything in interactive seems to be open to various interpretations, meaning that more errors are made and fewer expectations are met.

Traditional media doesn't really have this problem. There's much less detail work involved, more standardization, less time investment and therefore, smoother implementation. As I expose more of our staffers here (the ones who came initially from online backgrounds) to print, radio, outdoor, television and other more established media, they can't believe how comparatively easy these campaigns are to put together, present to a client and implement.

All of this isn't to say that I think everything in online should be standardized for the sake of making things run more smoothly. But I do think we're going to have a significant number of problems trying to get clients to fully understand interactive because such an amazing amount of detail-oriented work is necessary, and because clients are required to invest a good deal of education time for such a relatively small commitment of media dollars.

How do we solve it? Well, that's a toughie. I often offer clients the opportunity to sit in on topical "101" seminars we give on sub-topics in the interactive marketing industry (e.g. - Blogging and Online Communities, Paid Search, Rich Media, Ad Management, E-mail Marketing). But busy clients can rarely make those kinds of time commitments.

But that may be changing. While I'm not sure that every client wants to know the nuts and bolts, the more they experiment with interactive and launch online efforts, the more they realize they need to understand the nuts and bolts on some level so they can figure out the range of capabilities. They may also hit some snags they would like to avoid in future efforts. This may help us in the long run. But for right now, I think many clients could benefit from allocating whatever downtime they have to educational efforts.