In praise of beautiful advertising

News – both the written word and video – has never been more widely consumed but the traditional business model that has supported its production is busted.

Online advertising rates are a tiny fraction of what publishers were able to command for space on the printed page and no one has come near to cracking online subscriptions.

Clay Shirky called it recently when he said newspapers are going to disappear this decade and journalists need to re-train urgently.

It’s not just newspapers and magazines who are finding it hard to make online news pay. Disruptive new players like the Huffington Post, Vox Media and BuzzFeed are still largely in growth mode. AOL’s corporate statements about the HuffPost highlight its growth and expansion into new markets and verticals, while its profit is still unclear. Ten-year-old Vox Media – having raised $61.1 million from A-list investors – is still very much in start-up mode.

Of all the major online news players, we probably have the best sense of Buzzfeed’s financial health. Following Andreessen Horowitz’s $50 million cash injection, Chris Dixon, says BuzzFeed now reaches 105 million people a month, is consistently profitable and will generate triple digit millions in revenues this year.

While much of the focus, particularly at newspapers, has been around getting readers to pay for content there is one aspect of the struggles facing the news business that rarely gets much attention. Why does online advertising have to be so ugly?

Compelling reading experiences

The iPad was supposed to be the saviour of printed media. The large touchscreen and Apple ease of use would allow publishers to create high resolution, visually inspiring, immersive reading experiences. The willingness of people to make small purchases using iTunes would ensure there was a healthy revenue stream to support digital publishing, even if 30 per cent would go to Apple.

Even Rupert Murdoch bought into the vision of a second coming of print. The Daily, News International’s iPad only newspaper, shut down after less than two years and had just 100,000 subscribers. It was reported to be loosing $30 million a year.

Sure some print titles like Spin, The Atlantic and Wired, have nicely enhanced the magazine reading experience on iPad. But most readers have simply abandoned magazines. Either in digital or in print, outside of the large global brands, there are only a handful of healthy magazine titles. Looking at the App Store suggests people are now favouring the variety and flexibility offered by systems rather than destinations, as Paul has pointed out previously. The top paid iPad news apps are not from old school publishers and are primarily about news discovery – pointing to other sources of news. The most popular free ones are from the publishers who hoped the iPad would provide a much needed revenue stream (but more importantly a shining example of paid digital content that could justify paywalls on the web).

Web sites have struggled even more than iPad apps to offer an enjoyable reading experience, in no small part due to ugly ads, of which more shortly. The notable exception is Medium whose widescreen design combined with a focus on the words has made it the go-to destination for longer thoughtful reads – exactly the kind of thing we used to pick up a magazine for. It’s also proven that you can have a compelling reading experience online. Even Medium’s iPhone app is a thing of stripped down beauty.

The reading experience on Medium is beautiful, so why can’t we do the same for advertising?

Beauty in advertising

Advertising can be eye-catching and complement rather than distract from editorial. And in print – particularly magazines – there are plenty of examples of beautiful advertising.

Absolut Vodka's Absolut magnetism ad
1960s ad for the Volkswagen station wagon
contemporary advertisement for a new Bosch drill
advert for the BMW i8 - the product is the ad
advert for Penguin audio books featuring William Shakespeare
Print ad for the first Macbooks using OSX referring to their Unix roots

Ugliness in advertising

Now lets look at what you are exposed to during an average day on the web:

Poorly designed re-targetting campaigns just makes the experience worse – you see the same ugly ad in all sorts of incongruous contexts even after you’ve made the purchase. Chances are I’ve already bought that water filter for my refrigerator or booked that hotel for a weekend break, so why do I keep seeing ads for them weeks after I first searched.

Compare the experience to print adverts and it’s not a favourable comparison. The print ads above are clean, attractive, strong. No animation or deceptive headlines needed to fool you into clicking on them.

Ads have become junk mail

Something strange happened to advertising as it moved online. While advertisers once joked ironically that “half their advertising spend” was wasted, when they moved their print ads online they no longer tolerated that. It became all about clicks and tracking with web ads expected to produce quantifiable results in a manner that only one other medium is expected to – direct mail.

Maybe its not surprising that we’ve come to view online ads in much the same way as “junk mail” that’s been stuffed in our mailbox. The online equivalent of a No Junk Mail sign on your letterbox is an ad blocker in your browser.

The closest online equivalent to the kind of brand advertising we see in high-end magazines is the corporate Facebook page. Yes, likes are a crude metric of whether a brand’s investment in the social network is paying off. Nike isn’t selling shoes directly from this page, or trying to tie activity on its Facebook page to specific shoes sold. But that hasn’t stopped it investing in professional photography and broadcast quality video to make the page interesting and engaging.

Towards beautiful online ads

Some online publishers have started to take a stand. The Deck ad network does a great job selecting only ads appropriate to its audience, although advertisers are limited to a 120×90 square to get their message across.

Quartz, the global business news site owned by the publishers of The Atlantic, says it is “committed to making the advertising on Quartz as high-quality as the stories that come from our newsroom”. Rather than display banners and other conventional ad units (which we’ve all become adept at screening out anyway) it sells “engage ads” which run between its infinite scrolling stories (see the Cisco example above).

Who is responsible?

If you’re running a news or other content-rich site, it’s your responsibility to choose the adverts you run. Newspapers have done this for years – vetting ads that don’t meet their ethical standards or political views.

The same principles that stop you accepting porn adverts should stop you displaying ugly, flashing, misleading ones. Your sales people will tell you that it can’t be done. The advertisers only have these horrible ugly assets that come in standard banner and skyscrape sizes. But what have you got to loose by sticking to your principles? With ad clickthrough rates hovering at around 0.1% or even lower in some developed markets, the revenue you are generating from them is pretty pitiful anyway; certainly compared to the visual vandalism being inflicted on your own content and design.

Even worse than ugly advertising is deceptive advertising. In a parody of native advertising we now have diet plan ads that masquerade as news stories. Fooling people into following a link is how you start a relationship with a customer? Really?

Native advertising which has been paid for by an advertiser but is displayed very similarly to editorial – like advertorial in the print world – seems to enrage readers even more. The AdDetector plug-in places a big red banner over these articles and if possible identifies who has paid for the piece.

Time for advertising innovation

Reading online can be a struggle – at its worst it feels like trying to read while drunk. There is constant distractions – links, animations, images, pagination – and the worst of these tend to be ads screaming for eyeballs. You’re fighting with a website to let you consume its content.

News isn’t broken. But the business model that supported it during the twentieth century certainly is. While there’s been plenty of innovation on the news production side there’s been comparatively little on the advertising side. We saw the first banner ads 20 years ago and they largely look the same today, just with much worse click rates.

The reality is that someone is going to turn a profit publishing a news site with ads that don’t look horrible and don’t try to fool readers. Some smaller outfits may already be doing this. But you can bet your bottom dollar they don’t employ sales people whose refrain is “this is what the advertisers are asking for”. Insisting on quality adverts would be a big step in the right direction.