Tim Roan
May 10, 2023

Creatives screwed up online advertising. Here’s how we can fix it.

The internet deserves better.

Creatives screwed up online advertising. Here’s how we can fix it.

The advertising industry has done bad things to the internet.

Sure, some of it turned out useful and necessary. Know what you want? You search, make your choices and clickety click on the linky dinks. Love spending time on some thoughtfully-designed sites? They exist.

Let’s skip past the pre-roll ads (see what I did there?), because we’ve gotten pretty good at understanding that craft and taste gets watched and crap doesn’t.

I want to talk about the other stuff – the daily noise, the churn and burn of online advertising. Which, by the way, is now officially Traditional Advertising. Happy birthday Marketing Garbage!

Much like what humankind has done to the planet, over the past few decades we proceeded to make an ungodly amount of trash and dump it all over the joint.

Who’s guilty? Let’s roundup the usual suspects:

  • Banners. Tiny layout lies, as told by bots.
  • Paid social. A dull science experiment in best practices.
  • Emails. People receive too many and it comes with an unsubscribe button.
  • Texts. Unless it’s customer service, you’re better off sending nudes.


Marketing mixes aside, based on the state of ad budgets and relentless consistency, there’s a very real reality that the majority of our audiences are mostly seeing digital work. Provocation! What if...our best customers and prospects ONLY saw our online advertising? Egad.

If the bulk of your career is making, requesting or approving this work, I encourage you to ask yourself: Do you truly enjoy it? Is any of this going into your portfolio?

If you said no to either of those questions, then what makes us think humans enjoy seeing it?

As it is, nobody wants to see advertising on the internet. Accept that as truth. We’re probably going to have to wait a generation before people accept – or don’t resent – advertising there.

Online ads are the uninvited, dull guest showing up at a fun and intimate party. So, you have to be on your best behavior. You must be charming, gracious, helpful, a good conversationalist, armed with wit and maybe even bring the digital equivalent of flowers or wine.

How did we get here? Our best creative instincts were overruled by marketing scientists who told us it’s all one big A/B testing ground. That party is shifting – Apple knee-capped social media platforms and the scientists seem to be running on vapors.

Brand building in advertising is about creativity, now more than ever. We just roll with it differently in digital. It’s about being fun, while being quick, without being precious.

So, what do we do? Embrace the problem.

What if…digital was our only deliverable for ever and ever? And it had to make people fall in love with brands, as opposed to just counting as an impression? Let’s approach this like we want to win awards. Let’s make our industry quietly utter, “I wish I did that.” Let’s press for better (human, personal, fun, smart) work from everyone around us, including/especially our clients.

If we can do that (and I know we can, and I know we want to), the KPIs will still get checked, and the clicks will click, because we earned the smiles that can build brands.

Or! Let’s just do everyone a favor and stop prioritizing digital advertising. Airbnb recently moved more of their search marketing budget into brand marketing, and just posted their best quarter ever.

Now’s the time for the ad industry to clean up our mess, start having fun again, inspire everyone around and leave the internet a better place than we found it.

And perhaps someday soon, at a party, you can answer “what do you do?” with “I make advertising,” and that person will smile and find you even more attractive and talented than you already are.

Tim Roan is chief creative officer at McGarrah Jessee.

Campaign US

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