Rich Media, Online Ads, and Howard Gossage

Advertising may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but there is some evidence that the fish don’t hold still as well as they used to and they are developing armor plate. –Howard Luck Gossage

Howard Luck Gossage has become my hero. He’s almost an obsession, as anyone close to me would tell you. I encourage you to read “The Book of Gossage” and discover what advertising legends like Jeff Goodby have to say about Gossage. Goodby and the other contributing writers share a reverent tone that’s truly inspiring.

My first column on Gossage focused on his belief that consumer participation in advertising is critically important. If you can get someone to interact with your ad in some way, it’s more likely they’ll remember what you’re trying to tell them. This is common sense now but was a radical departure in Gossage’s time, the 1950s and ’60s.

As I’ve continued to research Gossage, I’ve discovered a tremendous volume of quotes that reflect the advertising revolution in which he played a key role. Unsurprisingly, many issues he weighed in on are extremely relevant today, in online as well as other media. You could easily apply the quote above to today’s marketplace:

Advertising may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but there is some evidence that the fish don’t hold still as well as they used to, they are developing armor plate. They have control over what type of ammo you have, when the trigger gets pulled, and how fast your shot moves. Oh, and they’re not all in the same barrel anymore.

Consumers have increasing control over traditional intrusive ad formats. Big-impact, full-page online ads have close buttons. The radical shift in television viewing habits, driven by DVRs (define), is all about consumer control.

Advertising is less about blasting a message for all to see and more about serving an empowered audience. They control the medium and the ever-increasing options from which to choose. Three big networks grew to four, and cable penetration exploded into a vast universe of niche programming. There may not literally be 500 channels on your system, but it certainly feels like there are. Programming specialization is remarkable.

The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad. –Howard Luck Gossage

We’ve all watched the average CTR (define) decline over time. As an online ad recovery drives media costs upward, efficiency becomes an ever greater challenge.

Rich media is a savior of sorts for now. It defied downward performance trends with results that continue to improve. But you have to wonder if (perhaps more accurately, when) that trend will cease. When does the novelty factor wear off for consumers?

Smart marketers realize a shiny new toy can only take them so far. Rich media won’t be the golden boy forever, especially the formats are abused.

Online media offer a tremendous opportunity to drive response (conversion, etc.) and to build connections with consumers that will ultimately drive brand forward. Existing and emerging technologies offer power to engage consumers in ways previously impossible. But remember: Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them.

Once, I wrote that advertising is a virus. Then, I referred to ad-blocking software, but this could be a much larger analogy. Consumers got fed up with TV spots, so they embraced TiVo. Gossage was fond of saying marketers’ first responsibility isn’t to the product or to the sales curve, but to the consumer.

Without the consumer, there’s nothing. And we must therefore respect that consumer. Advertising doesn’t have to be offensive and invasive; it can be a valuable source of entertainment and information. That’s the ideal we in the business of creating advertising should aspire to.

You can skirt the issue with a shiny new toy in the short term. Shiny new toys don’t last forever.

Related reading