Why Display Ads Are a Waste of Money—And What You Should Do Instead

Want to feel depressed about marketing? According to eMarketer, display ad spending is expected to grow a whopping 24 percent this year to over $80 billion.


Now, I made a couple of assumptions with that lede. First, that you don’t work in ad-tech (if you do, this post is probably going to piss you off). And second, that you’re a human being. Because humans almost universally dislike display ads.

So why are marketers still pumping nearly $100 million in display ads this year? I have a theory.

The precision myth

While traditional advertising—television, billboards, radio, sponsorships—could only be correlated with sales, display advertising promised marketers the dream of something that had long eluded them: precision.

Precision would ensure that data-driven marketers could easily optimize their way to hypergrowth.

Of course, that thinking was always BS, and we knew it. It’s common knowledge that 50-60 percent of ad clicks are accidental. Barely a month goes by without us hearing about a major brand realizing that their display performance was all smoke and mirrors.

The marketers at these companies who discovered this waste and made a change are brave as hell. It’s much easier to buy into the myth that your display ads are working.

Display is an incredibly low-effort way to spend your marketing budget. The attribution looks clear because $1 goes in, and $1.10 appears to come out. This entitles us to strut into the CFO’s office with our “I’m a data-driven marketer, give me a raise!” apron on. It allows us to sit on conference panels, telling our colleagues that precise marketing attribution is possible, as long as you close your eyes tight and click your heels together three times.


But what if we all admitted that our display performance metrics are probably BS and none of us know exactly why someone bought something? What if we focused on creating stuff our audience loves instead?

How we should spend our money

I was inspired to write this post because of an article by Michael Brenner, in which he argues that digital advertising should be replaced by content marketing.

I agree that brands should invest a big chunk of the pie on content. The compounding returns on content is massive. At Contently, we see the average client get nearly $1 million in organic search traffic value each year from the content they create on our platform, which is more than a 7x return on their investment.

But I disagree with Michael’s point that all digital ads don’t work. Some of these investments can work, as long as they’re part of a smart content strategy. Here’s why:

1. Not all digital ads are made the same

A few years ago, Hubspot did a survey on which types of digital ads people disliked the most. Ads that were intrusive to their experience—like pop-ups, mobile ads designed for accidental clicks, pre-rolls, and banners—topped the list.

But non-intrusive ads that had contextual relevance—like search ads on Google or in-feed social ads on LinkedIn or Facebook—were at the bottom of the list or not on it at all.

My beef here is with intrusive display advertising, which sees its performance inflated by bots and accidental clicks. That doesn’t mean all digital advertising is bad. In fact…

2. Digital ads and great content can be a powerful combination

We should be thinking about using digital ads as a tool to reach our target audience with content and experiences they’ll like. For instance:

  • Using LinkedIn and Twitter ads to reach your audience with ungated, top-of-funnel content that makes their lives better. (You can also use Facebook ads, if funding an incredibly dangerous disinformation cesspool is your cup of tea.)
  • Promoting your virtual events on LinkedIn or in industry newsletters.
  • Retargeting readers of your content hub with a personalized video in their social feed so they can learn about your product and why it might help them.
  • Buying Google ads for key search terms that you’re trying to rank for organically, and promoting helpful organic content.

Renowned researchers Les Binet and Peter Field have identified two main levers of marketing: long-term brand building and short-term activation. Their research shows that marketers should invest most of their resources in long-term brand building since it boosts sales much more efficiently over time. But marketers should still use short-term activation—advertising that provokes an immediate response, like a promotional offer—to strategically convert the brand equity they’ve developed into sales.


The right combination of ads and content can be used for both levers. Promote high-quality top-of-funnel content to build the brand. And then promote awesome product stories for short-term activation. This isn’t easy to do. You need great top, middle, and bottom-funnel content to pull it off. But if you cut wasted display spend, it’s a lot easier to pull off.

This approach could usher in the next great era of marketing. We can take a holistic view of marketing success and care more about long-term growth and returns than short-term attribution. We can also take that display budget and spend it on content that people actually like.

Getting to this point will require a shift, but think of how much better marketing would be.

Image by Keith Bishop

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