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Every January, my feed gets flooded with prediction pieces that paint a picture of revolutionary change—and I’m reminded of a perceptive quote by Jeff Bezos, who is frequently questioned on what will change in the next 10 years but almost never on what will stay the same. “That second question,” he said, “is actually the more important of the two, because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”
As a result, he doesn’t spend much time thinking about what will change—prediction is hard—and instead focuses his team on what won’t change, which in Amazon’s case is customer demand for low prices, fast shipping and extensive inventory.
Artificial intelligence or not, the ingredients of what makes great creative won’t fundamentally change. It has the same tasks as always: attract attention (stand out), build connection with the consumer (cut through), create branded memories (imprint), and drive audience engagement (deliver results).
There’s little doubt that this job, like many of ours, has gotten harder and noticeably more complex, but the core requirements remain the same.
What’s made that job measurably more difficult are the many gradual changes to our media ecosystem that have, slowly but surely, crept up on us. Like death by a thousand cuts, none of these is the sole culprit to what’s perceived as increased difficulty in achieving and maintaining creative effectiveness, but together they are responsible for increased complexity in the last mile of creative execution.
Everything, everywhere, all at once
One of these changes is driven by the appeal of advertising as a business model. In the last few years, it feels like every major consumer service or marketplace has jumped on the advertising bandwagon.
Amazon is one of the fastest growing ad networks, increasing ad revenues by 26% last quarter. Uber, Walmart and Netflix are now ad networks. Even Deliveroo launched an ad platform in 2022 with other grocery players, including Gopuff, following suit amid the explosion of retail media.
On one hand, everything-as-an-ad-network is a positive change for marketers: We have more ways to reach our consumers on the places where they spend their time and provide relevant messages that are closer to the point of purchase. (Many, but not all, new ad networks have sprung up in ecommerce spaces.)
On the other hand, it’s far from one-size-fits-all. Each of these new advertising environments, while digital, is governed by different rules based on desired consumer behavior in that environment—so the same creative message has to be packaged up differently on TikTok, Amazon, Uber and YouTube.
Playing the algorithm
As we scramble to make more content for these new digital platforms, we’re neglecting to internalize and operationalize two things:
- Algorithms are the gatekeepers that decide what ads people see online.
- The rules of the game on each platform are similar but not the same.
Most of us are still using the same processes to create, review, manage and deploy content. And this delta, between the new reality that’s slowly crept up on us and old processes, is where lies a creative-effectiveness bottleneck—but also opportunity.
Platforms have codified this user behavior through years of research into a set of best practices, a sort of metaphorical container into which you can put your ads that have returned better performance on their home turf. None of these best practices should surprise you—they’re deceptively simple things like branding upfront, sizing your ad correctly, setting your ad up for sound-off consumption, amplifying your message and brand with audio, and adhering to the length standards of that practice.
These best practices are called by different names on different platforms—TikTok’s Creative Codes, YouTube’s ABCDs, Meta’s Brilliant Basics—but the common denominator across all of them is simply known as the Creative Quality Score (CQS).
Between 2020 and 2022, brands spent more than 50% of their digital ad budget on ads that did not adhere to these best practices. Of 890,000 ads and $1.37 billion in ad spend, over $700 million (55%) was spent on ads that were unbranded, incorrectly sized, incomprehensible without sound or misaligned to user behavior on that platform (there’s that TV spot on TikTok again!).
Extrapolate this to forecasted digital media spend in 2024 ($450 billion), or better yet, your own digital media budget next year, and you’ll get a meaningfully large number of dollars being wasted on suboptimal digital ads, a number that’s likely to bring a scowl to your CFO’s already pained face.
You might be the exception to the rule—but here again, data says otherwise. The average CQS of a Fortune 500 brand’s digital ad is 20% (that means only 1 in 5 digital best practices is applied). When most brands take their first baseline measurement of CQS, they find that more than 80% of their budget is being invested in digitally unsuitable ads.
Winning the last mile of creative effectiveness
Reversing that trend delivers a one-two punch: It shifts your spend behind fit-for-platform content, which also happens to be more likely to perform.
Take Nestlé, which recently scaled CQS measurement across its 15,000 marketers across 2,000 brands in 200 territories and found that ads with a creative quality score above 66% had a 72% higher ROAS. Or Bayer, which publicly noted that increasing CQS drove a 107% increase in brand lift.
Marketers need to update their tools and workflows to automatically keep up with the changing content and format requirements of each platform to ensure their message aligns with the environment where it’s being received.
While I’m not one to throw my hat into the prediction ring, I spend a lot of time thinking about changes that are already “in the mail,” the things that are about to crest and “cross the chasm” from fringe to mainstream—like a train in motion, gradually coming into focus as it approaches. It’s not a shock when it arrives—we can see it pulling up to the station, or would have if we hadn’t been looking down at our phones—but it’s a real change, and it’s here, and we’ll miss the train unless we look up.