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“Right ad, right place, right time” is the wrong approach.

by Deacon Webster

It’s time that we disavow ourselves of the the notion that advertising’s platonic ideal is being able to serve “the right ad to the right person at the right place at the right time.” This idea has been eroding the industry and brands for a decade and at this point there is ample evidence that it is ineffective.

Marketers have long been titillated by the idea that every ad dollar spent could be tied to a sale. Fully attributable, targeted ads would put an end once and for all to the uncertainty lingering behind every ad buy. No more not knowing which 50% of your advertising is working. It wasn’t until the Internet and specifically social media began capturing troves of user data that this became a real possibility. In-stepped the ad-tech peddlers, some of which are multi-billion dollar companies, armed with claims that they (finally!) have the technology to bring the dream of perfectly targeted waste-free advertising to life. Simply plug in your audience, add in your assets and let the platforms optimize your way massive ROI.

The problem is, it doesn’t work. Because this is not the way that advertising works.

Here’s why.

Directing every advertising dollar towards reaching the “right person at the right time” might make sense in a world of limitless demand, but in reality, the number of people that performance marketing can convert is finite. Performance marketing can only CAPTURE demand, it cannot generate it because it’s constructed for conversion not persuasion.

Above: The performance plateau is reached when existing demand is tapped out.

In fact performance campaigns actually LOWER demand by being annoying and usually irrelevant.

Problem #2 – Defining the “right person” is not so easy. “Millennial moms” are an audience we encounter a lot, but there’s not much that the 17 million millennial moms actually have in common other than when they were born and that they’ve reproduced. In the chart below we see that Orangina drinkers and people who floss have more in common with each other than millennials. More specific, narrower targeting parameters could be employed (“orangina drinker” is not currently available) but in practice tight targeting leads to tiny addressable audiences across most platforms. (Facebook has dealt with this by simply lying about their numbers, which has led to a class-action lawsuit)


Problem #3 – The technology doesn’t actually work. The programmatic platforms use third party data to figure out who they’re going to serve ads to. It’s supposed to be verified data, but look at what happened when third party data were cross-referenced against the actual audience data:

See above: They can only divine gender with about 50% accuracy – same as a coin toss.

When you cross reference against two attributes, like gender and age, the accuracy drops to 24%.


Yet targeted ads cost MUCH more. Adding targeting to a video campaign increases the cost by 58%. Worth it? I think not.

Problem #4 Response media reduces creative to a set of best practices. To the platforms, the right ad is simply a product shot with an optimized CTA. It does not take on board the possibility that if everyone has the same data, and the same tools, the “right ad” is probably sitting next to 100 other right ads:

Fine then.
So what should we be doing?

1. Lead with brand messaging to drive demand.

2. Let the idea of a fully attributable media plan go. Advertising is cumulative, give it a little time, and focus on the important number: sales.

3. Get back to contextual media – A person is more open to the idea of a camping tent when they’re on than when they’re searching for a divorce lawyer. Context has value.

4. Video is still king for story telling and brand building. CTV and YouTube followed by Instagram stories are the best channels for this.

5. Don’t abandon acquisition media, but make it complementary. It should be conceptually connected to the brand creative, and it should only represent 30-40% of the total media spend.

6. Stop believing everything we hear from the ad tech industrial complex. They are not honest brokers as has been proven time and time again.

“Right ad, right place, right time” is wrong.