The 728×90: Creative’s Worst Enemy

By Patrick Rust


The 728×90: Creative’s Worst Enemy

I would like to be the spokesperson for the abolishment of the 728×90, along with its bffls, the 320×50, 160×600, and every other ridiculous piece of online inventory out there.

Because digital shouldn’t be the worst medium to advertise in, and yet it is.

Creative and 728×90 ads

Every creative has experienced many frustrating moments in their career. However, there might be none so seemingly futile and utterly avoidable than the moment the 728×90 kills a great visual concept. The creative wonders “who the hell designed this ad format and decided, yes, this is a good visual space to influence an audience”? And rightly so. Because it isn’t. But we’ll get to that later.

It usually goes one of two ways: you’re presenting directions, headlines and layouts. You’re getting glowing feedback from your peers, your strategist, etc. Then a voice in the corner of the room, a voice from someone who knows they will soon become the enemy, says “I love it, but how will that work in a 728×90”.

Or, no one says that. Until your client does.

For creatives, it’s frustrating. But this article isn’t about just about creative. It’s also about media & how we got here:

  • To a place where publishers sell us garbage inventory and we buy it because we can track cookies and every once in a while, a piece of garbage inventory takes credit for a conversion on your website.
  • To a place where we allow good ideas to die because sorry, if we can’t communicate the concept in a micro-second, with a bright flashy button, then we need to go another direction.

Hm. Perhaps we shouldn’t buy ad space that no one pays any actual attention to?

Operating under the assumption that any half-decent marketer knows that the 728×90 is crappy inventory, let’s move forward and see how we can get out of this mess.

Time spent & smart targeting don’t matter

First, let’s talk about a couple of the prevailing arguments in favor of the 728×90 and its cohorts. Everyone uses, digital, a lot, and they spend a lot of time there. Great. Also, we can track these people and/or bots, we can learn their preferences, their behaviors, and we can target those who are more open to your selling proposition.

These are powerful selling points for digital, the medium. Unfortunately, it all breaks down when you reach the execution. It is a scientific fact that when people use digital, their attention span and ability to concentrate suffers immensely. Read this book, it is important. It is naturally harder to gain their attention during these moments.

Time spent does not equal attention spent

Therefore, ad formats should be more attention grabbing to achieve the desired effect. And yet, they sell us 728×90 ads. Even though we know they’ve been on outdoor lifestyle sites, digital makes it difficult to hit them with a breakthrough concept that hits them in a way only they would understand, and sway them towards our brand.

No, in fact the prevailing way to use digital is to try to pick people off at the bottom of the funnel with a simple, direct message, when they already have their brand preferences in order. Then the 728×90 can take credit for the transaction from the person who already has his mind made up. Good job, 728×90!

Question what you read, and beware the vendors

Let’s talk about the sellers for a second. There are so many articles out there that explain why programmatic advertising is the future. It’s important to question the source of these articles. The vast majority have a vested interest in the success of online advertising. They are vendors, they run ads themselves, or their personal success depends on the success of the industry.

Many of the vendors have data that speak to the success of their advertisers, their ability to drive real revenue for companies. To provide increased exposure, to provide real consumer insights. It can be compelling. And trust me, I used to be right there. I grew up in digital advertising, I ran the ad server, I saw the numbers. I was also young, inexperienced, and naïve.

Remember the lessons of economics

In economics, there is a concept called opportunity cost. This means that the true benefit of something must also include the cost of what you’ve given up in order to achieve that. In advertising, we deal with this every day, but we don’t think of it in economic terms. We evaluate how to use our clients’ budgets to achieve business priorities. We may decide to run $1M in search ads. Yet there’s a cost to that beyond just the $1M. The cost of missing other opportunities.

So it’s important to evaluate the spend and performance of 728×90&Co against the opportunities where you COULD be spending that money. And this is important, because we are likely up against stiff competition. This stiff competition might be taking advantage of other opportunities and optimizing their opportunity cost. These choices may lead to big picture advantages & long-term gains in market share. This might be happening even though our vendors swear 728×90 & henchmen are showing results. I’ve yet to see a vendor report that when included in a media plan, a 728×90 adds additional ROI vs. when that money is spent elsewhere. Which is the important thing. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that when Facebook needed to repair their reputation, the social media behemoth used good old-fashioned TV ads.

We must also consider the 99.9% of people that don’t click on our 728×90. People interpret messages differently based on context. It’s a fact according to behavioral science. Therefore, you must consider not just the people that are tracked to your website to purchase, but what are those other millions of people doing/thinking?

  • What signals are you sending about your brand?
  • Is it supporting your brand positioning or tying back to your brand promise at all?
  • Is it damaging it? It’s a question we have to think about when we buy cheap inventory that we even term “remnant” because no one wants it.

Agencies and clients can determine the future of ad inventory

Lastly, let’s explain how the client-vendor relationship works. The client gives the vendor money for a service, or ad space. As advertisers, we are the clients and we have all the power. We make the decision to spend the money, and we can take the money away.

For example, Adidas executives recently required their media agencies to move away from traditional digital media buying and chasing “vanity metrics” for World Cup 2018.

We know how this feels; we are vendors ourselves, and sometimes clients take our money away.

At ad agencies, we do our best to deliver amazing, one-of-a-kind work (our product), so we can prove our unique value as vendors. If we consistently provided them with a steaming pile of dung for headlines, we would expect to lose that business. And yet, when presented with a steaming pile of dung for advertising inventory, we shrug our shoulders and follow along blindly.

What agencies and clients can do

As an industry, we need to demand better inventory, that gives us an opportunity to bring our brand to life in front of an attentive audience. It should be the cost of entry, not the exception. The industry has been astronomically sluggish in providing advertisers with premium inventory a la print. With a few exceptions, online publishers seem to have a handshake deal to keep advertiser visibility low in comparison to traditional media. It’s time advertisers and clients band together and put the pressure on:

  • Stop buying crappy inventory.
  • Demand the best, spend money only on the best.
  • If they’re out of inventory, tell them you’re going to buy from their competitor.

Digital media should be the best place to advertise. It’s the worst. The opportunities available in a completely dynamic, interactive space should be mouthwatering. They aren’t. Let’s stop breaking our creatives’ hearts. Let’s kill off 728×90 and its evil minions.

To publishers – I’m happy to help; I’ve got ideas.


Patrick Rust
Patrick Rust

Patrick Rust

Director of Integrated Communications

Communications planning by day. Soccer player and Trader Joe's lover by night.