Episode 98

Handling Advertising with Mark Boulton

March 5, 2015

Advertising is a major business model for the web. Yet most ads arrive from a parallel universe, an industry of CPMs, ad units, and inflexible demands. As designers and developers, how can we best work with ads on the web? Mark Boulton joins Jen Simmons to explore.

In This Episode

  • The challenges of designing around advertising
  • Cyberpunk fears of where corporate spying might take us
  • How we got to where we are
  • What's changing in web advertising — and what's not

Whilst the product and design and editorial direction all may be going in the right place, the ad sales can put a kibosh on all that. They can just say, "We don't know how this is going to affect the bottom line." As soon as somebody says that in a meeting with a bunch of directors or an executive team, things just get complicated.

Transcript

Thanks to Jenn Schlick for transcribing this episode

Jen

This is The Web Ahead, a weekly conversation about changing technologies and the future of the web. I'm your host Jen Simmons and this is episode 98. I first want to say thank you so much to our sponsors today, DreamHost and Code School. I'll talk more about them later in the show. And I want to say thank you to Pantheon for powering the new Web Ahead website. You can check them out at pantheon.io. Bandwidth has been provided by CacheFly, the fastest, most reliable CDN in the business. cachefly.com.

Today we're going to talk about advertising. We're going to talk about advertising on the web and all of the craziness that can come with trying to figure out how to design a website that has advertising on it. Especially for, say, a big media company that has a lot of stuff behind what's going with the ads. We'll talk about other stuff, I'm sure, with our guest today, Mark Boulton. Hi Mark.

Mark
Hello.
Jen
I'm so glad you have you back on the show.
Mark
It's lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.
Jen
It's been forever!
Mark
I know, it was, like, number 9, right? Something like that?
Jen
Yeah, I'll go look it up right now.
Mark
Six, or something?
Jen
Four? No, not four. Nine! You're right.
Mark
Yeah.
Jen
November 2011.
Mark
That's a long time ago.
Jen
I can't believe how long ago that was.
Mark
That's like 90 years in web years.
Jen
And you came on and talked about grids, because I love talking to you about grids.
Mark
Yeah. That was fun.
Jen
We could talk about grids today. I used your tool, Gridset App, on the new Web Ahead website.
Mark
Ah, it's good, isn't it?
Jen
Yes. People were very excited, I think, because I tweeted about the site, and then later in the day, I tweeted about, if you click command + g on a Mac, you can look at the grid on the website. You can see the lines.
Mark
That's a cool little feature.
Jen
I thought I'd leave it on there.
Mark
Very cool.
Jen

Yeah, it's nice.

You are the founder of Mark Boulton Design, which you sold to Monotype this last year.

Mark
I did.
Jen
And now you work for Monotype.
Mark
I do. It's been almost a year. We were acquired in April of 2014. It's been pretty much a year. It's been really interesting. There's a lot of interesting things, a lot of interesting work going on at Monotype.
Jen
Nice.
Mark
Yeah, yeah. Very varied. All really pretty cool.
Jen
One of the projects you've been working on is helping them figure out — or them helping you figure out [laughs] — advertising.
Mark

Yeah. Last year, Monotype launched an initiative trying to get the industry move towards HTML advertising, rather than Flash. Which, surprisingly, still happens. Also, dumb, image-based advertising. The idea being that web fonts in ads gives a better cross-device experience. It's scalable type. It's more legible. It also opens up possibilities for personalization and dynamic text within ads. Which you can do with Flash right now — there's dynamic image generating that happens on the server. But it's kind of crazy, antiquated technology, when you could just have an HTML ad and HTML text. There's no reason why not. There are some hurdles to overcome.

It's been a really interesting six to nine months of learning more about that industry. Learning more about where they are, where they're headed, what the challenges are, and how it all works.

We seem to look at the ad industry as something similar to us because they use the same underpinning technology. It's the web. In reality, they are a completely different world in the internet. It's just not related to us at all. The ads just appear on the websites and products and applications that we build. In terms of how they get there, the processes, how the money flows, and the people involved, it's very, very different. It's very similar to old school media buying and old school advertising. There's many more parallels with that world than there are with ours.

Jen
I think for many of us, most websites don't have lots of ads all over them. Most of the people who are making websites, it's not really something that people have to work around. But for anyone who's working on a big media company website — of which there are quite a few, and they hire a lot of people — it sounds like the ads can become a really serious hurdle on a project. A decision is made not to make a responsive website because the advertising is not going to work in a certain way on the responsive website. Or there are things that would be a great design for the users, that are not done, and other decisions are made instead because it pleases the advertisers more. Or it fits a certain kind of model that the advertisers are used to. Will you talk about the challenges you've faced with clients in the past? Where the ads just got in the way?
Mark

Yeah, yeah, sure. This goes back well over a decade. And it still happens today. I'm talking about editorial sites here — networks, newspapers, big publishers, broadcasters. That kind of thing. They're giving away their content pretty much for free. A lot of this is high-quality journalism that somebody has to pay for. The advertising represents the bottom line because it's really hard to make paywalls and subscription-based content work. Because we've had it free for so long. That business model is really difficult to make stick. So ads are still around, and ads are going to be around whilst users still expect content for free.

The challenge becomes when you're working on a new project and the ad sales teams and the sales department get involved. People are generally very skittish about changing. Even a slight change. A slight change could equal millions of dollars a week. It's the bottom line that gets affected. Any change is therefore kind of unknowable and really scary.

Whilst the product and design and editorial direction all may be going in the right place, the ad sales can put a kibosh on all that. They can just say, "We don't know how this is going to affect the bottom line." As soon as somebody says that in a meeting with a bunch of directors or an executive team, things just get complicated.

For example, with responsive design — this was fairly early on, 2011 and 2010 — responsive design was on the table of something this client wanted to do. But because of the ad sales, it wouldn't work. It wasn't so much the technology that was a problem, it was the way that ads are bought and sold and ad sales teams work with their targets, with their turnaround of ads, with the way media buying works with inventory. There's this whole other supply chain that would be affected by the decision that we'd make to go responsive.

All of a sudden, it would affect that pretty well established way of working. It was a straight-up, "No." [Laughs] It was that black and white. "No, we can't do this. We can't make it work." All of a sudden, that whole approach went out the window. But you still got the constraints of designing around fixed sixes. Sometimes that can help. Sometimes it can give you constraints to drive your layout and drive your grid.

But when we're talking about responsive design, and ads affecting things, it's not the physical ads that affect it. It's the teams and the infrastructure and the money that causes this friction.

Jen

I think it's funny. Someone who's listening to this show is going to open up a tablet — an iPad, maybe, or a phone or something — tomorrow, and click on a link, maybe from Twitter, and try to read something. And the ads are going to get in their way. There's going to be these pop-ups and overlay ads. Lots of times, I'll see the page starts to render and you start to read the article and then the ads load. As the ads load, the article jumps. So it jumps three or four inches down the page. Ok, let me scroll and readjust it so I can see what I was reading. Then it jumps three or four inches back up to where it was before. [Laughs] As a user, it's just like, "How in the world could anyone think that this is working? How in the world could anyone think that this is maximizing advertising dollar profits?" If you could fix these things that are broken — that are making me hate your website and making me close that tab or close that page or go back to Twitter and get off that link. Because the ads are so obnoxious and so frustrating and so slow and heavy and technically overwhelming the machine.

Hearing you describe this meeting where people are, understandably, afraid to make a change and wanting to be very careful. It could mean millions of dollars and it could mean whether or not lots of people lose their jobs. Whether or not the business is able to stay in existence. Yet, there's somewhere, like, "Can't you tell that these overlays are making people hate you?" [Laughs] Like, it's not that much of a risk.

Mark

I totally agree. I think there's a few things in there.

First of all, I think a lot of the display advertising we see right now is really dumb. It's just pictures that are thrown at you with a faint hope. There's some demographic stuff going on in the background with the type of user that frequents the site that you're on. But it's still pretty dumb. There's a vague hope that this is of interest to you. It's only, at best, kind of vague.

The second thing is, I think that a lot of ad inventory is not sold on whether or not it's useful or a pleasurable user experience or even if it's a good ad. A lot of it is sold on inventory. It's just impressions. It's bulk buying. It's throwing in a slot. I'm sure there's going to be some return on investment. I'm sure there's going to be some measures to see whether or not those ads are successful. But a lot of those measures, especially with the higher turnaround inventory on some websites, is pretty antiquated. The base metrics haven't really moved on much in a decade.

Which is all a bit... worrying, frankly. [Laughs] I'm vaguely optimistic. I don't know if there's a romantic notion in me. I'm not completely anti-advertising. I think the right advertising at the right moment to the right person can be incredibly valuable and enriching and useful. I remember when I was studying this in design school. Even with print advertising, the Benetton ads that ran in the early to mid 90s were pretty shocking.

Those rich stories have never been translated well to the web. I don't think they could be. What happened was, we took one medium — newspapers or magazines — and we slapped the exact same business model onto the web. Things didn't really change. In the same way that we took the fold, we took display advertising and inventory slots in the same way that they had it in newspapers and magazines.

Over time, I think that's done more harm than good, for the advertisers and for the brands and products and services that are trying to use this medium to sell things. Because that's what advertising is. It's been to the detriment of that. That's a real shame. The whole infrastructure is set up around this aging paradigm.

What is really putting the cat amongst the pigeons right now is the effect of mobile devices. It's starting to change. That's the driving movement away from Flash towards HTML.

Jen
What do you see changing?
Mark

I see ads getting a lot smarter because they'll know more about us. The most exciting thing for advertisers that's coming up is the ability for devices to access more of the browser sensors. The device APIs. The devices will know more about your environment and they'll be able to pass that to the browser and therefore to the advertiser.

Now, this is all blue sky, without any privacy issues. [Jen laughs] That's a whole other can of worms that I'm not going to talk about. I think there are a lot of very challenging things there. The more the device knows about you, the more the advertising could be more targeted and useful. I don't know how exactly. But that's one thing that I see being very useful. To make advertising work for me.

If you're in the right environment, advertising can actually be quite pleasurable. I'm not talking about on the web. I think it rarely is on the web. But in some instances, it is. I think with mobile devices, maybe that's the start of it. The more that they're aware of where you are and what you're doing, the more those ads can actually be meaningful.

Jen
There's something creepy there, though. [Mark laughs] It is interesting to try to imagine a clearer vision. A specific vision of what it could be, or should be. One thing that I think many of us experience is... I was shopping for a refrigerator yesterday. I was on Home Depot's website, shopping, shopping, shopping, shopping, and then I would need to go and do something else. Then I would notice, of course, as I was somewhere else on the web, suddenly all of these ads were showing me refrigerators. In fact, they were showing me the very refrigerator that I had been looking at. At some point I realized, that [particular] refrigerator is too big for my apartment. [Laughs] And I was looking at other ones, but it kept showing me that same one that's way too big. Then I bought a refrigerator — or my landlord is going to pay for this refrigerator — and it's still showing me the same refrigerator. I'm like, "I don't want to see that refrigerator." So, in a way, it's helpful, and in a way, it was chasing me around. It wasn't presenting me with information that I needed before I needed it. It was like your little sister who's annoying you, trying to play. "I want to play! I want to play!" and you're just like, "Go away! I already did that! I'm not doing that anymore." [Laughs]
Mark
Yeah. That's really annoying.
Jen
It feels rudimentary.
Mark
Yeah. And that's probably pretty cutting edge at the moment, right? And it is very, very rudimentary.
Jen
But also, I don't like it. Maybe I'm wrong. It seems like I'm in the minority. But I don't like that. I was at homedepot.com, shopping. I don't want wherever else I was — probably Facebook — showing me refrigerator ads. To me, that is a breach of confidentiality. If I went into the Home Deport, the physical store, and then I went into a restaurant and the bartender was like, "Hey! I heard you were at Home Depot earlier. Did you have a good experience? Are you glad? Which refrigerator are you buying?" I'd be like, "What is going on?" [Laughs]
Mark
I wonder if we're a little more guarded of those kinds of privacy issues. I wonder if generations to come... not even generations, even in 10 years. Because Facebook and similar products and services have done a grand old job at lowering that bar for privacy, constantly coming up against it. They're really on the line, a lot of the time. I wonder if in the next five or 10 years, people will be like, "Eh." It becomes almost expected.
Jen
I think it is that these corporations will move culture. They'll change culture. We're the frog in the pot and the water is slowly getting hotter and hotter and we're just like, "This is nice. I like this water." [Both laugh] The movie Vanilla Sky came out [in 2001] and Tom Cruise's character is walking around and there're ads popping up in space, right in front of him. They know his name and they're like, "Hey, hi, good to see you so-and-so." When that movie came out, everybody was like, "That would be awful! I don't want that, that's horrible!" And now it feels like, "Oh, yeah, of course that's how things are going to work."
Mark

That's it. If you've read any kind of cyber punk or that kind of literature... that was written in the 80s, but it's got an awfully good knack of coming true these days. [Laughs] That smart, deeply personalized advertising. If you read any of that kind of literature, it's just pervasive. It's everywhere. The ads come to you and they know what you want, when you want it.

At one point, you have to ask yourself, "When do they stop becoming ads and they start becoming recommendations?" Based upon your social circle, your economic background, your demographics. All of those kinds of things. There's an interesting blurry line, philosophically, about advertising versus social recommendation. It's all going to go into this big fuzzy melting pot, I think.

Not just on the web. We talk about publisher and newspaper sites, and I still default to this desktop, computer mental model. When, in fact, the reality is not that at all. [Laughs] It's watches, it's TV. For such a long time that whole world was prophesied as around the corner. But I actually feel like we're right at the start of that happening now. We're going to see advertising change to adapt to that new world.

Jen

Part of the ethics of journalism, as its been driven by advertising — and this is long before the web — is to be really clear about what is sponsored content — as they might call it in a magazine — versus what's an ad, versus what's the real magazine content or the real news story. On television, you're watching the news, and then there's a commercial. You can tell when it's the news and when it's the commercial. With sponsors on this show, I would much rather go and find — at times, I've been the person pursuing sponsors — a sponsor who I believe in. Five Simple Steps, your publishing company, was a sponsor of some shows. I was really thrilled because I genuinely, absolutely believe in Five Simple Steps and wanted to promote your work as well as have your money help promote my work. There is that sense of personal recommendation in that sense of things I believe in. I like that. I'd rather it be more custom. I'd rather tell people about things that I think they should be using — tools and software and books — than a Maytag refrigerator commercial in the middle of this podcast. [Laughs] In a way, it's a really good thing to have it be connected and recommended. But it is so blurry and I feel so conflicted about it all.

Mark

It is. You mentioned an interesting point there about ethics. Just yesterday, I had a newspaper — what I thought was a newspaper — come through the door. It wasn't a newspaper at all. I live in a county called The Vale of Glamorgan in Wales. It said across the top, set typographically like a masthead, "The Vale Chronicle." It's all laid out like a newspaper. Looks like a newspaper. I was reading through it and I thought, "The tone is a bit weird. This all feels a bit odd." Halfway through it, I realized it was a party political newspaper, designed to look like a county publication. Which is really, really dreadful.

What I'm saying is, these kind of ethics, they're undermined, left, right and center. It comes down to the reader to make that value judgement. Is this something that I want to read? Is this something that I want to watch or buy? I think those lines are going to get increasingly blurry, between, "Am I being sold to? Or am I being recommended this by my social circle? Or because of what car I drive?" or whatever. The more we talk about it, the less it becomes about advertising and more about ethics and privacy. Which I am no expert on.

Jen
In the parallel universe of the people who do web ads, are they talking about these issues? Are they worried about them?
Mark
Yeah. I think they are. I think they are concerned about some of the privacy issues. But in the conversations that I've had, they've not been too focused on this. A lot of my conversations over the last nine months have been really focused on HTML advertising and what the barriers are for a wholesale shift towards HTML and web fonts. Trying to understand the marketplace, trying to understand who the decision makers are, where the money flows, who's driving change or not, where the barriers are. It's been more at a logistical level than a philosophical level.
Jen
So what is keeping them continuing to use Flash?
Mark
There are new things. There are a lot of people who aren't using Flash right now. There are a lot of publishers and agencies who are using HTML. They're either using some of the Rising Stars HTML standards that the IAB has produced guidelines for. They're creating bespoke HTML advertising as well. But they take a long time. They cost a lot of money. Particularly if they're responsive. There's a skills gap in the industry. There's a whole bunch of people who know Flash really, really well and have just done Flash for 20 years. That's like moving away from Photoshop or InDesign. It's a big, big cultural shift and massive challenge. A lot of the Flash work as been on an incredibly high turnover. People may have 16 or 20 ad campaigns a week to produce. They get sent the assets from the media buyer and planner. They have to really crank these things through. There's a big templated approach. Like designing websites, it goes from one end of the spectrum to the other. There are factories and there are very bespoke little agencies doing really, really wonderful work. But that wonderful work takes a long time to produce.
Jen
Do you think that will change with the HTML ads? Do you think it will be very similar, just different templates in the way that you can crank things out?
Mark

I do. The other complication is the ad networks themselves. Actually creating the ad is only one part of it. You also have to get it into the network that it's going on. The campaign has to be tagged up and created in order to run on that network. There are a lot of tools out there that allow designers to either input a PSD or create natively in a web app or web design tool. You can create ads that way, and they're also hooked into the networks. You can publish via there. So there's a creation and publish workflow. That's another challenge. To be able to get the ads into the networks themselves.

There are a whole bunch of people doing this already. They're gathering speed and growing really rapidly. It's happening. It's starting to happen. But there are challenges along the way. There are challenges with web type, there are challenges with performance. Going from Flash, which would be one server request, to HTML, which is a whole bunch of things. Performance becomes a real consideration. In that industry, there just isn't the expertise, necessarily, that there is in the web industry.

Jen
Having an advertiser load, basically, a tiny little website with their own web fonts... I mean, we're already limiting ourselves. "I want to use four weights of this typeface. But I'm only going to use two because I don't want to load four different faces in this family. But, oh, right, the ads are loading another five." [Laughs]
Mark

Yeah. At the moment, some of the HTML ads that are being produced don't have those very aggressive bandwidth caps of a lot of the 65k, MPU sites. They don't have caps like that at the moment. They're, like, hundreds of kilobytes. Even still, hundreds of kilobytes is a challenge when you're trying to load video and images and this thing and that thing.

With type, there's subsetting. You've got to look at subsetting the type down to just the characters that you're using in the ad, if the text is static. If the text is dynamic, you can't do that, because you don't know what type is going to go in there. Also, language support. If the text is dynamic, you need to make sure that you've got extended Latin or whatever in there. That's a file size consideration, and a performance hit, as well. Thats just type. [Both laugh] There's a whole bunch of other stuff in there around images.

You're absolutely right. It's a little website within a website. When the constraints — on file size, particularly — are so hard, you have to work doubly hard to create something that is performant, does the job creatively, does the job from an advertising perspective, but gets in under, say, 65k.

Jen
65k. That's an amazing constraint.
Mark
It hasn't really moved in years and years and years. We did some example ads for the initiative we've been working on. They took ages. I mean they took ages. Because of those constraints. Also, if you get a web font and you want to subset it down to six or seven characters, some license agreements won't let you do that. You're not allowed to manipulate the font that much. So there are commercial considerations in there, as well.
Jen
People can check them out at htmlads.monotype.com. You built this whole website with some examples. And these ads are all responsive. That's the other thing. The IAD standards have been fixed sizes forever. You have this fixed banner across the top of a page or this fixed square that fits in the sidebar. Now the movement is to say, "Hey! Sites aren't fixed anymore. Let's rethink ads and not have fixed ad sizes." These ads are responsive; they could fit into a sidebar or header that's constantly changing size. At different sizes, the ads morphs. The photo moves around or the text changes size or it goes from the center to the side.
Mark
They were an absolute headache. [Both laugh] They really were. My team did a lot of that work. They were a real headache. Even down to some of the art direction. You forget, thinking about performance, about the device API stuff — some of those ads have geolocation and that kind of thing. One of the most challenging things — it was so ridiculous, it took part of a day — was choosing an image for a background. Because it has to work in this banner shape, as well as working in a rectangle, as well as working in another shape. A skyscraper shape, for example. It has to work extremely thin horizontally, extremely thin vertically, and a square in the middle. Choosing an image that works for all, but is optimized enough to get under that 65k limit, whilst retaining quality, whilst trimming dead space within the image. We didn't want to swap any out with JavaScript at breakpoints because we didn't want any more server requests. Just that simple act of art directing the image and getting the right image was a total headache. We didn't really come up against that problem until we came up against the problem. Can you imagine doing 20 of those a week? There's just no way. Not at the moment. Not without tools that can streamline it. Not without the industry moving forward much more than it is right now. Which I think will happen. I really do think it's only a matter of time. There are a lot of people working to make that happen, particularly on the tool side. People like Flite, Celtra, and Responsive Ads. These guys all have tools that help people create and publish responsive, HTML ads. It's gathering traction but it's taking a wee while because it's a 20 year old industry that hasn't really moved much.
Jen
As you say 20 years, I'm like, "Wait, what? How is it 20 years... oh, right, the web is 20 years old." [Both laugh]
Mark
I know, I keep having to remind myself of that.
Jen
"What?"
Mark
I know, it's crazy, right?
Jen
How could things be that set in stone?
Mark

Yeah. It's pretty crazy.

One of the interesting things was how we saw this clash of worlds when web type came along. We had the web industry, the type design industry, and the graphic design industry. Web type was the coming together of those three industries. All of a sudden, you've got a lot of web designers exposed to typography that never were in the past. The same with graphic design. Those three worlds collided five years ago. I think the web is in a way better place because of it. I think designers are way better because of it. I think that's going to happen in the ad space. These two industries are going to naturally come closer together. That's only going to benefit both of us, I think. We'll get better advertising, more cross-pollination of people and ideas and work. It can only be a good thing.

Jen
You said it before: a lot of what we've seen for advertising on the web is right out of magazines. Open up any old magazine and take the ads out of the magazine and shove them onto a webpage. But the web is not print. We've spent 20 years trying to explain to people how the web is not print. How you can do so many other things. A webpage is dynamic; you can resize the type, you can have geolocation or animation. You can have all kinds of things. I mean, ads definitely... animate. [Both laugh] But other than animation, there's not a lot that ads have been doing. They've been these little rectangles in the sidebar. Again, I'm conflicted. Not that I want them to do something else. I kind of want them to stop animating and start being quieter and hide. Let's not even put them in the sidebar, let's put them in the footer. Let's just get rid of them altogether. [Laughs] But how could we make ads that are pleasing to our readers or our users and add value to their experience?
Mark
Right. You see this in some traditional publications. Where the ad buying is very tightly controlled, or the creative department are involved. There's a cohesive feel for a magazine. Particularly in magazines. This happens quite on the high end. Because the agencies have to change their ad to fit the publication. If Rolex or whoever is advertising in a magazine, they're going to have to change their ad to fit with the overall holistic design of the magazine. That's when you get a better return on that investment. Because it feels like it belongs and it feels like it's for you. Because you bought that magazine.
Jen
It feels like someone took the time to care to make what they had to say and what you want to hear, fit together. Instead of a random robot machine yanking an ad that was made for who-knows-where and jamming it into the middle of your experience and it totally interrupts what you're doing. Even subconsciously. It's visually interrupting what you were doing in this magazine. I hadn't thought about that.
Mark
I think that's happening in places. There are publications and agencies that are producing highly bespoke ads for web properties. But they're far and few between.
Jen

I have this talk that I've put together about layouts and layout design that I'll be giving quite a lot this year. In it, I talk about Vogue magazine. I contrast how amazing and gorgeous the graphic design and layout design — especially layout — in Vogue is, compared to the website. One of the things I give a nod to in the middle of all of it, because I know it's a big part of the equation, is the advertising. They redesigned last fall, but right before the redesign I took these screenshots of their older website. The advertising was just completely getting in the way. There wasn't really any way to experience Vogue. The thing that is Vogue. The photos and amazing art direction. They spend who knows how long and who knows how much money (not me) — tons of time and tons of money putting together these photo shoots for Vogue magazine. Then they present them this way in the magazine that's just gorgeous. When they put the magazine together, if you've watched the documentaries about Vogue, watching people put this magazine together, they figure out the flow of the articles and they figure out, "This article is going to come after this article." Everything they're doing shaping that content, writing those articles, shooting those photos, choosing those clothes to go in that issue of the magazine, is about that flow. The flow of it is all about the printed version. There's not word about the website. There's not one word about a digital experience. They're not designing that at all. They just dump the content that was in the magazine, they just poop it out onto the website at a later point. The ads are the same way.

There's a documentary called The September Issue, about the September issue of Vogue. If you pick up the September issue of Vogue, it's like 850 pages. That's a good three inches of magazine. Most of that is ads. At least half. I should get an issue this September and try to count them. [Laughs] (It's hard to buy, because it goes away quickly. You have to go and hunt one down.) People who buy that magazine know they're buying 600 pages of advertising and 200 pages of editorial, or whatever the ratio is. But the ads are beautiful. They're amazing. The ads are also about what is coming up in fall fashion. The ads are the experience.

Mark
The ads are the content.
Jen
vogue.com could do the same thing. The experience that's provided by advertisers and the experience that's provided by the editors of Vogue could work together to present fashion. I think the current vogue.com is doing a better job (then the last design, of which I took the screenshots). It has good typography, it's got beautiful white space, it doesn't have the clutter that the old site had. But it still has the same old boring tropes of, "It's a website, we have a header, two sidebars, and a main column." There's a lot about it that's quite unoriginal. It's shaped like a blog, like it's 2002. I still feel like there's something else that we could be doing. Especially in the fashion industry. You have to think about it for different industries. Who else is sitting there, reading fashion magazines, shopping for clothing? [Laughs]
Mark

I know. It's not like you could just give the excuse that, "It's just time and manpower." If you've ever been involved in any photoshoot — not necessarily for fashion, for anything — it is an extraordinary amount of time that it takes to get a photoshoot done. Let alone something from Vogue. I mean, I think the vast majority of ads are produced on a basis of, "Here's a bunch of assets from our print campaign or our TV campaign or our film campaign. Here's the brief, here's the assets. Make a pretty picture." The vast majority. There are a lot that do way more than that, and there are some that do way less. The vast majority of them are just not given the consideration.

A lot of the time, the people producing the ads have no idea where these ads are going. That's part of the problem. It's inventory. A network may have a bunch of publishers and the ads just goes, splurges out onto the network and inhabits a bunch of these spots. That's what I call "dumb." It's kind of dumb advertising. It's just vague demographics. It's not personalized. You just get pictures that are not relevant to you, at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Jen
It's almost as if print advertising existed and then television showed up. In a parallel universe where everything is wrong, they decided, "We're going to make an ad. We made this gorgeous print campaign. Now we need to make a television ad. Ok, we'll take the piece of paper that came off the press and we'll put that in front of the camera and we'll videotape that. We'll just pan across it. Ok, that's the TV ad! Now put that on TV." Instead of actually saying, "It's a whole other medium. Let's make a television spot. We need a script, we need actors."
Mark
Jeremy Keith talks about this a lot, and I think it applies to advertising. The majority of advertising right now is on the web, it's not of the web. I think that's what you were talking about. It's taking from one media and it's slapped right in another one. It's not natively web, it's pictures in boxes. The same way that there were pictures in newspapers 200 years ago. It really hasn't changed much. This is what's exciting about the possibilities of HTML ads, is it might just break us free of this boxed constraint. The ads might start to become more of the web, rather than just pictures on the web.

Jen
Given the fact that so many of these ads are not of the web — they are lifted from print and shoved onto the web — how do you design around that, as a web designer?
Mark
How do you design around the ads? Well, you just design around the slots. You just hold a slot. It's like, "We need a banner to go on there. There's a takeover here, which is a banner, and these awful side images that will knit together." In the past, I've just ignored it. In the design work, it's just a box. It's like, "That's a box. An ad will go in there." The really sad thing is, that's how everybody thinks about ads. The networks think it's a box with inventory to go into. The designer thinks it's a box to be ignored or just get angry about because it makes their design look awful when an ad is in that spot. In the past, when I've worked with ads, I've tried to find the most awful ad I could find.
Jen
[Laughs] As your dummy content?
Mark
Yeah, yeah. I've had many a client comment on it. I've found the worst thing I could possibly find. The worst, just awful, contrasting colors, dreadful typography, really weird, obscure brands.
Jen
Smart.
Mark
Because you put that in front of a client and you say, "Hey, well, you know. This is what it's going to look like." [Laughs] "Yeah, it goes look awful." A lot of designers try to design to the best case scenario, right?
Jen
Ugh. It's terrible.
Mark
They make a beautiful drawing, a beautiful picture of a website, and the fact is, once it's out in the real world, it really doesn't look like that.
Jen
Magically, all the titles are exactly the same length. The teaser paragraphs have the same number of words in them. No one has two last names. [Laughs]
Mark
I remember way back in the day, do you remember the book by 37 Signals called Defensive Design? It was their first book, I think. It's a really great book actually. It's designing for when things go wrong or blank slates. The bits in the experience where you don't really consider. For many years, when I did a lot of hands-on design work — I don't do a lot of that right now, in my current job — that's what I did. I tried to think of the worst case scenario. A lot of that was around advertising. The worst ads I could find, the worst headlines I could find, the worst image I could find. [Laughs] A lot of my layouts looked dreadful. But they were real, at least.
Jen
Then also you give the developers a sense of, when content is too long or too short, or when this happens or that happens, this is how things need to work. This is what we want to have happen.
Mark
Right, exactly.
Jen
I think I asked a question, how do you design around these wet noodle ads that are just lying on the page? Because I wish there were a different answer.
Mark

No. [Jen laughs] Well, I do, too. I've talked in the past about how you can use ads to create your layout. At least there's a cohesive feel between the size of the ad and everything else on the page. If you derive your layout from the constraints and size of the ad, your grid is derived from that size. There's a connectedness. There's a feeling that, from a size perspective, the ad belongs in this layout. That's much more challenging when the layout is responsive. That's why a lot of people are defaulting to an MPU, 300 or so pixels. Because it fits in every size. [Laughs]

I think that's a real challenge. It's a real challenge to design around these various sizes. Because, quite often, as a designer, you're told what ad slots need to be accommodated. A lot of times, that's when you default to what you see around you, what you know, and what the sales teams and ad buyers will tell you what they need. Which is, "We want a space at the top for a banner. We want a space over here. We want a space over here. Just make it work." And you're not in a position to argue. Back to the first point that we talked about. It's the bottom line. You can't mess with the bottom line.

Jen
I was going to ask, do you feel like designers have ability to change that? Or ask for something? Or push back on anything? Or do you feel like, as a designer, you have to say, "Ok, thank you very much"?
Mark
It's a bit of both. A lot of the time that has nothing to do with you, as a designer. In my experience. It's more to do with the client or, if you're in-house, it's the environment you're in. If the environment you're in is conducive to having people talk openly and have those ideas kicked around and thrashed out to come to fruition, then great. You're in the right place. But a lot of the time, it's not like that. That is through no fault of yours, if you're a designer. If you raise something, you say, "Hey, maybe we're better reducing the amount of ad slots. You could bump up the price. Just go for premium and have one." People say, "Ok, great. Thank you very much for your feedback. We'll take it under consideration." [Both laugh] That's mostly because the environment isn't right for designers to sit a board room table and say that kind of thing and have their voices heard. That's no fault of yours. That is no fault of any designers. [Laughs] I'm projecting the blame onto other people. More often than not, that's the environment of the client.
Jen
I guess the only fault you could fault somebody is for working where they're working. [Laughs]
Mark
Yeah, right! If you don't like it, leave. [Both laugh] That goes for a lot of design, though. If the environment's wrong, you can push pixels around to your heart's content. But if the environment's not right for that work to be adopted in the right way, then that's not your fault. It's somebody else's. [Laughs]
Jen
Do you think advertising is one of the stickiest places, one of the hardest problems to work around?
Mark
Do you know what? I think for the longest time, it's been the easiest. Because it's almost untouchable.
Jen
There's nothing to debate. It just is.
Mark

It just is. For these large publishers, their users are getting content for free and they have a payroll of experienced, world-class journalists. Then there will be advertising. That's just the way it is. Unless you're somebody like the BBC, which is part publicly funded. These people have to be paid and they have to be paid well. They're very, very good at what they do. Advertising, in those instances, is the bottom line. It just is what it is. It's kind of untouchable in that way.

A lot of the time, as a designer, you get your ad spec, and you're like, "Alright. Thanks very much." [Both laugh] You can't go back. You can't turn around and say, "Can we just reduce these? You've got three ad slots here. Can we just have one?" That's just not going to fly. Which is kind of sad. Maybe the designer should be at those earlier meetings where those decisions get made. Because they certainly have something to say about it.

Jen
Yeah. It does seem like there is room for something else to be happening. Maybe it will take a pretty bold team with a lot of experience and ability to be creative to come in and say, "We're going to design something." We see teams like this. I know The New York Times has a team like this. I hope somebody at Vogue has a team like this. Where they're saying, "If we could break free from some of these constraints that are immovable — these walls of concrete that you're not supposed to touch — what would we want to do? Let's see how far we can take that." Because there does seem to be an opening for advertising that could be something different from what it's been.
Mark
Right. I think that's going to happen. Like you said, in-house teams are getting smarter and more digitally native. They're not people that came from the print side. They're digitally native teams. They know the challenges, they know the problems, they understand user experience, they understand project management, they know how to run scrum teams. There's tons of these teams out there right now. Maybe over time, those folks are going to start putting pressure on the business to make some changes.
Jen
I imagine there could be a place for, you get the right combination, the right partner, the right advertiser, the right ad agency, who says, "Yes. Let's go ahead and do this. We're doing the standard assets in a box in the system, but for this client, we're going to do this other campaign on the web." At first it's going to all be bespoke because that's what things are when they get invented. [Laughs] But something might really hit. Advertisers might get a lot more return on their investment, which would mean the business model, maybe instead of being a really cheap CPM, blah blah blah, it could be some other kind of business model. The way things get paid could be more lucrative for everybody. More successful for the advertisers. If a couple of those happen, then everybody's going to want that and they'll get turned into some sort of a factory-driven, turning-out system that doesn't cost as much as something that's bespoke.
Mark
Right. I think that's happening, to a degree, right now. Like you say, you'll see the trickle down. I think it's inevitable for that trickle down to happen. It's not necessarily being driven by the publishers or ad agencies or brands or anybody like that, it's being driven by the technology and how people are consuming content these days. Because it's having a direct effect on the bottom line. That's where the pressure is. The pressure is being felt on the profit and loss.
Jen
Yeah. Hopefully the ads are better and not worse. Hopefully they're more interesting and helpful, rather than privacy invading. The technology is used to make something beautiful and quiet. An emotional experience that is enjoyable, rather than some kind of even more animated, crazy, even more in your face! [Laughs]
Mark
We can't but hope.
Jen
I guess that's the challenge for anyone who's listening who has any say at any time opening in any of this. To try to take us in a direction that we really want to see, rather than a direction that's sort of, everyone shrugs and goes, "I don't know how it got like this. We had to make money."
Mark
[Laughs] Oh, so cynical, Jen. [Both laugh]
Jen
"We hate it, too! Got another idea how we'll pay the bills?"

Thanks for coming on the show.

Mark
My pleasure. It was great to chat with you.
Jen
It's good. You had mentioned advertising way back, I guess a couple of years ago now. I would see a tweet here, a tweet there, as you were working with a client, trying to figure this out. It was something I've been wanting to ask you about for a long time now.
Mark
Thanks for the opportunity, it was great.
Jen
People can follow you on Twitter, if they're interested. Is it @markboulton?
Mark
Yeah. @markboulton. I mostly tweet about tea, it seems, these days. [Jen laughs] Maybe I'm getting old. That's what it is. I've started obsessing about the quality of my warm beverage.
Jen
Are you a milk first or a milk last?
Mark
Oh, milk last. [Jen laughs] Ana would be... I can almost hear her swearing at the computer now. Milk last. I'll tell you why. Because then you can determine the strength of your own tea.
Jen
Ah, yes.
Mark
Right? If you put milk first, it's always weak, in my experience. Because you... [pause] well, anyway. [Both laugh] This could be a whole other hour.
Jen
It's going to be a whole other show. [Laughs]
Mark
It could, it totally could. I'm going to stop right now. [Both laugh]
Jen
People can find the show notes for this show at thewebahead.net/98. 97? 98? Anyway. thewebahead.net. Find the episode. The show notes are there, Twitter is there, everything's there. Check it out. Check out the website. Check out the grid. What's it called? Non-even width spaced...?
Mark
Asymmetrical.
Jen
Asymmetrical. There it is. The asymmetrical grid that I designed. [Laughs] Yes, this is episode 98. Ok, thank you, everyone, for listening.

Show Notes

Comments

Interesting discussion Jen and Mark. My experience of advertising is that is it generally produced to exploit consumers rather than in service of them. So is it really any surprise to hear that the ad world has not changed - why would it when they are not interested in the customer really? Long term I feel we are starting to see the awareness from companies that having awesome customer service or product is the greatest form of marketing. It'll be interesting to see how this and the more traditional 'ad' format plays out on the web over the coming years.

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