The Sad State of Self-Serve Advertising


pump_smallADOTAS – When Canned Banners launched its self–serve banner ad builder in January 2010, I thought we were entering an innovative self-serve advertising market that was only going to get hotter. Everyone would be jockeying to replicate the multi-billion-dollar success of Google’s self-serve AdWords system.

But as I write this, the “state of the nation” for self-serve display advertising is pretty grim. If you’re a small or medium business (SMB), display has probably gotten more out of reach over the past year.

I define “self-serve advertising” as a process that asks for a credit card, campaign parameters, ad creative and that’s it. No account reps and no PhD in Esoteric Ad Technology required. Extra points for having self-serve ad creation.

“Display advertising,” for the purposes of this piece, means Flash and other interactive or rich media formats, as opposed to thumbnail + text formats (e.g., Facebook), JPEGs or GIFs (all hopelessly limited and anachronistic—SMBs deserve better).

You’re probably already thinking: hasn’t this guy heard of Google AdWords or AdReady? Yes, in fact, I have…

Let’s consider a few of the obvious contenders.

Google AdWords lets advertisers build display ads and set campaign parameters from a single interface. Too bad the UI is designed for a cyborg with Asperger’s. And the last time I tried to experiment with their Display Ad Builder, it was so slow as to be nonfunctional.

And then there’s Google’s display ad inventory. My company has been running a display campaign on Google, using keywords that are pretty specific to the online ad industry, such as “creative optimization” and “ad verifier.” Where does Google show our ads? On sites like and Unless the captains of the online ad industry are a bunch of pimply 12-year-olds, Google is selling me some very dubious (or dare I say: “f***ing sh**ty”) clicks.

I’m aware that AdWords lets you cherry-pick inventory from Google’s display network, but have you ever tried? You’re forced to sift through mountains of garbage to find the good stuff.

Next up: AdReady. used to be all about letting Average Joes build banner ads and launch display campaigns. But oh how times have changed. AdReady’s current homepage is a blizzard of ad industry buzzwords and clichés like “multiple best-in-class enterprise software solutions.” Average Joes are no longer welcome, apparently. I’m not criticizing AdReady’s overall business, but they’ve pivoted away from SMBs, that’s for sure.

At one point, Yahoo! had a partnership with AdReady. I went looking for their self-serve display portal…no dice. So I filled out a form to have a Yahoo! sales rep call me (ugh). He said they killed the public-facing site in October 2010. Granted, Yahoo! still has a self-serve platform powered by AdReady, but they do a pretty good job of hiding it.

Now a few rapid-fire take-downs:

AdBrite — Like AdReady, their messaging used to be much more straightforward. Now AdBrite is all about being an “exchange.” Ditto the $10,000/month minimum to run Flash ads. I guess Flash is too precious to be trusted with the unwashed masses.

Microsoft adCenter (Bing/Yahoo! Search) — No display capabilities whatsoever.

Facebook — Tiny thumbnail image + some text does not equal “display ad” in my book. And the narcissistic minutiae of 600 million people’s lives is not exactly premium content.

AOL Ad Desk — A nice platform with some nifty targeting options. However, their daily minimum is $100! Perhaps chump change to a brand advertiser, but not to an SMB.

Finally, a few honorable mentions of solid self-serve platforms that don’t offer DIY creative: AdRoll, Blogads, and Federated Media.

Self-serve display seems to be the online ad industry’s “Sick Man of Europe.” Why?

First, the SMB market consists of millions of firms with relatively low ad budgets, making it difficult to scale profitably. But as more inventory is bought and sold on exchanges and other spot markets, the ad buying process will become vastly more efficient, eliminating the need for exclusionary spending minimums.

Second, developing display ad creative is a challenge for many SMBs, which calls for at least a semi-automated solution. However, self-serve or on-demand ad design is a tricky technological challenge.

My company’s Flash ad builder lets users customize templates using simple design options. PaperG and iPromote build ads automatically by scraping web content. I’m not a fan of the latter approach, but it’s one of many ways to attack the problem of automated ad design.

Third, Flash and other rich media formats can be problematic if you can’t trust the source. Malware, clicktags, and file size are a few common issues. But if you can standardize the source of the ads (say, ahem, with a self-serve ad builder), those problems essentially vanish.

Admittedly, there are challenges in offering self-serve display to literally anyone, but they’re not insurmountable. In fact, most of the pieces to the puzzle already exist on various websites and platforms, they just need to be put together.

I’m sure someone, somewhere will eventually build a platform that will enable any advertiser, rich or poor, to quickly design and launch a display ad campaign, with all the inventory and targeting options they’re willing to pay for. But until that happens, it looks like SMBs are stuck in a world of static text and thumbnail images.


  1. “And the narcissistic minutiae of 600 million people’s lives is not exactly premium content.”

    A massive CPC network with hyper-targeting isn’t about the content. It’s about the massive audience and the ability to efficiently target them for literally pennies.

  2. Click-able are you really boosting about your fb tool for building just 32 ads max again? Wake up ! This is not a big deal, try 3200 And stick to search; your FB buying tool is giving all API partners a bad name.
    Fix your search technology before focusing on something completely out of your wheelhouse… Michael J

  3. As someone who has been in ad operations for over 10 years…and who recently went freelance with to help the same people that helps…I was overjoyed when I found the product.

    Even though the free ad servers still take some know-how to really utilize…anyone can really put advertising on their site now…so why shouldn’t those same “anyone” types be able to put THEIR ads on someone else’s site? About time someone did this!


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