Remember the good old days when advertising was easy? There was a morning newspaper that almost everyone read. There were two or three radio stations that most people listened to. There were a handful of television programs that most people watched. They even watched these programs without skipping through the commercials. Gee, maybe advertisers had it too easy.

The advertising landscape has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades. The Internet has completely disrupted traditional advertising channels like television, radio, and print. One of the reasons advertisers are spending more on digital than on traditional media is that digital advertising is a one-to-one connection. Advertisers can target the people they want to connect with and don’t have to purchase wasted ad impressions on consumers that they don’t want to reach.

These targeting opportunities have made some of us digital marketers mad with power. We stand in front of a virtual control panel equipped with dozens of levers. We can layer on first-party data or choose from third-party audience segments. We can target contextually using keywords. We can limit our ads to only appear on certain days or at certain times. We can choose from site lists, channels, browsers, and devices.

For an experienced digital marketing professional, all of these levers are easy to pull. So we dig into the data and make adjustments. And then we make some more adjustments. After that, we tweak a few more things. The problem is, we’re now putting so much emphasis on targeting and placements that we’re forgetting the most important factor in advertising effectiveness. The creative!

A recent study by Nielsen analyzed 500 advertising campaigns across a variety of platforms. It found that 47 percent of a brand’s sales lift from advertising was a result of the creative. In comparison, targeting factored in at just 9 percent. It’s a pretty simple formula: good creative sells products.

It’s not to say that targeting isn’t important or that we shouldn’t be pulling the levers that we have at our disposal. The shift to digital has made advertising more efficient because there are so many new capabilities for targeting specific audiences. In fact, a similar study completed by Nielsen and Arbitron back in 2006 found that creative factored in at 65 percent of a brand’s sales lift from advertising. So the ability to target and reach an audience in the right place and time is more important now than ever before.

In order to run effective advertising, however, creative is still king. Often times, marketers aren’t thinking enough about the creative when it’s time to plan a digital advertising campaign. In fact, I’ve had a lot of conversations in which creative was an afterthought.

“Oh, you need video for this campaign? Let’s just use the TV spot from two years ago. Our CEO liked that commercial.”

To which I might reply, “A thirty second ad that reveals your logo twenty-six seconds in might not be super effective on Instagram… but sure. You’re the boss!”

Frankly, our approach to creative in this world of highly targeted advertising across multiple channels and devices should be just as sophisticated as the placements we buy using programmatic advertising platforms. We know so much about our audiences’ demographic makeup, interests, and geographic location. We can tailor our creative to each audience it will reach.

Every digital advertising initiative should have a measurement plan with creative featured front and center. After all, if you don’t measure it, how can you improve it? An easy way to measure creative is to run A/B tests where different creative executions can be judged based on specific metrics. Assuming all other variables are the same and metrics that the creative can affect are measurable, this is an easy way to learn from and improve results.

In the case that there isn’t any easy metric that will measure effectiveness, brand lift studies are an excellent way to test creative performance. These studies survey two different audiences, one that was exposed to various advertising messages and another that was not. Digging into the results, marketers can measure which creatives were most effective at increasing brand awareness, brand affinity, and/or purchase intent. I love employing these studies because you can learn so much more than you can from traditional digital metrics like clicks and impressions (that have yet to teach me anything).

Good creative can change the perception of a brand or product and even motivate someone to purchase. While advertising has become much more complex than deciding which size ad to place in the newspaper, it shouldn’t distract us from focusing on the most important element of our advertising campaigns, the creative.

Originally published by the Rochester Business Journal