New Zealand advertisers spent $563.2 million on digital adverts in the first six months of the year, according to the latest figures from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, released this week.
That's up 12.7 per cent on the same time last year and it's all but certain that digital advertising spend will again exceed $1 billion for the full year.
With that kind of money, you'd expect digital advertising to feature some of the best and most entertaining ideas to emerge from the war rooms of advertising agencies - but that just isn't reflected in the experiences of those online.
A study by eMarketer in the US at the end of last year showed that 42 per cent of online users found online ads too aggressive in following them. Another study by Kantar Millward Brown indicated that 71 per cent of users find online ads more intrusive than they used to be.
These statistics are further supported by the common anecdotes of online consumers complaining about being stalked by ads across websites and being followed by ads for items they purchased weeks before.
This is not a new problem. Since the first banner ad was launched 25 years ago, we've seen an explosion in digital advertising. What we also saw was the democratisation of media channels capable of reaching everyone.
There were no gatekeepers in control of the internet, and the advertisers of every budget had free rein with the tools available.
This was great for smaller business owners, but it also reduced the quality of the advertising being distributed.
Rather than spending a decent budget on creating something meaningful, advertisers jumped in and attempted to produce massive amounts of content as quickly as possible. It created what became known as the "always on" movement, in which brands were constantly looking to reach consumers through as many channels as possible.
There are, however, signs that this commitment to quantity over quality is starting to shift.
Ad executive Duncan Shand's agency is impossible to extricate from the history of digital advertising in this country. He founded his YoungShand agency nine years ago when digital advertising was still very much in its infancy.
While the agency was built on developing a steady stream of quick creative for social media, Shand has in more recent years shifted his focus.
"I still believe in always-on," he says.
"You still need to be in the market all the time. But you don't need to post five days a week. You might want to post weekly or twice a week. But you don't have to be there every day and in every channel anymore."
Shand also says that good creative has to offer more than simply being visible on mobile or computer screen.
"It needs to be interesting and it needs to connect. It needs to generate some emotion and some feeling. That's what we want to do. We want to move people."
Asked why so much digital advertising continues to be terrible, Shand says it comes down to two things.
"Firstly, there is always going to be some bad work, which is driven by low budgets or clients that just don't understand what it takes to create effective work. Secondly, some of this 'bad' work might be right for the customer. The cheap looking, shouty retail ads, might be perfect for the big box clearance retailer."
Shand is hopeful that the very thing that has given us such a steady stream of terrible ads might also be able to rectify the problem.
"The great hope, of course, is that everything is measurable, so just keep ignoring that bad advertising or mark it as annoying and it should go away. The marketer will kill it off and hopefully try something better."
Squeezing emotion from a stone
Advertising researchers Peter Field and Les Binet have spoken extensively in recent years on how short-term advertising that focuses only on a return on investment hurts brands in the long run. They've issued particularly pointed criticism of digital advertising, which is often predicated on a hard sell and getting customers to click the big "buy" button.
The pair's research shows that this movement away from brand advertising (which usually doesn't have that hard sell) has hurt the effectiveness of marketing on a massive scale. This has played into the hands of the traditional media channels long used for brand building, but there also those who believe that online channels can be used to build effective brands – as long as you don't fall into the usual traps.
Liz Knox, one of the three managing partners at the agency Tribal, believes the problem so far is that digital advertisers haven't been able to deliver the same level of creativity to digital frequently enough.
She believes there is massive scope to start dabbling in this space and finding new ways to tell stories, and points to programmatic advertising – the interface that sends online ads around the world – as an example of an area that's ripe for experimentation.
"The likes of Google and Facebook are really trying to push creativity for banner ads at the moment and it's really hard to get excited about this stuff, but no one is using those channels to their full extent," Knox says.
Haydn Kerr, the creative partner at the agency, concurs, saying that ideas that are supposedly creative are often little more gimmicks.
"I remember a campaign a while back that was celebrated. In it they made 1500 different ads designed to target different people. But I wasn't at all impressed. All they did was make 1500 shit ads," Kerr says.
Kerr explains that while this concept might have made sense from data perspective, in terms of targeting different people with super personalised ads, that isn't necessarily enough to make people care.
Kerr says building brands must be done on an emotional level, which is something quite different from hitting as many eyeballs as possible.
The challenge is that this demands patience. Brand building, by its nature, tends to be a slightly slower process and isn't going to drive the conversions that marketers have become accustomed to chasing online. Kerr argues that marketers will need to look further down the line to take full advantage of digital.
"It's going to be massively challenging because you've got this situation where the data will tell you to do one thing, but your gut will tell you to do something else. The data will tell you this isn't converting and you're not getting the clicks.
"It's going to be a long journey."