Web Design: The Reason Why Ad Agency Websites are Truly Awful

3 minute read
Gerry McGovern avatar

Advertising agencies don't get the Web because the web is the place people go to do things.

In 2004, I wrote an article advising companies to never, ever let an advertising agency near their website. Back then, ad agency websites were a total joke. If you wanted to find out the very worst way to design websites all you had to do was look to Ogilvy or Saatchi & Saatchi.

So, have ad agencies changed? In 2010, have they gotten any better? No. If anything, they're getting worse. And there's a reason. Quality web management requires a set of skills that are almost diametrically opposed to the skills classical advertisers have.

Marketing and advertising on the Web is about paying attention to what the customer wants to do. Google doesn't try to sell you diapers when you search for life assurance. It gives you ads for life assurance companies in your area. This is the new advertising. It's about paying attention. Being useful.

Traditional marketing and advertising is all about getting attention. It's all about emotion and perception. And that's fine, offline. However, the marketing and advertising tactics that work online are almost the exact opposite of the offline attention-getting tactics.

When you go to Ogilvy.com, the first thing you see is a huge Ogilvy logo. How ridiculous is that? Of course, the deep thinkers at Ogilvy will smile benignly and say it's a branding statement. Imagine if you went to Google and the only thing you saw was the Google logo.

I have seen data from a major website where this sort of useless logo intro page caused 17 percent of the audience to leave immediately. I have seen lots of other data that shows that this sort of brochure design hugely irritates customers. And it's a tactic that's used by so many ad agency websites.

Learning Opportunities

Also, if you examine ad agency websites you will notice that they're big into handwriting. The Ogilvy logo is handwritten. And Leo Burnet states that, "Big Ideas come out of Big Pencils". Do these people ride to work on horses? Someone tell them about the Apple Mac.

Practically all these ad agency websites use gray text because gray text is cool and 'creative.' And of course those who want to be super cool will use white text on black backgrounds because that's what truly 'creative' and 'innovative' 'creatives' do. And the supersonically 'creative' ad agencies play background music when you arrive at their websites.

One thing that has struck me over the years is how utterly uniform and predictable certain 'creative' people are. Ad agencies are black sheep in a flock of black sheep. The saddening uniformity these websites exhibit is quite ironic considering that uniqueness is supposed to be the hallmark of such agencies.

Ad agencies may well have genuinely creative people but their websites do them a huge disservice. It's the Web. It's not print. It's not TV. Truly creative people know that web design is also about making things work well. As Steve Jobs puts it, "Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." And as James Dyson puts it, "Styling for its own sake is a lazy 20th Century conceit."

Time for ad agencies to stop creating 20th Century websites.

About the author

Gerry McGovern

Gerry McGovern is the founder and CEO of Customer Carewords. He is widely regarded as the worldwide authority on increasing web satisfaction by managing customer tasks.