Digital advertising measurement has come a long way since HotWired launched the first AT&T web banners back in 1994, and most advertisers now use attribution in one form or another.

While media and audience are getting their fair share of analytical rigour – particularly in programmatic – digital creative is receiving very little attention because it doesn’t have the same impact on budgets. Brands pay more for impressions on major news sites than on low-tier blogs, and more for ads that reach their target audience than those that don’t, but they don’t pay more for good creative than bad. Media buying teams are usually separate from creative teams – often two different agencies – so while media teams embrace advanced attribution their creative counterparts still rely on outdated and decade old response metrics such as click through rates (CTR) and simplistic last touch attribution (LTA) models.

The gap between good and bad creative

With a Nielsen study revealing creative is responsible for almost half the sales lift attributed to advertising, measuring and optimising creatives can have a dramatic impact on campaign performance. Most advertisers know creative effectiveness varies by concept but few realise the size of the performance gap between the best and worst. On average the top performing quartile of creatives are a staggering 700% more impactful than the worst performing quartile, according to a new Flashtalking study. And that’s measured against actual conversion impact rather than proxy metrics such as dwell or engagement rates.

When advertisers effectively measure creative, they can immediately see which concepts, images and copy lines are high performers and can adjust creative distribution and rotations in-flight, as well as using insight to inform future creative development. Optimising campaigns without considering creative is missing the point. If advertisers optimise media and audience for bad creatives they will never maximise performance.

Current metrics just don’t cut it

CTR – the metric most commonly used to evaluate creative performance – has significant limitations. For a start using CTR assumes an ad has no impact unless it is clicked on, an assumption which ignores the vital role ads play in creating awareness and recognition, paving the way for future conversions.

CTR also treats all clicks the same, including accidental clicks. CTRs are usually relatively low, often around one in 1000, but up to 95% of these are accidental so only one in 20,000 users actually intends to click on the ad. This isn’t to say digital advertising is ineffective, rather the real value of digital impressions isn’t in the clicks. In fact, our study reveals CTRs negatively correlate with actual creative performance, with the creatives most likely to influence conversions receiving the lowest number of clicks and vice versa. While CTR has some value in assessing response rates in retargeting campaigns, using it to optimise creative performance is counterproductive. When advertisers use CTR for creative optimisation, they simply serve more of what is not working.

CTR isn’t the only method currently used to measure creative performance. LTA is frequently used as a proxy, but this model presumes the only creative that influences conversion is the last one seen, thereby unfairly allocating credit to a tiny minority of impressions. Finally, advertisers use survey-based brand impact studies and A/B testing to assess creative variations, but these aren’t appropriate for optimising creative in-flight due to high costs, large sample requirements, and long reporting cycles.

Letting go of outdated metrics

Understanding creative measurement methods are outdated is one thing, letting them go is quite another. Metrics and models such as CTR and LTA are used by many demand side and search engine marketing platforms as the basis for their creative optimisation tools and processes. They are also used to set campaign targets based on historical performance, as it is easier to continue with known measurements than to change the yardstick. When team targets or bonuses are based on a particular KPI, altering it can be problematic, even when advertisers know it is obsolete.

With the majority of advertisers now doing attribution, they may as well do it properly. When organisations realise measurements such as CTR and LTA are not only ineffective for in-flight optimisation but may actually be encouraging them to increase spend on poorly performing creatives, it should be simple to convince them to end their dependence on these metrics.

A new approach to creative measurement

To allow creative to play an equal role in campaign optimisation alongside media, advertisers need a fresh approach to creative analysis. Advertisers can use machine learning-based multi-touch attribution solutions to accurately score the contribution of each impression based on actual conversion impact, for instance its propensity to influence either a purchase or an indication of intent to purchase. The results can be layered with data science to control for common sources of bias such as the quality of media and the audience an impression is served to, generating an understanding of relative creative impact for each delivered ad, based on its true ability to influence conversions.

To bring creative analytics into the twenty-first century, advertisers must stop relying on methods from the 1990s and update their measurement approach, replacing outdated metrics and models with smarter, data-driven analysis of creative performance. Effective measurement enables advertisers to unlock the value of digital creative and there are huge performance gains to be made from prioritising creative optimisation at the same level as audience and media.

Peter Falcone

Peter Falcone


Peter Falcone, Director of Analytics, EMEA at Flashtalking.