MadMen and online ad men: Is advertising really better today?

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By the time you read this, the new TV series MadMen, based on the amoral, booze-fueled doings of ad men back in that faraway year of 1960, will already have aired on AMC.

MadMen (which shares an executive producer with HBO's The Sopranos) has been highly promoted offline and online, and from the trailers I've viewed paints a picture of yesterday's ad men as ego-driven, back-stabbing liars who con clients into paying them big bucks for shoddy work.

All well and good - 1960 is a long time ago. But is today's far geekier world of online advertising much better? Advertising agencies still lie, and shoddy work is still rampant. Case in point: last Monday, I surfed over to AdWeek.com and saw a big banner advertising MadMen. I rarely click on banner ads but this time I really wanted to learn more about the show. So I clicked and was instantly transported to a blank page.

"Hmm," I thought. "There must be something wrong with my PC." So I went to another PC, navigated to AdWeek.com, and clicked on the ad again. Once again, I went to a blank screen. Then I examined the landing page code for the ad and saw that somebody from the ad agency had messed up the code. "Wow," I thought: "this is a serious error that will be fixed once somebody at the ad agency figures out that none of the clicks it's paying for are resulting in any traffic to AMC's landing page."

The next day, I went back to AdWeek.com and saw that the same MadMen banner ad was running, so I clicked it, hoping to go to AMC's site. Again, I went to a blank page. 24 hours later, nobody from the ad agency had fixed the problem. The result was that a time-sensitive campaign (the show aired last Thursday) from a highly desirable site (Adweek.com is where a lot of ad people hang out) was wrecked by a simple coding error. Incredibly, the same thing was happening over at AdAge.com: anybody clicking on the MadMen ad was transported to an empty page.

How many clicks were wasted by this botched ad? Hundreds? Thousands? It's anybody's guess. But I'm sure that once AMC learns about how badly a strategic part of its online campaign was botched, the agency responsible will be fired.

This kind of blunder should be troubling for all of us running online campaigns today. As a marketer, is it your job to baby-sit your ads to make sure that they aren't broken by whoever places them? How can you be sure that your ad agency won't be "asleep at the switch" at the most crucial moment?

Detecting and fixing broken online ad campaigns isn't rocket science: the automation system that my firm built is specifically designed to detect broken ads by de-activating low-converting campaigns and immediately notifying an account manager that something is wrong. This way, any errors in the path between ad and landing page can be fixed before they result in failed campaigns.

Automation isn't a panacea; it's just a tool that smart, vigilant account managers can use to correct problems before they become fiascos. And if AMC's agency had used this kind of automation, tiny coding errors could have been flagged before they resulted in advertising fiascos.

Think about these issues as you watch the dark doings of MadMen. Have things really improved in 47 years? Can you really trust your ad agency to execute your crucial online campaigns? Before you sign with them, grill them about the automation platform they use (if any), whether it's designed to catch campaign errors, and ask about the level of training they give to their account managers on its operation.

In this day and age, you can't afford to run online ad campaigns that fail to deliver.

(Note: as of Tuesday, July 17, 11:30 AM EST, 26 hours after first observing the broken MadMen online ad campaigns, neither the campaign running on AdAge.com nor the campaign running on AdWeek.com had been fixed).

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