Member Exclusive   //   January 30, 2024

DTC Briefing: Why ‘ugly ads’ are taking off

This is the latest installment of the DTC Briefing, a weekly Modern Retail+ column about the biggest challenges and trends facing the volatile direct-to-consumer startup world. More from the series →

Marketing teams at direct-to-consumer brands often have to test 20-30 new pieces of content a week to find their next great Meta ad. And there’s one finding that brands are consistently reporting across all of these various tests: so-called “ugly ads” are often performing the best.

Suze Dowling, the co-founder and chief business officer at Pattern Brands estimated that “for us, for three out of every four ads, it is the uglier — or more authentic — ad that wins and is able to scale.” 

What’s an ugly ad? Most times, it’s not even hideous. Rather, it’s a catch-all term that many marketers use to describe a piece of content that doesn’t look like a conventional ad, but rather something that would naturally appear in a user’s social feed. It could be someone with shaky camera work showing off their favorite bag of snacks while working. Or, an ad with a handwritten post-it notes next to the product on a messy desk. The unvarnished aesthetic is likely why these ads perform so well — and it speaks to just how difficult it takes for startups to stand out these days, when people’s feeds are constantly clogged with ads from competing brands. 

“When you don’t have anything outside of Meta driving mass awareness, it’s just very hard to break through,” Alex Greifeld, an e-commerce growth advisor and founder of the newsletter No Best Practices said. “People just kind of screen [ads] out mentally; they’re like, ‘okay, this here’s the tenth ad for t-shirts that I’ve seen today.” 

Matty Ayers, co-founder and chief creative officer of branding agency Tiny Wins, chalked the trend up to the fact that “people are tired of being sold over-produced influencer campaigns.”

Marketers are also quick to point out that many of the same principles of marketing still apply. The best ads still have a captivating hook, a good story and a solid sales pitch. Every marketer or executive has a different definition of what makes an ugly ad. Some think of an “ugly ad” as being essentially the same as user-generated content. But that’s not always the case.

Often, an ugly ad just doesn’t have the same visual markers that a traditional advertiser does. Rather than featuring static photos of products shot on a brightly-lit backdrop, they might include photos of the product being used in a messy, real-world environment. Instead of including a user testimonial of someone talking directly to the camera in a studio, the ad might feature someone casually talking about the product as they are running errands.

Ugly ads could also look like memes, or they could also be “ugly” in the sense that it uses Instagram’s in-app font rather than a brand’s custom calligraphy.

Barry Hott, a growth marketing consultant and the founder of Hott Growth, is one of the most vocal proponents of ugly ads; he even sells “make ugly ads” merchandise. 

Hott said that he feels like over-adherence to strict brand guidelines is one of the reasons why so many ads today look and feel the same. A recent example of an ugly ad that he said did well was an ad for an “interview story kit” called Tales, where Hott actually interviewed his dad, asking him about a time when he got into trouble with his parents.

“If you’re a creative director, a brand director, you’ve been trained [that]…. there are certain rules to follow about how to where to line text, and where to put the brand in and, and what colors to use and all that, and that’s what they hold holy,” he said. 

As a consultant, Hott might work to help make a client’s ads “uglier” in a few ways. The first is simply creating more creative, and experimenting with different styles and aesthetics. The second, which is more challenging, is to help companies internally “find the proper dividing lines between who owns what elements of creative.” 

“Where do you draw the line on what needs to be polished and proper and executed flawlessly? And where can we fudge that, where can we ignore that?” Hott said.

The other big challenge that brands face in their quest to make uglier ads is that what is considered organic and authentic, and what’s considered tired, often changes from month to month or even week to week, depending on how many brands jump on a particular trend or format. 

Hott and Greifeld said they’ve both seen, for example, brands run ads that utilize hand-written post-it notes. Or, some apps that previously felt authentic, like TikTok, have started to feel more ad-driven as they push more shopping content, making it trickier for marketers to figure out what content excites people on that platform these days. 

The answer for many brands is to simply experiment with more creative – and as they do so, they will likely find unexpected ad formats that perform well, the so-called ugly ads. 

Pattern Brands’ Dowling said that her company tested around 20,000 ad variants last year. Jordan Nathan, founder of cookware brand Caraway, said his company tests around 20-30 pieces of new content each week, and between 10% to 20% of those work. 

“We have a huge influencer program, where we get a lot of great content, and we do, I think, roughly five photoshoots a month right now, [to get the] kind of polished content,” Nathan said. 

Nathan, for his part, said he doesn’t think that ugly ads always outperform professionally-shot ones. He just thinks different audiences will be interested in different creative. And, the more ad varieties brands experiment with, the more likely it is that they will find unusual creatives that resonate.

“There are some customers who like something that feels really premium and polished and shot in a studio,” Nathan said. “And then there’s a lot of the population as well who likes something that feels more authentic and organic.”

Despite this laser focus from brands, these types of creative decisions are just one of many factors in an ad’s success.

“Visual format is probably the least important component of ad success,” Greifeld said. “It’s [about] understanding who you’re speaking to, and what you’re saying to them. That’s going to get you, like, 70% of the way there.”

What I’m reading

  • Levi’s will lay off as much as 15% of its workforce as part of its two-year productivity initiative, in which the company is taking steps to drive more long-term profitable growth by growing DTC sales, among other initiatives. 
  • Andrea O’Donnell, who was the CEO at Everlane for two years, is jumping ship to Designer Brands. There, O’Donnell will be the brands president and executive vice president of designer brands. 
  • Walmart is shutting down Store No. 8, its startup incubation unit that previously launched personal shopping service Jetblack, among other ventures.

What we’ve covered

  • A founder and first employee of Tuft & Needle respectively are back with a new mattress company called Boring Mattress Co, that aims to make the mattress shopping experience boring again. 
  • The “capsule wardrobe” is trending on TikTok, and apparel startups like Poshmark and Stitch Fix are increasingly trying to cater to people who want to build out a minimalistic, versatile wardrobe. 
  • Inside the social media and sales boost Josh Cellars wine experienced after becoming the subject of a viral meme.