Everything I Learned Spending $100k A Month In Ads

Client: "Steven, we got some more budget, can we aim to spend $100,000 on ads this month?"

Steven: "Yeah sure, no problem!"

GIF of Raven from That's So Raven chewing quickly

Last month, for one client, I spent over $100,000 on Instagram ads.

In total this ended up being $250,000 for the quarter.

What a world we live in. Where one person working remotely in New Zealand can run an ad campaign that hits 1% of the US population in 30-days 🤯

I’ve been running paid acquisition campaigns for the last 8 years so I thought it’d be a good time to reflect on what’s changed since I started, and how to scale an ad campaign, all while trying to leave the world a better place.

For the skimmers out there, here are the three key trends:

  • Audiences are increasingly becoming annoyed at traditional advertisement strategies. So the more native & value-driven our creative, the more effective the engagement.
  • Audiences are increasingly becoming aware of representation and seeing people like them and they’re now voting with their attention. So the more inclusive our creative, the more effective the engagement.
  • Audiences are increasingly becoming aware that most ads create a sense of a ‘lack of’ where an advertiser might make you feel like you’re not pretty / fit / strong / smart until you buy our product. Ads that share the sentiment that they’re enough already with or without the product and reinforce positive beliefs about the user are finally performing better than those that don’t.

And for those that want more juice, and some bonus learnings, let's dive in!

Lesson 1: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

When you spend a lot of money, you get a lot of attention.  

Even if a user scrolls past an ad, you’ve still touched their life for a moment, and their subconscious for even longer.

Last month we reached 3,651,617 different people. Since these ads were only shown in the USA so this means over 1% of the US population saw our ad 🤯

And with over 10 million impressions, people saw them more than twice on average!

This is a big deal because we’re already getting to a point where we can start to influence a population.

A question we always ask ourselves is who is in our ad?

Are we perpetuating stereotypes?

And what kind of message are we using?

Are we sending messages about a lack of or abundance?

Take the majority of exercise related ads for an example of what not to do. A 25-year-old white model, with a 6-pack, working out in a gym, with messaging around “lose the winter weight today”.

5 seconds into a quick search, here’s what we see 👆

It might feel small but each part of these ads perpetuates so many things, around the fact that the person won’t be happy until they achieve something they don’t have, that they’re not enough unless they’re a part of the dominant culture, that what they’re doing isn’t enough.

Essentially the ad is saying, who you are today isn’t enough. Oof.

You wouldn’t try to start a personal relationship that way, so why do we think it’s okay to do that with our business?

While it might lead to a small bump in short-term sales, you’ll end up with a lot of customers with buyer remorse, negative sentiment towards your brand, and just overall unhappier human beings.

I think that point bears repeating. The ad might work! You might get more sales, but it’s not because people want to click on the ad. They just can't ignore it and these ads pray on a person's temporary self-doubt, which these ads create and amplify.

So what did we do instead?

Thankfully we’re helping a haircare company that celebrates difference as their core mission which gives us the flexibility we need to ensure our models can be diverse & our messaging can be positive.

We get to work with a variety of models such as:

A massive shoutout to Sonia Elyss. She manages the influencers & the client and continuously pushes towards a higher standard of creative.

And our copy & storylines are more centered around how to create cool hairstyles or watching these influencers' getting ready to go out routine.

For the gym example, the ad could be showcasing a few workout moves with a variety of influencers. For example how to do lunges as a pregnant woman. Or how to alter a lunge for those with knee issues. The call to action can be simple, want to learn more ways to move tailored to your body? Start a free trial.

Lesson 2: Native Ads Win

This one felt obvious but I still feel like 99% of advertisers forget this.

People don’t want to be interrupted.

People watching TV, driving and seeing a billboard, and scrolling through their phones, are only there to engage in that activity. No one wants to be interrupted. No one actually wants to see an ad.

So why do so many ads look like ads?

LinkedIn is a great example. You see more traditional ads on LinkedIn than on any other platform - it seems like we forget that people who use LinkedIn are people too!

We found that the best performing ads were our video tutorials. Where our influencers show their hair care routine for different hairstyles & hair types. These videos naturally include the products and leave anyone who watches a fun new hairstyle to try, whether they buy the products or not.

We even tested adding text to our tutorials just like a IG Reel / TikTok would have, and the performance jumped massively again.

Our worst performing ads time and time again are where it’s simply a photo of the product. No one came on Instagram to see that. How can you create content that’ll blend naturally into what they’re already on the platform to see?

If you can create an ad where the creative is something your target audience would want to jump onto IG to watch, you're onto a winner.

Lesson 3: Optimise For Conversions

Whatever you choose to optimize for, will be what you get.

This page is where you determine how successful your campaign will be.

Optimizing for awareness will always lead to the highest views, but the lowest return on investment.

Instead, if you can, always optimize for sales or conversions.

You can optimize for ROI in a bunch of different ways.

Alongside this point, ignore the vanity metrics such as cost per click, click through rate, etc. These metrics can help you figure out how to improve if your return on investment isn't looking too good, but the return on investment and return on ad spend should be the two key metrics that determine the success of your campaign.

Lesson 4: Be Weary of Frequency

Recently I watched TV. You heard me. The thing with the ads every 4-minutes.

One thing that jumped out at me was how each company only had one ad.

After watching two shows back to back, I actually started to get angry. I had seen the same 30 second ad 8 times.

The same thing can quickly happen when you run paid acquisition campaigns.

If your audience is too small for your budget, which happens a lot with retargeting campaigns, your audience will end up seeing your ad a lot.

The worst I’ve seen so far when I’ve done a campaign audit is a frequency of 35 over a month. This means on average each person in the audience has seen the exact same ad 35 times!

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Make sure you're constantly monitoring frequency. When it gets above a five, it's time to switch up the creative.

Ways to avoid this problem is to lower the budget for that campaign since your audience might be too small for your budget.

Or play around with expanding your audience!

Lesson 5: Run campaigns for longer

Finally, like fine wine (apparently), the older a campaign, and the longer it runs, the better the results.

I find our results skyrocketed when we switched from running short campaigns around particular events, like sales, or holidays, to evergreen campaigns.

Campaigns that we'd run for 2 to 3 months at a time.

This is for two main reasons. Ad platforms need conversion data to know who wants to buy your product, and who doesn't.

This is even more important with GDPR cookie policy pop-ups, and Apple's blocking of data, ad platforms are getting less and less data.

If you run a campaign for 30-days or less, it barely gives the platform any time to optimise for ROAS.

So just like a good BBQ, low and slow. Lower your spend to avoid having a high frequency and slow down the frequency of your campaign rotations.


I hope this post gave you a few new ideas on what you can do going forward!

The best gift Gen Zs have given the world is their intolerance for bullshit 🤣

This has given the rest of us permission to expect more from the world - including the ads that are being forced upon us every single day.

PSST: From New Zealand to New York, I’m creating a cosy Field Guide of my journey as I move across the globe in 90 days and attempt to land my dream job!
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Steven Male

Written by Steven Male

Hey I'm Steven, and I'm moving to NYC! ✌︎

I have 10 years experience in growth marketing, mostly recently the Marketing Director at Sunobi, and currently helping the digital world become more accessible through my passion project, Hello Access! We've worked with teams at Stripe, Meta, and more.


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