last Updated 19 May 2020

Responsive Display Ads Versus Image Ads – Is Less Really More?

The 20th Century New York abstract artist Ad Reinhardt once said:

"The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more."

And Ludwig Mies van der Rohe used "less is more" to describe his minimalist style of architecture.

But does this same "less is more" philosophy apply in the 21st Century when it comes to digital advertising with Google Ads? To find out, I've been comparing how responsive ads perform against image ads (banners) on the Google Display Network (GDN).

What Are Image Ads?

For many years, the GDN only supported basic text ads like this:

or image ads. The image ads had to created in one or more of a number of standard sizes such as the banner (468 x 60), the leaderboard (728 x 90), the skyscraper (120 x 600), etc.

The number of available ad formats increased over the years and, at the time of writing, there are 18 different ad sizes available worldwide, plus additional ones which are only available in certain countries.

To make life easier for advertisers, Google provided tools to help them create basic image ads. But if you really wanted to do the job properly you needed to use a low-cost banner designing tool or, better still, get a professional graphic designer to create your banners for you. And to give your ads the best chance of appearing on as many different websites as possible you needed to make sure that you created them in all of the standard ad sizes.

Here are some examples of professionally designed image ads from a client I worked with a couple of years ago. Note how there's the option to have animation in your ads as well as text and pictures.

They look pretty good, don't they?

What Are Responsive Ads?

Just like a responsive website, a responsive display ad will adjust itself to fit into the space available on the website where it is being shown. This means you don't need to spend ages creating ads in each of the many ad sizes that exist for image ads.

Instead you just give Google a selection of images and a choice of headlines and body text for your ads and it will create responsive ads for you.

Here's an example of a responsive ad for the Ecosia search engine appearing as a skyscraper alongside a list of stories on the Evening Standard website:

Responsive Google Display ad for Ecosia on the Evening Standard website

And from the same website, here are a couple of responsive ads (in a square format rather than a skyscraper) appearing at the end of a news article:

Responsive Google Display ads on the Evening Standard website

Google constructs these responsive ads automatically. All you have to do is go into your Google Ads account, create a Display campaign (such as a remarketing one), type in a variety of headlines and ad copy, and then let Google scrape your website for suitable images. If there are no suitable images on your site then you can upload new ones to your Google Ads account or choose from a variety of stock images.

Clearly the responsive ads win in terms of being much simpler and quicker to create. They also make it easier to test out different ad copy and images.

But are they actually any good at attracting attention and getting people to click?

Testing Responsive Ads Against Image Ads

When responsive ads were first introduced, I assumed they wouldn't perform as well as professionally designed image ads. After all, image ads tend to be more eye catching and less prone to blending into the rest of the website.

But the reality is that, whenever I have tested image ads against responsive ads for a client, I have always found the responsive ads perform better.

Here are the figures for an experiment I ran in December last year with a client who is an insurance broker. The client had some existing image ads that they were using for a remarketing campaign. The ads looked good, used eye-catching colours, and had been created in four of the most popular banner sizes.

I kept these image ads running but added a responsive ad to the campaign too. After a few weeks I compared the results:








728 x 90







160 x 600







300 x 250







120 x 600







Banner Total














Let's look at the combined figures for all four banner sizes and compare them to the numbers for the responsive ad. Several things jump out:


Highest CTR - Responsive ad wins

The responsive ad got a much higher click through rate (CTR) than the image ads. Despite being potentially less eye-catching it proved more "popular" and attracted more clicks per impression than the banners. 

The fact that the image ads stand out more may actually be their downfall. They look more like adverts than the responsive ad does and may therefore be getting less clicks as a result of banner blindness.


Lowest CPC - Responsive ad wins

The average cost per click (CPC) for the image ads was nearly 3.5 times higher than for the responsive ad. This is despite the fact that all the ads were in the same ad group and sharing the same maximum CPC bid.

It is likely that the greater flexibility of the responsive ad means it was able to appear on a wider selection of sites, including some where the CPC was much lower. Also, the higher CTR of the responsive ad probably helped improve the Quality Score which, in turn, would have lowered the CPC.


Lowest CPA - Responsive ad wins

Both the responsive ad and the set of image ads generated five conversions each. This means that the image ads actually had a higher conversion rate than the responsive ad. 

However, the significantly lower CPC of the responsive ad means that its cost per acquisition (CPA) was 42.7% lower than the CPA for the image ads.


As you can see, the responsive ad was clearly the winner in this experiment. And similar tests with other clients have also shown that responsive ads outperform traditional banner ads.

In addition to giving better results, the responsive ads are also quicker to deploy, easier to update, and give you greater exposure by being eligible to show on a wider range of websites.

Less, it seems, is still more.

Of course, as with all things in online marketing, your results might be different from mine. So, it still makes sense to run your own tests and see whether image ads or responsive ads perform best with your particular audience.

If you want a great tool for creating image ads, I recommend you take a look at Snappa.

About the author 

David Miles

As a digital marketing consultant, author and trainer, I specialise in helping businesses in the financial services sector use the internet to get more enquiries and increase profits.

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