Banner ads at 25: an easy target?

Viewed as pioneering and cutting-edge at their inception, the reputation of banner ads has been sullied over the ensuing years, with some viewing them as little more than akin to 'shitty classifieds'. They are, nonetheless, huge business. So what does the future hold for digital display advertising?

Close your eyes and think of a banner ad. What do you see? 

Is  there a square box with flashing neon lights, imploring you to "click here"? Is it a picture of the same hairdryer that you bought on Amazon last week, which is now creepily following you around the internet? Or is it a pop-up that won’t go away until you are forced to fill out the world’s most boring survey?

On 27 October, banner ads, joined more recently by their cousins (the middle position unit or MPU, skyscraper and site takeovers), will have been a feature of the internet for 25 years. And yet, on the eve of this generational milestone, love for banner ads is hard to come by. 

"Banner ads are basically the shitty classifieds at the end of the newspaper, as was," Cheryl Calverley, chief marketing officer at Eve Sleep, says. "A ‘nib’ that sold Mr Jones’ plumbing was perfectly effective, and that’s brilliant for those businesses, but we are trying to build something much bigger and more sustainable."

Her concerns about banner ads are familiar. Are these ads actually being seen by real people? And are internet users being tracked too aggressively in the pursuit of data? Can it be guaranteed that ads will be placed next to content that won’t come back to embarrass the brand?

"I’m an ecommerce business trying to sell you a product you’re going to be keen on using for the next 10 years. Trust is absolutely fundamental to your willingness to spend half a week’s wages on something that your whole family will sleep on. And so [when it comes to] a programmatic banner ad that can pop up anywhere on the internet – and that’s not about brand safety that’s just about the company we keep – I’ve got a real problem," Calverley adds.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 1994 the first banner ads were launched by Wired magazine on its then new website, Hotwired, for which the magazine’s chief technology officer Andrew Anker plotted a commercial opportunity. It was an exceptionally forward-thinking enterprise at a time where few people used computers, let alone the internet.

On hearing a pitch by Hotwired to his media agency Hal Riney & Partners (which became Riney, part of Publicis Groupe) in the summer of 1994, Rick Boyce, the agency’s associate media director, was so excited by the notion that he persuaded Wired to let him join to run its online ad sales: a risky move as no-one did this at the time.

"I said: ‘Man, I would love to join you guys and help launch this Hotwired website with advertisements. It sounds like the coolest thing I’ve ever heard of.’ It was clear at that point that a brand new medium was about to be born." 

Having been possessed by the kind of inspiration that seeing the future can spark in a person, Boyce started his new role that September and worked tirelessly so that, within weeks, Hotwired was able to launch with 12 advertisers on 27 October. Some of them were even blue-chip companies, such as AT&T and Coors.

To put it mildly, these pioneering ads look crude and unsightly by today’s standards. Boyce admits the creative was constrained by the extreme bandwidth limitations of the dial-up internet of 1994, when images could take minutes to appear on-screen. He wonders why, as speeds have improved, more radical changes have not been made to the size and shape of  banner ads. "It’s been unfortunate that we haven’t been able to come up with units that are more robust and give the creative teams a bit more real estate to work with," he says. "Bigger would be better."

Boyce sold 12 weeks of sponsorship for that initial launch for the princely sum of $30,000 from each advertiser ($360,000 in total). Importantly, these were standalone media buys and therefore a completely new source of revenue for the publisher. 

Today, banner ads are huge business. In the UK, online display spend hit £4.3bn last year, almost as much as TV (£5.1bn), according to Internet Advertising Bureau UK/PwC data. Online display accounted for more than a third (39%) of all digital ad revenue (£13.4bn) in 2018 (up 15% year on year), and almost all the growth in online ads is coming from smartphones, which now account for more than half of digital spend (51%).

For eBay, display is a very important marketing channel. Its UK chief marketer, Gareth Jones, says it is viewed as part of an "integrated customer contact strategy".

He adds: "Automation, real-time personalisation and AI are all enablers for this. We’re building a system that will learn what message and type of content works best per audience. Based on all the data we feed the system, and hypotheses and messages we test, our tool will create a profile for an audience to determine how to communicate to the user… this action and message will be pulled into display ads (and other channels) dynamically at the right moment, in real time."

Tim Elkington, the IAB’s chief digital officer, characterises banner ads as the "workhorse of digital display advertising", which provide the foundation on which all other digital display is built. Their reputation has suffered, he says, because they’re used as a punchbag by an industry that is "always focusing on the new and exciting" when it comes to digital.

"We’ve taken the banner ad for granted a little bit over the years, maybe because there can be creative challenges in terms of how you make the most of such a small unit, compared with some other creative executions," Elkington adds. "We’ve never really engaged the creative community as much as we could."

Calverley, meanwhile, couches the problem in starker terms. The former Birds Eye and Unilever marketer says: "The creativity is poor and uncontrolled. We’re a brand and I want you to remember it; our main objectives are building brand awareness and brand consideration. I’m not sure banner ads do either." 

Meanwhile, the IAB has been at pains to combat the scourge of marketers and media agencies using clickthrough rates (how often internet users actually click on banner ads) as a meaningful metric that represents return on investment. In February, the trade body launched its "Don’t be a clickhead" campaign to promote a new measurement tool that uses more sophisticated, big-picture approaches, such as econometrics, and more granular analyses, for instance attribution modelling. 

In short, Elkington explains, banner ads’ effectiveness should be measured in the same way as TV. "If I were watching Coronation Street, and there was an ad in the centre break for yoghurt, I wouldn’t automatically pause the TV and run down to the supermarket to get yoghurt there and then. I would wait until the next time I’m in the supermarket." 

He adds: "We painted ourselves into a corner with these sort of accountability metrics. And we forgot about the broader role they can play."

EBay is seeking to escape this cul-de-sac by trying to think "less in terms of an outdated linear purchase model", with fame-building ads "at the top" and display retargeting "at the bottom". 

"We internally talk about ‘collapsing the funnel’ – selling more in places where we might traditionally have delivered branding, and telling a stronger brand story in the places we have traditionally thought of as converting touchpoints," Jones says.

'The creativity is poor and uncontrolled'
— Cheryl Calverley, Eve Sleep

Display ads, meanwhile, are measured against performance, quality and brand safety.  

The process for creating a banner ad today within WPP’s digital agency, Essence, is not too dissimilar to other media, like TV and press, Andy Veasey, its creative director, explains. 

"The brief would be written off the back of the strategy and the creative team – still art and copywriter working together – would go away, interrogate the brief and look at how we can tell a story for different moments, whether those are moments based on time of day, or different audiences," he says. "We look at trying to create ads that are dynamic, data-driven, can communicate the product, can communicate what the ask is, but do it across many different iterations and try to be as relevant as possible."

The copywriting process, however, is quite different from five or six years ago because of the opportunities to iterate potentially thousands of creative executions via programmatic ad buying. Moving from Flash animation technology to HTML5 programming has also enabled the creation of banner ads to speed up dramatically. Banner ads that used to take several days to build can now be churned out in less than an hour.

"In terms of copy, five or six years ago you probably wouldn’t have seen it presented in a matrix, in a spreadsheet, but that’s commonplace now. We’ll probably show one mock-up of an ad, and then we’ll have all the copy variations. As soon as we get approval, we’ll start to explore the different visuals for each iteration. So it’s not about one any more, it’s about many, and our clients are very comfortable about that."

Comfortable, indeed. One-to-one consumer marketing through greater personalisation is attractive because it is thought to build stronger bonds, customer loyalty and better returns on marketing investment. But, in practice, this means collecting lots of data about internet users, hence the advent of programmatic media and real-time bidding (RTB). Ads are now routinely served via an auction within nanoseconds, based on which advertiser is prepared to pay the most for a given user. This sounds fair, but it’s a process dependent on what data is held about the user: and the more data that is collected, the higher the risk that ad exchanges (including the world’s biggest advertising company, Google) can constantly surveil people without consent.

Multimillion-euro fines (or, in Google’s case, multibillion) now loom over the digital ad industry. The RTB supply chain is under investigation by data protection watchdogs across the world, including the UK’s Information Commissioner, for alleged breaches of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. There are concerns that sensitive data, such as political beliefs and sexuality, are being collected to create detailed user profiles about people for the purposes of advertising. 

Privacy fears, coupled with criticism of the look and behaviour of banner ads, have been reflected in the rise of ad-blocking. But in the past three years, ad-blocking has been flat, according to IAB figures, confirmed in general terms to Campaign by Adblock Plus-maker Eyeo. In the UK, just under a quarter (22.6%) of adults claim to be blocking ads (as of February 2019, up from 15.1% in 2015). The highest proportion of ad-blocking takes place on desktop computers (88%), far more than on smartphones (37%) or tablets (24%), which appears to explain why its growth has stalled: mobile devices are where digital audiences are growing. Crucially, the majority of ad blockers are effective only on web browsers and cannot block display ads within apps.

And, while brands like Eve Sleep are not focusing any marketing energy on banner ads, some creative agencies are looking past them in favour of softer, less intrusive, but ultimately more unblockable forms of display advertising. These include Stories, the multi-frame ads that appear on social-media platforms Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

This could mean that, in future, online readers may find it harder to tell advertising and "content" apart, according to Andy Dobson, head of technology at Publicis.Poke, who laments the way the industry has been "designing for engagement" for the past 20 years rather than "designing for relationship".

He says: "If we get our creative and advertising technology more in that [relationship] mindset, we would have things that didn’t even feel like advertising… Instagram Stories works so well because it’s within the flow of the medium. Being able to go through a multi-frame story within the actual mechanic of the social platform itself, and the way the application actually works on your mobile, is why that is a better creative advertising opportunity than just simply sticking your creative in a box on the page."

Steve Aldridge, chief creative officer at Wunderman Thompson UK, notes this is already happening: "Brands are diverting budgets toward social campaigns and social influencers, generating deeper engagement and millions more meaningful impressions. These channels were simply not invented when the banner ad was born 25 years ago."

Publishers, too, are worried about how display ads are programmatically bought through real-time bidding. 

The Ozone Project, a joint newspaper ad sales venture, is leading the way on this shift by promoting a model based on contextual relevance, instead of leveraging audience demographics. Sam Taylor, head of group commercial marketing at Direct Line Group, has praised the move, while Wavemaker’s head of media partner engagement, Emma Dibben, told Campaign in May that Ozone is gaining industry traction. 

Although influencers and social media did not exist 25 years ago, the idea of placing display ads around contextually relevant content (as opposed to ads that follow users around the web) is not new.

Even as they were selling the first banner ads, Boyce and the team at Hotwired saw the future of display as being akin to the way magazines sold ads by section. He is amused that, after years of programmatic ad buying taking hold of the digital media industry, contextual relevance is being talked about again as the future. 

Boyce, who left Wired after it was bought by Condé Nast in 1999 and went on to hold senior sales role at Lycos and Quantcast, is now a visiting lecturer at Washington University’s Edward R Murrow College of Communication. He recalls: "We were much more about sponsorships, and contextual placement."

It seems underwhelming to hear the future of online advertising being talked about in such a retrograde fashion. Even if "contextual" display can be automated by buying against keywords, we are still talking about buying ads against content the way that print media has done for decades.

While the 20th century brought an explosion in mass-media messaging, thanks to radio and television, the internet promised to empower the individual and communities as media became something everyone could "do" and participate in themselves. 

The playwright Eugene O’Neill once wrote: "There is no present or future – only the past happening over and over again – now." 

The same fate could come to pass for display advertising.

Banner ads: when the creative clicks

Pringles 'Click' by Bridge Worldwide (now Possible) 

A seemingly never-ending story about a man who proposes to a woman who has a Pringle tube in place of a hand. It won a gold Cyber Lion at Cannes in 2009.

Volkswagen 'Blank like a rabbit' by Crispin Porter & Bogusky Miami

Completing a sentence by entering a relevant word unlocked an animation. It won gold at Cannes in 2007. 

Post-It 'The banner that makes you like banners' by Proximity Russia

This turned retargeted banner ads into Post-It notes to which text could be added. It won a 2016 Webby award, a D&AD wood Pencil and a 2015 bronze Clio.

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