By Mike Shields
The Internet stinks. And the ads are even worse.
That is the basic and bold message being delivered by AOL, which unveiled Project Devil at Advertising Week on Monday—its new advertising system, which essentially seeks to blow up what Web pages and Web advertising have been about until now.
At the heart of Devil are more streamlined, user-friendly content pages anchored by a single, highly interactive display ad. AOL has begun rolling out the new system and new publishing approach on its Moviefone and StyleList sites. But the long-term plan is to expand it to all AOL properties, as well as thousands of sites across the Web.
In essense, AOL is aiming for a “fundamental redesign of the Web,” said Jeff Levick, AOL’s president of global advertising and strategy. “This is incredibly bold and ambitious.”
And risky. Getting the industry to follow the lead of one of its biggest publishers and ad sellers has proved challenging in the past—for example, Yahoo!’s APT platform and Microsoft’s PubCenter project both promised to solve several of the industry’s problems but failed to gain mass traction.
But according to Levick, AOL has two huge platforms to give Project Devil a boost beyond its own sites: Advertising.com, the company’s mega ad network, and Adtech, it’s popular ad-serving platform.
If publishers are interested in participating in the project, they can start by running AOL’s new Project Devil ad placements, and needn’t immediately relaunch their Web sites. But AOL CEO Tim Armstrong hopes many publishers do, because in his opinion, the content experience on the Web these days is pretty lousy.
“Most Web sites look like they were designed in Silicon Valley,” said Armstrong. According to AOL’s research, just 18 percent of the space on an average Web page features content. That’s a bad value proposition for consumers—but also bad for brands, who are left with clutter and schlocky creative units, Armstrong argued.
As an alternative, Devil ads were created with heavy input from the creative community. The placements are large, but don’t take over a Web page; instead, they emphasize aesthetics and interactivity. The placements can be broken up into multiple panels, which advertisers can use to feature video, slideshows, text messaging options and even live maps.
Plus, AOL plans to run just a single Devil ad on its pages, “instead of 17 on a page,” said Levick. Armstrong likened the experience to ads one might see in Vanity Fair, where ads are designed to stand out, and even be welcomed by readers. “We are the only company that took a holistic view,” said Armstrong.
To kick off its online ad revolution, AOL has lined up seven big name brands. The first Project Devil partners are General Mills’ Cheerios and Pillsbury Crescents, Lexus, Macy’s, Procter & Gamble’s Olay, Sprint and Unilever’s Suave Professionals.
AOL presented Project Devil to a packed house at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual Mixx conference on Monday in New York. It was appropriate, as the theme of the day was online ad creative—or, put more succinctly, How do we get display advertising to improve? In fact, the IAB itself announced a formal competition to find the next great ad unit.
Microsoft threw its hat into the ring with DeepZoom, an impressive new ad technology that allows users to zoom in and out on images, allowing them to see great detail. For example, during a demonstration held for reporters, executives used DeepZoom to zero in on the image of a man’s face so close that the pores on his forehead were visible.
As for just how DeepZoom will be used practically in a banner ad—it’s early. But Microsoft executives believe products like this will help raise the bar. “I’m very bullish on display,” said Darren Huston, corporate vp of global consumer and online at Microsoft.
During a keynote presentation later in the day, former Microsoft executive Blake Irving, who is now evp and chief products officer at Yahoo!, complained that display ads are still not as targeted as they should be, despite all the data that is currently available to advertisers. “The canvas is changing, but it’s still not personal,” he said. “I still get flashing mortgage ads when I’m not looking for a mortgage.”
But would Yahoo! ever turn to AOL for help? Levick and Armstrong don’t seen any reason why not. In testing, Levick said consumers spent 18 percent more time with Devil ads than basic 300×250 banners. Those sorts of engagement numbers would seem to attract lots of competing publishers.
“We are re-educating consumers for how the Internet and ads should look,” Levick said. “That changes the conversation about this medium.”