The New York Times Reinvents the Boring Banner Ad

Just don't call it 'native'

An obscure piece on The New York Times’ website about Picasso repurposing his canvases by painting over older, abandoned projects was fascinating, at least insofar as stories about master artists and their recycling habits go. But let’s face it—it wasn’t exactly click bait.

So the paper added a feature that made the piece much more engaging: an interactive tool that enabled readers to “erase” a Picasso to reveal what lay beneath. Engaging it was; readers ended up toying with the feature for two and three minutes at a time, an eternity in Internet terms.

Illustration: Adrià Fruitós

In that trip through art history, those on the Times’ business side saw the potential for commerce, and four months later the 10-person Idea Lab was applying the same interactive functionality to an online Wisk ad—this time, revealing the dirt on a T-shirt that an inferior detergent brand left behind as opposed to some discarded masterwork.

There’s no doubting such creative executions are cool. The interactivity of the Wisk ad and the ease of using it allowed the brand to tell its own “creative story,” says Brendan O’Marra, director of digital and promotions at Wisk’s parent, Sun Products Corp.

“Anytime you’re trying to sell something people can’t see, you’re immediately met with skepticism,” he says. “You have to give some kind of proof that it’s not snake oil.” O’Marra won’t reveal exactly how well the ad performed but says the company was pleased with the ad’s click and “hover” results (how long people mouse over an ad).

Like all of publishing, the Times is feeling the pinch of the display advertising market, where pricing has been squeezed by automated buying and clickthrough rates have fallen to a fraction of a percent, giving rise to a swell in theoretically more engaging branded content. But in the Times’ case, it’s trying to breathe new life into the banner ad rather than abandon it.

The three-year-old Idea Lab—a spinoff of the Times’ R&D Lab, which is charged with cooking up a range of new products to bolster the paper’s bottom line—was borne from marketers looking to communicate more nuanced messages to consumers while wowing them with truly eye-catching, highly engaging creative, some that have never before been seen in a newspaper site’s display ads. Just as technology enables the Times to tell stories in a more visual, more interactive way, it now affords advertisers the same opportunity.

“What we hear from clients all the time is, The New York Times tells complicated stories better than anyone else,” says Todd Haskell, group advertising vp at the paper. “Marketers were coming to us saying, ‘Our story is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Can you help us figure it out?’”

The Times ad department has the advantage of more openness about ad innovation on the part of the digital news team than it’s ever seen on the print side. Whether that’s good or bad depends on which side of the church-state wall one sits.

“What sets them apart is the amount of experimentation they’ve done,” says Dan Buczaczer, evp, creative partnerships at the agency VivaKi. “A lot of the elements they’re experimenting with on the editorial side are the ones brands are interested in for marketing.”

Behind a nondescript door on the 15th floor of the Times’ imposing headquarters on Manhattan’s West Side, programmers, technologists and product people play matchmaker between content and advertisers. The Idea Lab itself is sleek and spare. Most of its inhabitants gather around sofas as opposed to conference tables. There’s a giant whiteboard for scribbling down ideas for ads based on editorial features. Another wall serves as a screen for presenting prototypes to advertisers.

At a moment when the Times is striving to shake off its stodgy image, Haskell, who previously oversaw digital advertising for NYTimes.com, comes off as breezy and decidedly unstuffy. “We’ll literally lock people in for hours at a time to work on ideas,” he cracks. When asked about the wall between advertising and editorial, Haskell proposes that those who toil in the Idea Lab “sit on the wall,” a Game of Thrones reference. “It’s not rocket science. We see what works for readers, and we shamelessly rip it off.”

To date, the Idea Lab has created dozens of customized campaigns (an online hub demos 42 campaigns that have appeared since 2010, including a dozen in 2011, 19 in 2012 and seven so far this year). For the insurance and investment company Prudential, the Lab created an ad unit that allows the user to type in his date of birth to see the front page of the Times on the day he was born.

Another ad borrows from the site’s popular editorial slide show feature to promote Thomson Reuters’ coverage of the 2012 London Olympics. To explain the complicated healthcare debate, the Times employed various interactive rectangles, each representing a different issue. The same approach was coopted to promote Chevron’s support of World AIDS Day, using what the Lab now refers to as the “bento box.” To promote a collaboration between Target and Neiman Marcus, the Times created a time line inspired by the same tool it uses to explain complex news stories.

The Times is not alone in trying to get out of the CPM pricing hole. Other publishers—among them, The Atlantic, Forbes and BuzzFeed—are also experimenting with the banner unit, though not in exactly the same way. Rather, these and other media brands are attempting to combat banner blindness by pushing sponsored posts or native ads that mimic editorial content. Thus, Forbes’ BrandVoice clients publish editorial look-alike blogs alongside news stories. Famously, the pop culture and news site BuzzFeed creates enticing slide shows for marketers that are hardly distinguishable from its addictive editorial content. For its clients, The Atlantic produces info-rich graphics that it hopes will appeal to its brainy readership.

The Times hasn’t gone quite so far (executive editor Jill Abramson recently dismissed native advertising as a buzzword for the conference set), though some would argue that its units are native ads, if native is defined as something merely natural to the reader experience. That particular selling point is, after all, what appealed to Prudential. “You’re on the Times, so you’re leveraging the natural resources and environment,” says Colin McConnell, vp, head of advertising for the company. “We thought, why not just harness the natural environment instead of create something synthetic?”

There’s no confusion that the creations coming out of the Idea Lab are very clearly advertising, though.

“Church and state is absolutely fundamental,” Haskell affirms. “We are not going to fall into an Atlantic Scientology trap, but we don’t think we need to.” (In an infamous incident this past January, The Atlantic stepped in it big time when it ran on its website a sponsored post from the Church of Scientology that clashed horribly with the magazine’s intellectual sensibility. The magazine made matters worse when it censored negative reader comments. The Atlantic has since instituted fresh guidelines for native ads in the hopes of avoiding another dustup.)

As debate persists over the degree to which the edit side should be involved, if at all, in creating native ads, the Idea Lab appears to offer an elegant solution: letting advertisers reap the benefits of the newsroom’s expertise without compromising its journalistic integrity. That means limiting communication between the Lab and the newsroom, and entirely rebuilding technological applications as opposed to simply tweaking them.

Only a handful of people in the news department have regular contact with the ad side, in fact. One such person is Steve Duenes, the editor who oversees the Times’ graphics operation. Duenes and Tracy Quitasol, executive director of the Idea Lab, meet about once a month to discuss how the videos, data-visualization techniques and templates his department creates might apply to ad units.

“We’re not collaborating directly to make ads,” Duenes says. “It’s more, where there used to be no communication, there is some communication. The editorial side is not directing how this stuff should be used by the ad side, and the ad is coming to us once the sausage has been made on the editorial side. It’s kind of a creative brainstorming, a survey of what we think the best interactive design ideas have been.”

Duenes’ people might give the Idea Lab a brief description of the technology, but no code ever trades hands—the Lab’s own developers create the ad prototypes from scratch. Duenes typically doesn’t even know whether it’s one of his graphics that has inspired an ad, and when he does, the context of the ad so differs from its edit source he often doesn’t make the connection. “I’ve never had a conversation with the graphics department where it was like, ‘That looks familiar,’” he says.

It is beyond obvious to state that these are precarious times for newspapers, including the Times. In the first quarter, print advertising at the paper’s parent company dropped another 13.3 percent year over year. Digital advertising, which now makes up one-quarter of the Times’ business, was off by 4 percent.

But as we continue to embrace mobile technology, the sort of innovation coming out of the Idea Lab dovetails perfectly with consumer and tech trends, according to Outsell analyst Ken Doctor. “It’s a way for marketers to better tell their story after the awfulness of banner ads,” as Doctor puts it. “Most ads don’t know how to engage, and who does engage better than top-drawer publishers?”

The question remains whether the Times can sell enough of these innovative ad units to bolster its slack ad business.

Quitasol wouldn’t divulge the pricing for Idea Lab-generated units, nor would she say how much revenue they bring in. (Sponsored content tends to command rates three times greater than banner ads, according to Doctor.) Instead, she touts the blue-chip advertisers that have embraced them (among them, General Electric and Jeep) and points to a number of repeat customers (including Target, Prudential and Thomson Reuters) as evidence of their value. “These types of programs grow revenue,” Quitasol says. “This is a shiny spot that actually uses this stuff that’s at our fingertips. I don’t think there’s any question of commitment. It’s necessity. We have to continue to innovate.”

Adds Haskell: “There are tremendous pressures on the digital marketplace. The best thing we can do is create unique campaigns that bypass that monetization pressure. You are not going to be able to do this on an automated buying platform.”

One of the knocks against native advertising remains their cost and lack of scalability. And the Idea Lab is a major investment for the Times. The units it creates aren’t cheap to produce, and many are one-offs. That’s why the paper is looking for ways to “recycle” them, still enabling it to sell a unit to an advertiser as never-been-done-before.

For that matter, advertisers are being forced to think practically, too. Take Prudential, which considers its buy an unqualified success. Some 100,000 people interacted with the ad, spending an average of almost a minute, while it went on to find a second life via Twitter.

“People enjoy history—they really enjoyed the fact that it was a really simple little time capsule,” says the brand’s ad chief McConnell. With results like that, one might think running it again would be a no-brainer. But no, says McConnell. “We don’t want to repeat ourselves,” he says. “But in the ideal world, you want to optimize.”

One would presume that as advertisers keep looking for new tactics to break through the clutter and as publishers continue to chase advertisers and consumers with their own cool, innovative ideas, demand for units like these will only grow. But as brands search for new ways of telling their stories, what many must admit is that they lack the expertise in content creation that is the specialty of the editorial side. That’s why people like VivaKi’s Buczaczer would like to see still closer cooperation with the Times, proposing that clients might get access to editorial content like film reviews, for example, or recipes.

As brands and agencies push for cozier partnerships with publishers, the Times will be forced to decide just how open it is to experimentation.