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.”

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