Beyond the Banner: Online ads have come a long way since the birth of the Web

Online ads have come a long way since the birth of the Web

A Snickers bar lands on top of a news story, then suddenly a saw appears from underneath the print. It cuts a neat rectangle around the bar, releasing the candy to whoever is craving it below. The nifty cartoonlike story ends with the familiar Snickers closer: “Resorting to desperate measures … another unfortunate side effect of hunger.”

A Snickers TV spot? No, a sign that as a creative force, long-derided Internet advertising may finally have come of age. The online ad, created by Modem Media in Norwalk, Conn., using software from hot New York ad-technology company Eyeblaster, appeared on Yahoo! Sports last year, as part of a series that played off the Masterfoods brand’s longtime “Solution for hunger” positioning. Another ad demonstrated side effects of hunger such as slow reflexes—as the user moved to “Click here,” the button moved away faster than the cursor could catch up with it. The work is a far cry from the static banners that typified online advertising following its inception in 1994.

What’s nudging the creative bar higher is a confluence of factors that have developed over the last 18 months to help foster what many in the industry see as a creative revolution. In addition to renewed interest among major advertisers and better penetration of broadband connections, these factors include more sophisticated technology—allowing creatives to move 3-D images across the entire screen, build better animation into banners and stream video onto the desktop—and a higher comfort level with online media among creatives, even those who’ve been involved with it for years.

Online publishers, too, have played a crucial role. In the halcyon days of the dot-com bubble, most had a decidedly take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward advertisers. Now, ads like Snickers’ on Yahoo! are increasingly common.

Put all this together, and, says Bob Greenberg, chairman and chief creative officer of i-shop R/GA in New York, “you have a very good situation right now for interactive creative to blossom.”

A new sense of the possibilities of online media is starting to show up in online ad spending. In early April, industry trade group the Interactive Advertising Bureau estimated fourth quarter 2002 spending at $1.5 billion, a 2 percent increase over the previous quarter. It was the first time since the dot-com downturn began in 2000 that online ad spending showed growth in sequential quarters. And while the fourth-quarter figure is almost 10 percent below spending in fourth quarter 2001, many industry executives note that the online ad market has broadened its appeal, with dot-com marketers petering out and traditional advertisers such as McDonald’s and Frito-Lay moving in.

It helps that sites now give clients much more leeway than in the boom days when, if an advertiser didn’t pine for the typical Internet banner, there was always another client willing to buy out the space. Yahoo! ran ads so subtle, it was hard to notice them—until the portal’s revenue went into a precipitous decline, dropping almost 40 percent between the fourth quarters of 2000 and 2001. Yahoo! holds periodic creative summits and sponsors the interactive portion of The One Show, the Effies and the Clios.

Microsoft’s MSN has made similar strides, painting its blue home page red to help launch Coca-Cola’s “Real” campaign in January and launching what it intends as an annual contest to encourage creatives to stretch the boundaries of online advertising.

“It’s important to get to know the creative community and let them know, ‘Hey, you can knock on our door,’ ” says Wenda Harris Millard, chief sales officer at Yahoo!. Like many online ad sales executives, Millard is fighting the lingering notion among traditional ad types that the online medium is good only for bland banners that urge users to “click here.” Indeed, “the traditional marketing industry still believes that this medium is about banners and buttons and pop-ups,” says Joseph Jaffe, a self-described “new marketing” consultant who until last June was director of interactive media at TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York.

All of the major online portals, including creative laggard America Online, now embrace a number of ad technologies that allow them to showcase more intriguing—and intrusive—ads. Allie Savarino, Unicast senior vp of marketing, says publishers realized they weren’t “doing a good job of demonstrating the value of media.” The New York ad-technology firm is pushing units that can play across a number of sites, putting more focus on creativity and less on producing units on a site-by-site basis. And late last month, Unicast launched a format that, for better or worse, brings advertising online very close to what consumers experience on TV, further expanding the medium’s possibilities. The Full-Screen Superstitial is a 15-second animated ad that encompasses the entire screen. Unilever’s Snuggle and Slim-Fast are already using it.

“I think we’re at kind of a turning point again,” asserts Jan Leth, co-executive creative director at OgilvyOne North America, the unit of New York-based Ogilvy & Mather that handles direct and interactive marketing. The last turning point was the birth of online advertising; perhaps this one will produce online advertising that is actually good.

If none of this creative flowering has bloomed on your desktop, the highly targeted nature of the medium may be the reason (along with the overwhelming onslaught of pop-unders for the “Free Ninja” and X10 cameras that help to shroud some truly interesting ad concepts). Those who have judged recent award shows point to a number of efforts that use online’s technological capabilities to execute strong ideas.

Ingrid Bernstein, senior vp and creative director at iDeutsch, cites an ad for ING Direct by Tribal DDB in New York. To urge its audience to look at ING in a new way, agency and client persuaded CBS SportsLine and several other sites to turn every sequence of the letters “ing” on pages carrying an ING ad into orange, the corporate color. Matt Freeman, CEO of Tribal DDB, says the execution is one example of an ad that, “I’m not sure you could have done a few years ago.” While the effect is subtle and the execution was easy to pull off, it’s doubtful online publishers would have allowed such advertiser intrusion at an earlier point in the Web’s development.

Another favorite? An ad created by BBDO New York and its AtmosphereBBDO online unit that appeared on the Wall Street Journal Online to support General Electric’s recent “Imagination at work” campaign. In mid-February, the business site’s home page contained an ad that was all white except for the GE logo and tag; visitors were invited to click and drag on a virtual Magic Marker to sketch a drawing or scrawl a message. They could e-mail the result to a friend. The effort is interesting both for using innovative technology that allows for self-expression and for being viral, a campaign attribute many interactive creatives strive for. Jaffe, who showcases the ad at online-ad-wonk site, said the campaign reminds him of “the old business plan that might have been scribbled on a Starbucks napkin.”

If online advertising has a cult favorite, it would have to be CAMCAMTIME, the Sony Japan creation that last week won a Gold Pencil in the broadband category at One Show Interactive and has inspired Web postings from around the world. “It was such an ingenious piece of work,” says Kevin Flatt, creative director of interactive at Fallon Minneapolis and chairman of the One Show Interactive jury.

Sony asked two small Tokyo companies, Business Architects and One Sky, to create a project that would communicate the always-on aspect of broadband. They came up with a screensaver showing a clock that marked time using one-second movies submitted by people around the world. A huge circle on the screen was made up of photos of 60 participants at a time, representing a minute in total. The movies were gathered via CAMCAMTIME kiosks and also by having Handycam owners upload the videos of themselves to the project’s server.

The promotion ended in March, but not before Flatt and a good portion of the interactive intelligentsia became completely enamored with it.

The cutting-edge clients online seem to cross boundaries between media. Asked which marketers are particularly innovative, creatives mention Nike again and again, and the company last week was named Advertiser of the Year at One Show Interactive. That shouldn’t be surprising given the brand’s longtime creative pre-eminence offline. But it’s somewhat unexpected that an athletic company would rule the Web.

According to Greenberg of R/GA, which has created a number of e-commerce sites for the client, the process is one of constant idea generation so that the sites—which range from Nike Golf to the female-targeted—can achieve the holy grail of online creative: deep interaction with the brand. While the work is done by several agencies, including Wieden + Kennedy, R/GA and Barcelona-based DoubleYou, the uniform mind-set is to resonate with the consumer in as many ways as possible.

For example, R/GA’s gives advice on triathlon training, including a three-month calendar, motivational techniques and a chance to download a workout mix of MP3 files. Presented with crisp Nike graphics, it almost seamlessly works in buying opportunities for shoes, gear, heart-rate monitors and Nike-branded MP3 players.

Nike’s online universe also includes immersive games, such as a tie-in with last year’s soccer commercial “Secret Tournament” and a current soccer game, the Magia, that lets users pick players, team colors and team names before going into battle with other players.

You can spend quite a bit of recreational time within Nike’s online universe, downloading the Mars Blackmon spots from the land before CAMCAMTIME. But interactive creatives say that’s only part of the point. In fact, Fallon’s BMW Films—easily the most highly regarded online campaign—is not necessarily the talk of the town in the online creative community (nonetheless, last week, for the second year in a row, it won Best of Show at One Show Interactive).

While no one disputes the soundness of the idea, or of the execution, there’s a reluctance to make the campaign a poster child for what online creative should be. “I would probably go so far as to say I love BMW Films and I hate BMW Films,” says Jaffe. “It isn’t really an online advertising success story—it’s a marketing success story.”

That may sound like so much carping from someone who wants to further the notion that traditional folk don’t get it. But the reasoning goes deeper than that. BMW Films may be a great example of how to communicate with a hard-to-reach audience, but it uses the Web as a distribution channel more than anything else. “It’s really not that big an interactive idea,” explains Ogilvy’s Leth, who, like other interactive execs, has a certain hesitation when it comes to calling BMW Films the future of online media.

Fallon’s Flatt acknowledges the point—and says he knows the campaign has helped to spawn some pretty poor imitations. The campaign wasn’t intended to create a new way to broadcast long-form advertising but rather to make it clear that creatives don’t have to “go the same direction everybody else is,” he says. “You can do something different.”

The unraveling of the Web’s once-tight weave of technological, procedural and creative complications could even mean BMW Films will be viewed as quaint in a surprisingly short amount of time. (BMW said earlier this month that it has no plans to produce a new series of films.) Creative types now can not only encourage people to watch short films online but also employ instant-messaging—as seen in a recent effort for the Office of National Drug Control Policy—along with 3-D visual techniques and elaborate gaming scenarios. It’s a canvas so broad, it may take a while to get used to.

Leth recalls that he used to annoy the traditional creatives he works with by constantly explaining that a proposed idea was just not possible on the Web. Now, he says, “Well, you can do anything—but that’s an equally disturbing answer to them.”