In online advertising's infancy, many publishers ran what we now call "native ad formats." At the time, "ad format" referred solely to dimensions, as ads were either GIFs or JPGs. As publishers multiplied, the number of formats increased, and ad agencies started crying foul. They couldn't keep up with creating the seemingly countless sizes needed for a diverse, wide-reaching media plan.
Along came the IAB and, with it, widespread adoption of new ad standards like the 728x90, 300x250, and 160x600. "Hooray," said the agencies. "Now we can just create one size, and run it everywhere!" For a short while, agencies could handle creating ads for media plans including many different sites, and things were good.
Standardization killed creativity
It wasn't long before the world started to change around us. Flash became the standard animation tool. The internet became faster. Smooth, high-quality video arrived, and clients demanded it. Wires were dismissed. The mobile web became a reality. Smartphones, tablets, myriad media fragmentation, and an ever-evolving digital landscape all became standard.
Through it all, the advertising palette remained relatively unchanged. Those standards that proved so liberating more than a decade ago became handcuffs for the creative thinkers in our industry.
Move over, creativity
As data, scale, and direct response rise, creativity has taken a backseat. But there's no denying that we've seen a fair amount of innovation in the ad industry over recent years. We've learned to:
- Plan more effectively, finding the exact audience we're seeking
- Differentiate our best inventory from our worst, and cheaply sell the inventory we don't sell directly
- Measure success in fractions of a percentage
- Make the small banners we build grow in size, without distorting the presentation upon interaction
- Add unlimited advertising, no matter how small, to pages we can prove have a high number of unique visitors
After all this wonderful evolution, where has that left our industry's ability to engage and compel customers in the eyes of most advertisers and agencies? Right where we started -- at the bottom.
We might as well be on the moon
The world around us is changing more rapidly than ever before. Television is fragmenting into atomic particles allowing viewers to skip advertising in real time. Tablet use is exploding, while smartphones are near ubiquitous among the audience most heavily targeted. Printed newspapers are dropping like characters in "Boardwalk Empire," as content is being accessed and shared through aggregators like Flipboard or socially via Facebook and Twitter.
How do we evolve to keep up? A few general guidelines:
- Content is, and always will be, in demand, especially local, relevant content.
- Consumers will pay for some content, such as music, TV shows, and feature films.
- Free content must be better understood; it's free because it is supported by advertising.
We're left with a need to deliver great content alongside great advertising. But unfortunately, we're not seeing this today.
It's time to change the palette
We know clean web pages are better than ones cluttered with ads. We know users are finding aggregators far more usable. Finally, we know the curve of direct response dollars has reached its zenith in its migration online. Therefore, there's major opportunity in branding and awareness. How do we capitalize on these things? We change the environment by starting with a three-point plan.
- Clean up the content. People want ease of use, content that is more visual, image-based, and app-like.
- Integrate high-quality advertising, and even better, turn that advertising into additional high-value content. We're doing this in apps, but they're expensive and difficult to create. Migrate that to the mobile web, though, and they become affordable.
- Unify the web. Technology like HTML5 lets us create a very app-like experience online, and it views the same no matter the device.
We have potential for a powerful web, where the line between editorial content and advertising isn't so black and white. It would be a web that stays consistent wherever we are -- a web that offers advertisers opportunity at impact. It would be a web with real, measurable impact.
Standardization and creativity can co-exist
If we do this together, the entire internet migrates into a much higher quality experience, and advertisers will migrate with it. It wasn't long ago that we adopted the standards of the IAB, and as an industry, we're in a perfect position to change the way we advertise today. It takes one major publisher to throw a stake in the ground, and the rest will follow. At that moment, we can offer advertisers the Holy Grail: the ability to both reach consumers in a meaningful way and the chance to get immediate, valuable feedback and interaction from those consumers.
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"Broken lightbulb" image via Shutterstock.