People seldom talk about digital advertising, and when they do it's usually to complain about intrusive advertising. While criticism of annoying web ads isn't going away, a cadre of premium publishers, spearheaded by the Online Publishers Association (OPA), is betting that bigger, bolder new ads will spawn a creative revolution that will get users talking about online ads they love, not those they despise.
While achieving more respect -- and performance -- from premium ads has been a longtime goal for agencies and publishers alike, OPA's recent announcement brings much needed scale to the issue. According to OPA, nearly 30 publishers have committed to experimenting with the new super-sized ads before July 1-- a group that includes such notables as The New York Times, CBS Interactive, and Conde Nast Digital. But with an estimated reach of 66 percent of the total internet audience, media buyers shouldn't confuse this group with an ad network, says Pam Horan, president of OPA.
While reach is a big selling point for OPA, the larger and, at times, more aggressive ads are about bringing a richer palette to digital agencies, which have long labored inside the confines of rather small, IAB-standard ad units.
"When you talk to people about the creativity of web ads right now, you hear a lot about Apple, and little else," Horan says. "[But] there isn't a ton of creative [online] that has resonated in the way that creative has evolved on other platforms."
Horan thinks that's because some of the best creative is tucked away on microsites outside the publisher's main environment, where users are most likely to engage with the branded message.
But what makes these new, bigger ad units worth talking about? Surely it can't be size alone.
What are the ad units?
If OPA's experiment works, three terms are likely to get a lot more attention from creative shops, media buyers, and even brand marketers. At a recommended dimension of 336 x 860, the so-called "Fixed Panel" is a large banner that scrolls up and down the page in time with the user's own movement. The "XXL Box" (recommended dimension is 468 x 648) offers a magazine-style page-turn functionality and the ability to include video. Finally, the "Pushdown" (recommended dimension 970 x 418) opens to display the advertisement and then rolls up to the top of the page; the unit supports a range of rich media and video options.
While each ad is designed to give agencies a larger palette, the result is expected to be anything but standard. According to Horan, the ad units are a starting point for publishers and agencies.
"Each publisher offers its own unique environment," Horan explains. "What these ad units do is allow the agency to have a larger share of voice within the publisher's space."
And that's certainly something that will be popular with brands, according to Sean Cheyney, VP of marketing at AccuQuote, who says that larger ad units are exciting because they give the brand more opportunities to tell its story.
Those opportunities, combined with the scale offered by a big chunk of the web's premium publishers, could usher in a new era for digital advertising, according to some. But Cheyney, who praises the larger format, says he does worry that a more aggressive approach -- if used improperly -- could have a negative impact on a brand's message. And that means that "the next best thing for digital" could just as easily turn into a bigger, more aggressive version of the hated pop-up.
Are bigger ads better?
While the new formats have been well received by publishers and agencies alike, most mainstream press reports quickly surmised that the so-called super-sized ads would be a bigger headache than anything else.
Reuters called it "Creativity in your face," while The Los Angeles Times characterized the shift as, "In-your-face web ad formats popping up all over," making a subtle allusion to digital's most notorious ad unit.
But the emphasis on the size of the ad unit misses the point, says Andreas Combuechen, CEO of Atmosphere, a BBDO agency that has already begun designing campaigns for the larger palette.
"You hear a lot of press about applications, but it all comes down to creative," Combuechen says. "Historically, online hasn't gotten a lot of visibility from a creative prospective. You hardly ever hear someone talk about a banner. But these new ad units have the ability to attract a different level creative."
That different level of creative will also operate in a less cluttered space, according to Horan, who says that publishers are finding that a less-is-more approach is preferable when it comes to selling their premium inventory.
One of those publishers is ESPN.com, which recently agreed to join in OPA's experiment. According to Lisa Valentino, VP of digital sales for ESPN, the big opportunity presented to advertisers is the ability to speak without a lot of competition.
"First and foremost, we are coming back to the idea that context and environment really do matter," Valentino explains. "These ad units are about breaking out of that clutter and leading the industry toward more engaging and innovative creative."
But that's a commitment that won't just be measured by the size of the ad. According to Combuechen, one wild card in all of this is something entirely new that he believes should inspire advertising creativity that rivals -- and surpasses -- other media.
The wild card is a permalink function that allows users to share, save, and return to ads they like -- something that's been nearly impossible for most of the banners currently out there.
But will people save and share ads?
"Yes," says Combuechen, "if the creative is compelling and relevant."
While it may sound like a stretch for those who spend their time dodging banner ads to begin wondering how they can save and share them, the truth is that Combuechen could be on to something. Visit YouTube and type in your favorite television commercial and you're bound to find at least one video (usually more) with thousands, if not millions of views. The reason? The creative is great.
And that's precisely what has agencies like The Visionaire Group so excited. A small, Los Angeles-based creative agency, The Visionaire Group recently launched a super-sized YouTube ad for the new "Fast & Furious" movie.
While the ad wasn't part of the OPA-backed consortium, the agency's CEO Dimitry Ioffe cited the larger palate as a key factor in the campaign's success.
"With more space, we're able to do just so much more," Ioffe says. "For this ad, we started with the full theatrical trailer, which we were able to show in HD right when the user engaged with the ad."
From there, the ad allowed the user to watch more video, such as behind-the-scenes footage and exclusive videos. And for those who exhausted the ad unit's video offerings, there was a desktop widget and a racing game -- all in the same ad unit, all without leaving YouTube.
"It's almost that functionality of a microsite without leaving the publisher's page," Ioffe says, adding that even the most basic campaigns will be able to increase the number of messages a brand is able to put out there."
But beyond the ability to disseminate a range of branded messages, the super-sized ads also mean increased opportunities for publishers to work closely with agencies and marketers, says Jack Rotherham, SVP of strategic sales and partnerships for Metacafe, which isn't part of the OPA test, but has since launched its own custom super-sized ad unit.
"We see a lot more custom ads coming out of these larger units," Rotherham says. "I think that's a good thing because it puts digital on par with other mediums in terms of giving brands a range of touch points in the editorial space where they can connect with users."
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What does this mean for agencies?
In the digital era, there's no rest for the agency in its constant quest to prove value and redefine itself. But where the rise of ad networks reduced many digital agencies to media-buying shops and technology vendors, a hard push from a creative-based sector of the industry is likely to mean a new world of opportunity for creative shops.
While small, nimble creative shops are likely to see increased work from brands that need to tailor creative across dozens of premium sites, super-sized ads could also be a boon for larger digital agencies looking to take ownership of the client relationship. That's a trend that's happening more and more, according to Combuechen. But a greater emphasis on digital and creative that's worth talking about is likely to put a lot of creative digital shops at the center of a brand's strategy going forward.
But within those agencies, the ideas that carry the day are likely to be those that scale up to the larger stage. And that means agencies looking to play in the super-sized space will need to beef up on tools like video, Flash animation, and other forms of rich media.
Will it work?
While there's no predicting the future -- especially in this turbulent media environment -- it's fair say that there are several ways to tell if super-sized ads hit their mark.
The first sign of success will come from the agencies.
"The more agencies that start designing for these larger ad units, the better," says Horan, adding that so far agencies seem keen to think outside the standard banner ad box.
Of course, another sign will come from publishers. It's one thing to try a new ad unit, but it's another thing to embrace it. There, advertising professionals should take heart. According to OPA, many publishers are already implementing redesigns that are taking into account the next-gen ads.
But more important than agency adoption and publisher flexibility is client satisfaction. According to Horan one key goal of the new ads will be to begin implementing a framework across premium publishers, so that advertisers can achieve the twin goals of high quality, scalable creative, and granular metrics reporting.
However, the ultimate measure of success could be something totally subjective. "If people are talking about great creative online the way that they talk about ads for other mediums, I think that will be a great thing," Combuechen says.
That test may come in February 2010 when the entire country watches the Super Bowl -- an event many see as a creative advertising showcase sporadically interrupted by a football game. If at least some of the next day's watercooler talk is about the creativity of the ads found online, it's fair to say that digital may have just reached a new plateau.
The question then becomes whether the brand dollars will be there to bring in a new era of creative. Or, will yet another ad unit go the way of the pop-up, only to leave digital professionals once again searching for the next killer app?
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
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