Shape of things to come is good news for banners

Banners have more than commercial potential and the IAB’s latest move will mean their real potential is realised, says Rory Sutherland

It is most unfashionable to write favourably of Internet banner advertising at the moment. Yet I’m moved to do so now.

It is rare that the banner gets a press mention other than in stories with headlines declaring: “click-through rates in freefall”, or some other tired phrase. The fact that click-rates fell is irrelevant, since unclicked banners have considerable value for many advertisers. But even if it were relevant, it isn’t true.

Average click-rates ended their descent almost a year ago and have remained on a plateau at about 0.5 per cent. Not impressive, perhaps, but nonetheless not quite a freefall.

More recently, there has been a slew of articles criticising websites for daring to imagine that ad revenue alone could cover their costs.

Fair enough, but is this really the fault of the banner? Do we decry press advertising because it fails to cover publishers’ costs, cursing every time we have to pay for a copy of a daily paper? And besides, it isn’t as though the banner is proving to be a trough for vast advertising fortunes either. Even in the US, the banner accounts for just two per cent of ad spend – a vastly lower proportion than TV considering to consumers’ overall screen time.

Even so, given the scepticism of this advertising medium, it was no surprise that when the Internet Advertising Bureau announced it was to standardise an extra seven banner formats. This was seen by many as a desperate last-ditch action.

I disagree. This seems to be the first step in what I expect to be a series of positive steps concerning Web ads.

These new formats are good news. They will help break the monotonous uniformity of banners which makes them not only creatively restrictive, but also progressively less noticeable.

They will help kill many of the idiotic traditions of banner positioning, which seem to exist for no better reason than habit. In what other medium does advertising mostly appear at the top of the page? This would be peculiar in printed press, and contrary to the motion of the eye. On a Web page it is more peculiar, as the slightest scrolling action renders the ad invisible.

These new formats, including a “skyscraper” shape, will also allow for much better use of new technologies, such as Enliven, where the interaction takes place within the banner, rather than leading the viewer away from it.

Already the “click-within rate” is replacing the “click-thru rate” as the measure of visitor interaction.

New formats are needed to ensure the creative opportunities offered by broadband are not wasted, as the mainstream adoption of ADSL is only a few years away.

But, in the gradual rehabilitation of the banner, these expanding creative possibilities are minor compared with the targeting possibilities we shall increasingly enjoy. After all, before we become smug in heaping opprobrium upon the banner, we should at least remember that it is an addressable medium. In an age of fragmenting media, an addressable medium is a very good thing.

In conventional advertising – press for example – advertising is unavoidably linked to the content that surrounds it. Hence, if you buy the Daily Telegraph, you will get ads aimed at the kind of people Telegraph readers are considered likely to be.

In addressable media – which include direct mail, the telephone, e-mail, banners, a few Internet radio stations and a Swedish subscription magazine called Voice – the advertising targets the individual reader regardless of the content that surrounds it.

So if you listen to Internet Radio via, for example, the Coollink Broadcast Network the “radio” ads you hear are related to your geography and age, rather than the station you are listening to. This is not a bad thing. In an ideal world, how many brands would choose to define their target audience purely by their musical tastes?

Companies such as Doubleclick.com are starting to offer extremely addressable targeting to online advertisers. They ensure that different website visitors receive very different ads based on their personal interest.

My own view is that this permission-based approach should be taken further. There is no rule that states that banners must exclusively contain commercial advertising. The banner is simply the Internet equivalent of picture-in-picture, allowing one piece of content to show through another.

So instead why not set up a banner-based portal,where members receive not only targeted advertising in their banners but relevant information such as local news, company news, weather, sports?

It’s just a thought, but it proves one thing: for all its many flaws, the banner still offers the potential for improvement. Now how many other media can you say that of?

Rory Sutherland is executive creative director of Ogilvy One

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