It's an uncomfortable moment in any journalist-type person's day when the interviewee turns the tables and starts asking questions. It's even more disconcerting when that journalist lacks even the barest hint of a clue as to the answers.
Such was the situation in which I found myself during the first interview for this story, which I'd elegantly pitched as "Why does online display advertising suck eggs?" The person on the other end of the line was Daniel Ruby, research director for online insights at Chitika, an online ad network/data analytics consultancy. After I prodded him with numerous leading and largely theoretical questions about display ads - "Where did we go wrong?" "Who is to blame?" "And be so courteous as to name names, please," etc. - he hit me right back with a query that, unlike mine, was neither dramatic nor overly labored. What he asked me was this: "What is the best or most memorable piece of online display advertising that you've ever seen?"
I spent the next 40 seconds in a state of tongue-tied frenzy, rifling through my mental attic for something, anything, that had left an impression. All I could summon were "punch the monkey" teases, blinky graphics promising mortgage reduction, shoot-the-ball-in-the-hoop time-wasters, and bits about how to receive "one tip for a tiny belly." I recalled thinking that the latter was the most ubiquitous ad in the history of online advertising; I remembered refusing to click on it, just on general principle.
But I could not come up with a single non-schlocky display ad that had left its fingerprint on my imagination. Ruby just laughed. I sensed that he knew the answer to his question before he asked it. So where are we, exactly, in the evolution of display advertising? It largely depends on whom you ask. seo-inclined execs paint the picture of a good idea fumbled and rendered irrelevant by the ad technologies that followed. Display zealots acknowledge its flaws but suggest that a comeback is in the offing. Media and marketing pundits mostly shrug, citing the inherent challenges faced by any Internet advertiser - namely, that it is nigh on impossible to capture users' attention in an environment where they can just as easily check email, tweet or do a quick drop-in on a favorite Web destination as engage with a piece of force-fed ad content.
The reality, obviously, lies somewhere in between. One thing they all agree on, though, is that they wish display advertising could take a mulligan and start from scratch. Knowing what we know now, they say, display advertising could be reinvented as the catchy, clever marketing tool/venue hybrid it was once expected to be. It could even - gasp! - help sell stuff.
"[Display advertising] started from the perspective of 'We know tv and newspaper and magazine advertising. We'll use the same metrics and same thought processes,'" Ruby explains. "That put us in a deep hole that we are still climbing out of." Doug DiFrancesco, president and founder of seo/sem firm Future Beta, agrees: "Everybody treated [display advertising] like traditional marketing, but it's very different. As a result, it became just another place where people threw money."
Even as they more or less agree that display advertising is in a far better place than it was a few years ago, pundits don't lack for ideas about how they'd revamp it. Among their primary bones of contention is the creative content itself, which they alternately describe as irrelevant, off-brand and half-assed.
"Online advertisers tend to myopically focus on data, and the creative shows it. Ads turn out looking pretty lifeless when you've turned the whole creative process into a math problem and have ignored classic advertising elements like emotion and storytelling - the hard-to-measure elements that typically drive long-term brand strength," says one exec.
That exec, Myles Younger, clearly has a horse in this race. He's the cofounder and chief of marketing and business development for Canned Banners, whose flagship product helps small- and medium-sized businesses create their own Flash-enabled display ads. He happened upon the concept for his business while working in corporate marketing. There, as part of a deal for print ad space, the sales guy calling on him offered to throw in banner ads for free. "What he said was, 'Nobody clicks on them and they don't really work, so I'm not even going to try the hard sell,'" Younger recalls. "There was nothing in the ads that mattered. They might as well have been blank."
It doesn't help that display ads never truly registered on Madison Avenue's radar. Enamored of the bigger budgets and broader artistic canvas afforded by television and print advertising, many firms barely bothered with display. "Let's face it: The medium doesn't allow for the same creative expression as tv," shrugs Scott Kurnit, founder and chief executive officer of AdKeeper, a firm that allows users to mark ad content with a "keep" tag and store it. "[Agency creatives] would rather do tv commercials and put them on their reel - 'I'm busy over here shooting a $150,000 commercial.'"
But before Kurnit, Younger and their similarly inclined peers can fill the creative void, they need somebody to rezone the 468-by-60 pixel space generally allotted to display.
Until the tech guys/gals learned how to embed Flash and other tchotchkes within a banner ad, there was only so much that could be done with the space. If marketers went the info-heavy route, users found the ad cluttered. If they attempted to keep the space free and airy, users found it to be uninformative.
Any number of entities are working on this problem. Spongecell and Pictela get raves for their superfunctional, supersized ad units, which let users engage without leaving the Web page. Pundits roundly praise a recent Pictela ad unit for JetBlue, which boasted eight video sub-units (for a total of 20 minutes of content total). The Internet Advertising Bureau is on the case, throwing its weight behind a handful of "brand friendly" (their words, not mine) "Rising Stars Ad Units." aol is in the mix with its spookily named "Project Devil" (larger ad units, fewer on the page). "There's no reason Web pages should look the same as they did 15 years ago," aol's home page proclaims.
The area where critics of display advertising would most like to hit the reset button, however, is in setting up metrics to gauge effectiveness. While marketers have moved beyond counting clicks - a good thing, given that non-accidental click rates had descended into hundredths-of-a-percentage-point territory - they're still not sure how to accurately measure user engagement.
"Once advertisers - not just ad agencies - started being able to get their hands on very granular numbers about the effect of their online campaigns, they did what any smart businessperson would do: they started to pay attention to the roi and the click-through rates and the quality of the traffic," Ruby explains. "They weren't seeing what they needed to see and the spend shifted away. That's part of the problem for display advertising."
Yet amid all the talk about creative and measurement issues - not to mention the occasional snide remark about how media-first agencies have elbowed in on the creative process - most critics of display ads believe that they're poised for a renaissance. That's the word they use over and over. They make a powerful case for a potential rebirth. First and foremost, they caution that the Internet remains in its infancy, relatively speaking. "Web advertising is 15 years old. You can't expect everyone to get everything right in only 15 years," Kurnit cautions.
In that context, display-ad boosters and cynics alike express great optimism about forthcoming tools, toys and tweaks to the system. David Levin, president of the creative and technology group at interactive agency 360i, points to an expansion in the amount of space and consideration afforded to online advertisers. "We're seeing a larger area for the kind of messaging and interactivity clients want, and we're seeing better and more integrated placements within the content page," he says. "Brand marketers need the ability to bring data easily into those spaces - retail locations, Twitter feeds, whatever. All those pieces have to come together."
Levin also notes a shift in display-ad creative, especially in its service of the brand. "You hear so much about how advertising work in this medium is unique, but it still needs to be on-brand," he continues. "Finally we're starting to see those brands properly represented in their display advertising, not just in terms of look and feel but also in terms of messaging. [Advertisers] are owning their brands."
Thus on a fine, summery June morning, I set out to answer the most important question of all: how effectively are the good/bad/tired/improving/post-seo/pre-renaissance/new-'n'-shiny/old-'n'-clunky versions of online display ads targeting and captivating their most essential audience? That is to say: me.
The short answer: pretty well. I remain thoroughly nonplussed by the big honkin' marketing brick that Yahoo has seen fit to plop down in the middle of my home page, which rarely serves up anything more diverting than pitches for new Groupon-esque entities. But surely and slowly, the content delivered to my screen has started to coincide with my interests.
By my rough calculations, the targeting has improved 7,250 percent in recent months. I go browsing for running shoes at Holabird Sports, and days later comparable models are still popping up atop and alongside my Web content. I price guitar strings at four or five different sellers, and I'm served with special display offers from Musician's Friend and juststrings.com. None of this feels remotely invasive - and that comes from a guy with profound Web/privacy paranoia issues, which manifest themselves in the form of thrice-daily cache clearings. I'm doing everything within my power to trip up the trackers, yet they're still finding a way to serve me? Bravo, cyborg algorithm terminatrixes, bravo.
Furthermore, the display-ad servers can't be gamed, at least not by someone with my minimal intelligence and expertise. I've been doing extensive research for a series of stories on pharmaceutical marketing, which has involved typing drug names into my Chrome browser bar and hoping my clumsy phonetic misspellings correlate with actual products. Happily, display servers have recognized this as what it is - a severe deviation from my regular browsing practice - and refrained from assaulting me with pitches for Zaroxolyn or Levatol.
As for the creative within the display ads I'm being served, I'm torn. On one hand, the video within the aforementioned JetBlue ad is a true marvel, well-tailored from a content perspective and properly dimensionalized from an intrusion/engagement perspective. On the other hand, umpteen years of invasive, dopey and just plain irrelevant display ads have conditioned me to ignore everything within their borders. The JetBlue ad crossed my path multiple times before I engaged with it. That could be the ultimate barrier to the display resurrection: the whole fool-me-once/fool-me-twice thing. The second wave of display ads has been done no favors by its predecessors. Right after he chuckled at my inability to identify a single compelling display advertisement, Chitika's Ruby stressed that point: an Internet-wide case of ad-amnesia would be the best thing to happen to marketers hoping to resuscitate their display-ad campaigns. Of course, he's already been well served. Hoping to atone for my inability to answer the question about memorable display ads, I threw it right back at him, à la, "So, uh, what's your best/coolest display-ad experience?" I might have punctuated this with a few fist-pumps and a boo-yah! or three. Ruby doesn't miss a beat. "Oh, there's one I've seen over and over for the past two months, for an online role-playing game called Rift," he responded cheerily. "What they don't know is that I'm already playing it. At this point with me, it's kind of a branding exercise - 'Oh, I should play some Rift later.' They're not going to get any more money out of me." He then laughs the laugh of a guy who's beaten the system.