THE BUBBLE YEARS: A Brief History of Online Time

by , Jun 7, 2002, 12:00 AM
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Back in the days when I was a teenager Befor%°Ohad status and before I had a pager You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin like Michael. –A Tribe Called Quest

Prodigy… PointCast… The Merc Center… Netscape… Softbank… Saying those words is like naming the Shades of Elysium as they come forward to speak to Aeneas on his journey to the Underworld. Great warriors of a mythical world covered by oceans of time.

When the very earliest advertising appeared online back in 1993 on proprietary services like Prodigy and CompuServe, no one took much notice at all. Most of the advertising world didn’t know what “online” even meant.

Sometimes when I talk about online media buying I feel like Dana Carvey’s “angry old man” character from his days on Saturday Night Live.

“In my day, we didn’t have online reporting; we had to count server logs by hand—and we LIKED IT!”

“We didn’t deal with CPMs. We told the publisher how much money we had and they took it and ran our GIFs and there was no guarantee of 100 or 100,000 hits and that’s the way it was—and we LIKED IT!”

Well, those were the good ol’ days. Standardized banners and impressions as the “atom” of the online ad universe were still on horizon. Just a few months before committing my first online buy, I was in a room South of Market (San Francisco) listening to Rick Boyce talk about this new thing called the banner. It was a graphic that appeared at the top of something called a “website” and it could take you to another “website” that was loaded with information and images about a product, service, or whatever the website owner wanted to put on it. “Wow,” I thought, “this is damn cool.”

The first online media buy I took part in during the Fall of ’95 for Nestle, there wasn’t much in the way of negotiating. The planner I worked with had some money, approached the Merc Center, San Jose Mercury News’ website, and asked if we could sponsor the weather page for six months. When the answer was yes, we went for it. End of negotiations.

Since then, the online advertising space has changed dramatically. Not only in terms of the medium’s pervasiveness—in 5 years the medium has achieved the kind of penetration Network Cable took 20 years to achieve—but in the ways that advertisers and publishers have engaged it.

So, when we dig through the strata, what kinds of fossilized trilobites and seashells do we find? What sorts of markers can be found in the historical record of the online advertising geography? What follows is my take on the most significant milestones for advertising in the digital age.

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