Digital Turns 25, Ad Vets Reminisce On First Banner Ad

Crack open a bottle of Zima -- one of 14 brands that simultaneously served the first banner ad on (then Hotwired) on Oct. 27, 1994 -- and celebrate digital advertising’s silver anniversary.

While AT&T’s apocryphal banner -- “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here… You will.” -- is often credited as being the first to actually load on users’ browsers, the real bragging rights go to a number of high-profile and unsung digital ad pioneers that had the vision to pave the way for Madison Avenue’s transformation from its roots in static analogue media to a digital interactive one.

The following round-up of reminiscences brings us back to what they were thinking then and how they feel about it now.



Rob Norman, senior advisor, GroupM

"The 25th anniversary of the banner ad is not a time to celebrate, but rather a moment to reflect on the moment in time where blind optimism created a host of bad "cost per" incentives that stifled the intentions of the founders of the World Wide Web.

"It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. It is equally true that the buyers and sellers of advertising abhor blank space. Space is for selling and if there is not enough space, make more.

"The banner ad, the button, the link and all that followed were just money engines. Money engines need currencies. Mint new metrics; hits, views, clicks, view throughs and ta da… welcome to the most accountable medium in history.

"Editors, journalists and consumers be damned. Money talks. Desecrate the work and invite the barbarians through the gates.

"In the beginning, banners worked. The case of curiosity and the click. But as the web became a supernova of stuff (content is a stretch), banner ads stopped working and it became clear that the web was not only less accountable than we thought, it was barely countable.

"We could have cleaned up Dodge, but instead we added to the fraudulent pollution with rich media pop-ups and single pixel ads on web sites of unknown provenance and value to anyone besides the fraudsters.

"And worst of all, we were all a part of it and we all wanted to believe it worked. Publishers wanted to believe that they had 100 million readers and advertisers wanted to believe that the hegemony of television might actually be on the slide. The agencies saw data that seemed to be able to separate audience from context and thus a shift in power from seller to buyers.

"In no sense that matters was any of this true. Instead we watched a destruction of value.

"The ad tech complex created dollars from dust.

"Dollars to dimes in Jeff Zucker's words, or diamonds to pork bellies in the words of Wenda Harris Millard. Floods of venture money created false prophets and no real profits.

"The old system weakened, and the power vacuum was filled by Google and Facebook.

"One connected people to information to information, goods and services. The other, people to people. No content required, no banners required, in search at least.

"In the end the legacy of the banner will be this; you can't do hard things on the cheap without trampling whatever it is you actually valued. And, if things seem too good to be true, they probably are.

"Happy birthday. Sorry, we couldn't make a party."

Scott Tieman, global lead for programmatic services, Accenture Interactive

"As the industry celebrates the 25th anniversary of what has been recognized as one of the first digital banner advertisements, it's a great time to reflect on what this moment in time means for the industry today.

"We live in an increasingly impersonal age and more than ever, consumers are hungry for a better connection. Yet, while they don't want to feel like another meaningless data point in a spreadsheet, it is our duty to navigate the fine line between personalized experiences and invasion of privacy.

"More than ever, brands today have the opportunity and responsibility to establish a trusting relationship with their audiences so they feel prioritized and understood.

"I'd particularly like to highlight how -- on the heels of this anniversary -- we're seeing digital advertising give rise to unprecedented amounts of first-party data, which organizations are using as a key source for their digital advertising campaigns. However, brands often fail to use this data in a way that benefits the consumer and makes them feel engaged and not exploited.

"We recently explored how tumultuous this relationship between brands and consumer data usage has become. A majority of consumers -- 69%, to be exact -- reported they would stop doing business with a brand if data usage became too invasive. On the other hand, 73% of consumers said they would be willing to share more personal information if brands are transparent about how it is used.

"It is evident that as we look to the future of the industry, and the next 25 years of digital advertising, the value of addressing data, personalization and transparency will be paramount to successful campaigns, brand value, and more than anything, consumer trust.

"And that future is in our hands. From the inception of the modern display ad in the 90s to the introduction of Google AdWords in 2000, viral platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, the continued rise of mobile traffic and the widespread adoption of voice technology -- our biggest challenge remains in walking the fine line between forward-thinking and personalized content and responsible data usage."

Kyle Acquistapace, executive director-communication, Publicis Groupe's Team One

“I remember placing a banner ad on in 1996. The QSR client I was working with had a certain health-related message to tell the world and that was the place we HAD to be. That sense of context and content feels like it has changed most.

"Behavioral targeting today often obviates the need to be concerned with context, due largely to the rise of automation and programmatic. We can reach plumbers anywhere (for example) not just on something like, but that comes with a lot of “misses.”

Doesn’t mindset and context still play a role in people’s receptivity? I’ve been relentlessly retargeted for funeral services on my favorite motorcycle blogs, and it just didn’t land right with me (true story). As someone who focuses on premium brands, I believe that we have to balance efficiency and audience targeting with a well-honed sense of place and mindset. Yes, the medium is still the message.

"But mostly, it can feel like digital advertising hasn’t changed at all. No one -- not even me -- knew what they were doing back in those dark ages of the internet. I think our ad server was a carrier pigeon.

"So in that regard, some things haven’t actually changed all that much -- a lot of people still aren’t deeply sure of what they are doing. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of skilled pros, data ad infinitum and amazing ad tech, but the pace of change is such that there isn’t always the sense of unbridled confidence that has long fueled advertising.

"However, that unchanged sense of uncertainty is invigorating and healthy for all of us -- it keeps us constantly awake at the wheel and wildly focused on figuring things out. I’ll take that over bravado any day.”

Anne Marie Neal, Global CMO, Rapp

"Since the launch of the first social platform in 1997, Six Degrees, the pace of change in the social mediaverse has been astonishing. New technologies that seem to crop up on a weekly, if not daily, basis perpetually driving new social utility and engagement and spinning off new datasets and platforms that brands must use to reach consumers in more relevant ways.

Yet despite social media’s ever-increasing scale and sophistication, many brands continue to underutilize the data-rich, real-time and responsive nature of social media as a tool for engagement and community building. Instead, they choose to use it as a broadcast channel to push out one-way messages that are more akin to mass advertising than dynamic digital communications.

"Even more broadly, social media and related platforms, such as interactive gaming, are providing increasingly relevant ways for myriads of population segments to communicate across large communities.

Social media, in all its forms, has singlehandedly revolutionized our societal norms of what it means to be connected, what it means to be social with others. Brands can play a welcomed and refreshing role in bringing people together around shared experiences and collective action. Those that do will realize strategic advantage by delivering meaningful customer experiences and even improved products and services delivering long-term value.

"Second, we are in a data apocalypse. Data volume is propagating exponentially, with the global data sphere projected to grow from 33 zettabytes (ZB) in 2018 to 175ZB by 2025. But while data has become one of the world’s most valuable resources, many companies are struggling to make the most of their data because of a lack of data literacy. And, as a result, data is misused -- allowing facts to become slippery. The proliferation of synthetic reality and fake news has created a culture where consumers struggle to find truth, question what they see, and demand radical transparency from brands.

"To combat this, brands should drive a shift from "data maximalism" to "data minimalism." Minimal viable data should become the new trend in product and experience design as organizations strive to gather only the data required to deliver against consumer needs. Therefore, brands that design for privacy and transparency -- so that consumers understand what is being asked of them, can control their personal information and are clear on how their data is used -- will build consumer trust, enhance the value exchange and provide a foundation for a more enduring relationship."

Steven Parker Jr., co-founder-CEO, Levelwing

"In 1996, I was helping run the newly formed digital unit for a Fortune 500 company, Columbia/HCA (the largest healthcare provider in the United States). We were publicly traded, owned 350+ hospitals and many other assets. In addition, we were the “official healthcare provider” at the time for 50+ major pro-sports teams: Chicago Bulls, Dallas Cowboys, Colorado Avalanche, etc… that was the exciting part about healthcare. Leveraging that into content, for this new thing called the Internet, was a no-brainer.

"One day we got a call from a sales rep at a company called Starwave. Starwave was owned by Paul Allen (the co-founder of Microsoft) and at the time they operated the websites for ESPN, and NASCAR Online among a few others. The short is, they came to pitch us on a section for the website called “The Training Room.”

Our ads back then had click rates that one would salivate over by today’s standards, 1 - 1.5% was standard. But when we launched a creative program with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders our CTRs went through the roof. I believe 7 - 9% was not at all uncommon for some period of time. Who isn’t curious about a high ankle sprain on a cheerleader?

Those CTR’s might still be a record on Also notable was the deal we signed with They pitched us on a one-year ad deal. We made it a two-year deal instead. At the time it was one of the first multi-year deals ever done and I believe one of the first, if not the first at the $1 million-dollar mark (remember many ad deals in this time period were $5 – 20k).

This deal very much helped Starwave sell to Disney. The sales rep was none other than the guy that convinced me to move to New York, former Google Ad Chief and former AOL CEO, Tim Armstrong."

Eric Mayville, COO, Wondersauce

"When that first banner ad came out, messaging and design really weren’t a priority just because it was such a novelty at that point. You can see it in the ad. All it says is “click here” and you clicked it. Imagine trying to get away with that today.

Back then, it was all about real estate, and the demand outweighed the supply. A 10-year-old could make those ads, and I know that, because I did. I owned and made online ads for wrestling forums. I traded my services for rare photos of wrestlers and my photoshopped ads drove way more engagement than the other text/ascii banners most people were making.

Now, because of all the screens and channels people are on, the supply outweighs the demand and you’ve got to be much more strategic about the way you’re creating these online ads.

People are seeing your ad 10 different times 10 different ways, so the messaging better stick and make sense with the brand. And obviously, you can’t expect to sustain your business on collectible wrestling photos alone. If the past 25 years have taught me anything, it’s that."

Matthew Rednor, founder-CEO, Decoded Advertising

“The "second class citizens" have taken over. Digital used to be looked down upon and was either a cut down of your TV work or a place to put your b-roll footage.

It's flipping now and your digital strategy is more important than your TV script. It helped that we stopped spending millions of dollars buying fans, 'like gating' and getting into Farmville.”

Tim Leake, senior vice president-Chief Marketing & Innovation Officer, RPA

"Embarrassing things I remember honest-to-goodness advertising professionals doing or saying when it came to ad banners over the last 25 years:

“Movement always works well,” I was once told in the early days of banners. The clients literally chose which concepts to go with based on how much movement there was. They weren’t alone. As an Internet user, I remember lots of ads with repetitive dancing silhouettes. And they weren’t iPod ads. They were for insurance or something, I guess? I don’t know. It was a dark time for ad banners.

“It’s okay to trick people into clicking.” Someone actually told me that. Fake error messages worked. Buttons that didn’t do what you said the button did in the ad. Oh, and remember “Punch the Monkey and win $20!”? I have no idea what it was selling. Who cares? People clicked. Sigh.

“What’s the reveal?” This question was delivered by someone who clearly believed that people were staring at the section of the web site where the banner lives and were anxiously waiting to see what 728 x 90 graphic would appear next. I used to see a lot of "storyboards" for banners and often wondered why we bothered with anything that wasn’t the final frame.

"Be more interruptive." Those aren’t the exact words they said, but it’s what they advocated for. Swear to god, I saw a creative director passionately pitch a banner that expanded to look like it spilled coffee all over the screen -- in order to sell coffee. Because nothing makes me love your brand more than covering up the article I’m trying to read with spilled liquid. When "rich media" banners first came along, this was the brilliant stuff a lot of brands did with it.

“The click-through rate is through the roof for these ads that start talking (with sound!) to the user without permission.” Yep, because people were desperately trying to figure out how to shut it off. The bounce rates were through the roof, too. 

"I was always the frustrating guy who was pushing back about why I didn’t think any of that would work. Foolishly, I was applying logic and a rudimentary understanding of human behavior -- when clearly I should have just been looking at the click-through rate. 

"But thankfully, we’ve evolved as an industry. We’re a lot better at using display ads (which is what we call banners these days, FYI) in ways that actually add value and don’t create a horrible user experience. Not always. But we’re better at it. We’re better at being relevant — which beats “lots of motion” any day. And we’re better at respecting our audience. 

"Despite our being lousy parents, at the age of 25, the banner ad is finally starting to act like a responsible member of society."

Robert Gibbs, head of performance, MDC Partners’ Assembly

"I’m proud to be the first person to serve a digital ad... I’m kidding.

"But I seem to have met so many people who claim that they invented digital advertising… or built the first DSP… usually at CES… or on a panel… or on a panel at CES.

"When I think about how far we’ve progressed in digital in 25 years, it has little to do with how many new toys or petabytes of data we have to play with. What I find most remarkable is that after 25 years, we are still trying to solve for the same fundamental question: How do we engage the right consumer, at the right moment, with the right message?

"Many people roll their eyes when they hear that overused phrase, but it is what drove us from mass marketing into the era of precision, and what will lead us from precision to predictive marketing.

"Even as everything becomes more sophisticated, the challenge for marketers is to keep up. We have yet to experience a personalized, sequential, cross-channel journey that anticipates what a person wants, when they want it.

"We now find ourselves on the verge of the most disruptive time our industry has ever seen (again), with greater concern and legislation for consumer privacy bringing us back to a place where common sense and a powerful creative idea are more important than ever.

If only we could stop thinking about digital in a silo; stop thinking of programmatic as a channel; stop buying and measuring TV as we did before digital ads; stop waiting for the year of mobile. Only then can we start building media and creative ideas together to anticipate where the right consumer is going and how we, as marketers, can meet them there -- with authenticity and respect.

"And above all else, I realize the only question as relevant today as it was 25 years ago is 'Where should we go next?'

"On that note, see you at CES."

2 comments about "Digital Turns 25, Ad Vets Reminisce On First Banner Ad".
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  1. Bruce Judson from BritePool, October 27, 2019 at 1:39 p.m.


    For many years HotWired was reported to have run the first banner ad. 

    In fact, Time Warner's Pathfinder site, which launched three days before HotWired (during the same week) ran the first banner ad. It appears this idea for how advertising on media properties on the Web was developed independently, but the first banner ads were run by Tine Warner's Pathfinder on October 24, 1994.

    See and the references incorporated in this article.

    This month does, nonetheless, represent a quarter of a center of web advertising, and the reflections in your article are valuable perspectives for the advertising community.


    Bruce Judson

  2. Stewart Pearson from Consilient Group, October 27, 2019 at 7:42 p.m.

    The banner ad is not the point.  In 1995 Levi's had the original vision for Personalization. I was at FCB. We lost Levi's because we were diverted by technology. The new team at FCB regaining a resurgent Levi's is one of the most positive stories ever about brands and agencies.  At FCB we also launched global web content for AT&T when I was in Asia-Pacific. One of the transformative opportunities the web has created is for global brands to engage both globally and locally.

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