Commentary

An Impossible Standard

Setting standards is difficult, discouraging work. I would know. I've tried several times - on behalf of DoubleClick, then the Interactive Advertising Bureau, then Macromedia - and I've failed as often as I've succeeded.

Still, the IAB should have done better on September 21 when it issued new rich media advertising guidelines. Three years after my initial IAB Rich Media Task Force set standards that were generally welcomed but widely disregarded, a reconvened task force has failed to learn from our mistakes. The IAB has presented new guidelines that are both too narrow in scope and too conservative in nature. Because of that, they simply cannot work.

In 2001, our task force strove to establish a lowest common denominator for rich media. Our goal was to gain the broadest possible support for our standards, especially from AOL, Yahoo!, and MSN. By issuing conservative guidelines, we were ensuring that every major site would accept rich media ads designed to our specifications.

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But in the end, we overshot our target and made the guidelines too conservative. It wasn't long before large publishers - even some members of our task force - were proudly announcing their willingness to exceed the IAB standards.

What I learned from the experience, but what the IAB apparently did not, is that standards work both ways. Just as it's important for conservative sites to reach up towards a standard, it's important for liberal sites to not push beyond that standard.

When major publishers let advertisers exceed IAB specifications, no one pays attention to those specifications and they fall by the wayside. The conservative guidelines in 2001 made it too easy for sites to exceed the standards, and in so doing undercut their authority and effectiveness.

Despite that experience, the IAB made the same mistake again last month and issued remarkably restrictive new guidelines. The IAB has prescribed surprisingly small file sizes - such as 30kb for interstitials and 40kb for floating ads - and doesn't give advertisers a chance to make important secondary downloads when users interact with their ads.

The guidelines try to limit animations within ads to fifteen seconds, a restriction that was once common but now is so archaic that no major site but Yahoo! attempts to enforce it. Finally, the IAB tries to prohibit ads with font sizes larger than 16-point. Guidelines that restrict an ad's size and shape are hard for agencies to accept. But these guidelines try to go much farther, and actually restrict an ad's creative execution.

The conservative new guidelines are especially baffling because they don't seem necessary. In 2001, it was the portals that advocated conservative guidelines - and because no standard can gain acceptance without support from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo!, we catered to their concerns.

However, the portals don't appear to be the laggards this time around. Both AOL and MSN exceed several of the file size guidelines, and both ignore the IAB ban on advertiser-initiated audio. Yahoo! allows advertisers to use 100kb in file size for floating ads, far beyond the IAB prescription of 40kb.

The industry needs aggressive rich media standards, and the portals are willing to accommodate that need. But the IAB has given us a set of bizarre, restrictive standards that are certain to get no more use than their predecessors.

Rich media ads are designed to push beyond traditional boundaries, to break outside normal advertising placements and to take advantage of tremendous bandwidth. It is in their very purpose to defy standardization. So the task of reigning in rich media is never going to be easy. But the IAB has managed to make it look much harder than it is.

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