Online Advertising's Greatest Trick

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The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

The greatest trick online advertising ever pulled was convincing the world that a direct response didn’t exist. Do you remember when we called them "banner ads"? You don’t hear them called that anymore. Most new media professionals call them "display advertising." Why? When people think of banner advertising, they think of the early days of online advertising and the promise that people like me (and many of my peers) brought to the media mix. That promise? Finally, we have an ad unit that we can truly measure. We can measure it in terms of impressions served, people who clicked on them and then what they did (the point of conversion). We can also target those ads to the exact spaces that the brand wanted… as niche as we could go (even down to a keyword!). In essence, we had a true advertising unit. One we could measure from the cradle to the grave and it was going to change the world.


It turned out that the general public didn’t necessarily fall in love with banner advertising. Yes, we can blame things like technology and the limitations of both serving and delivering a message with impact. Yes, we can blame the online publisher’s for cluttering pages with way too many of these messages in way too many different formats. Yes, we can blame the creatives for pushing banners that asked us to punch a monkey or the ones that were blinking to the point of inducing spasms. Whoever you blame, banner advertising stiffed. And yet, in all of that, banner advertising is still one of the leading online marketing opportunities for Marketers to this day. With billions of eyeballs online, why not just prop up a banner ad on a page to get noticed? Who cares if it generates a click or an action? In fact, maybe a banner ad is all about the branding effect? It was this line of thinking that propelled the industry to pull a PR spin and change the name from "banner advertising" to "display advertising."

Does online advertising deliver a true branding effect?

It seems like the clicks and conversations that we typically used to measure online advertising efficacy aren’t as important as the more basic metric of impressions served. This is an interesting shift/trend. Late last week, MediaPost, ran the news item, Display Advertising Shifts From Direct Response To Branding Media. The title alone is enough to terrify the more traditional online marketers (and yes, I include myself in this lot). If the impetus for advertising online is branding instead of a direct response, where does this leave us? According to the news item: "The Digital Advertising 2011: A Portrait of Conflict study released by Collective finds that 57% of agencies believe the majority of their display objectives are to build the brand, yet only 11% cite ad creative as critical to the campaign’s success. Still, 60% of agencies cite brand recall and intent to purchase as the most important measures of online success. However, clicks and conversions remain the key criteria agencies say they use to evaluate media, according to the Collective study."

Are the brands just kidding themselves?

If the brands only care about building brand through brand recall and intent to purchase, why even care about metrics like the clickthrough rate and/or conversions? Why not stand up and say, "online advertising is all about blasting a message in front of people’s eyeballs!" Much in the same way a billboard, magazine ad or TV ad interrupts the media experience? The challenge and sorrow that I feel is that it can be used for something so much more. Look at Google AdWords as an example: the advertising compliments, is valuable and doesn’t interfere with the overall content experience. While I understand that display advertising has both underperformed and was then been pushed to the point where bigger and bigger takeover ads completely interfered with the user experience, I’m not sure that consumers have to accept this as a gateway to free content.

We can do better. 

This is an amazing time to be a marketing professional. We have a tremendous opportunity. Right here. Right now. We can decide that display advertising can be better. It’s up to us. If we don’t, we let the traditional marketers win. We let mass media win. We allow them to simply blast messages in every nook and cranny of the Web as if it just another mass media channel. In fact, the greatest trick that online advertising could ever pull is to convince the world that great advertising can exist.

…And it should.


  1. So wait… the advertising industry will occasionally change its mind and abandon one inconvenient metric for a more convenient one whenever the circumstances call for it?
    Egads! ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. Great post, Mitch. I’m too often reminded something I heard many years ago from Howard Gossage: “People don’t read advertising, they read what interests them. Sometimes, that’s advertising.” That’s our challenge, to take the “banner” beyond the “billboard” to be more than a simple display. We have a great opportunity.

  3. I work directly with paid search campaigns, with some display thrown in, and I often encounter campaigns that seem to be built without regard for direct response. It is almost certain that someone used the word ‘branding’ when they speced them (in fact, Google has also used the word ‘branding’ in some of their material promoting AdWords over the last few years).
    These style of campaigns lead to something I’ve nicknamed ‘brandflation’, where the perceived value of the traffic is inflated through the application of branding and engagement metrics with little regard to the actual value of the traffic to the business.
    I suspect that we won’t see branding disappear in online (and offline) advertising, as it is in almost everyone’s interest that this practice continues. Well, unless you are doing direct response in a market where people are spending for branding.

  4. Your opening premise is incorrect. Banner advertising is just one type of display advertising, they aren’t interchangeable words.
    A “banner ad” is a very wide yet short type of display ad, as opposed to, for example, a “skyscraper ad”, which is very tall yet narrow type of display ad. In other words, they are called “banner ads” because they are shaped like banners.
    What I can’t figure out is that surely you know this. You could have left that confusing bit out and still had a decent post.
    As far as online advertising, studies from the late 1990s showed that consumers were tuning out banner ads even then. Web surfers learned that those banner shapes at the tops of pages were ads and became blind to them.
    This led to a broadened variety of online display ads including non-banner shapes, placements other than top of page, animated & video ads, interactive ads, inline text ads, pop-ups, pop-overs, pop-unders, plus more advanced email ads, etc.
    From the title, I thought you were going to discuss how great advertising is the stuff that we don’t notice as advertising. The natural, topical stuff; the advertising that is so logical and appropriate that it convinces the world it doesn’t exist. Another post maybe? That would be a great post for this title.
    Anyway, as Olivier pointed out…
    Of course the advertising industry (like every other industry) is going to stop doing things that no longer work, and move on to other things. That’s the only way to stay in business, lol!
    P.S. By the way, I no longer work in advertising and really hate the increasing dominance of it everywhere, ha ha! Cheers.

  5. “We can decide that display advertising can be better.”
    How would you do this? Would you add storytelling to your creatives? Would you tie a call to action that harkens back to other messages the prospective customer was exposed to via print, radio, TV, et al?
    How can we change the way we’re using banner ads so that “the advertising compliments, is valuable and doesn’t interfere with the overall content experience”?

  6. As far as I remember, skyscrapers were introduced at the tail-end of what we were still calling “banner advertising” as a new ad unit size/format. I also recall some of the earlier rate cards having take-overs under the “banner advertising” headline as well. I could be wrong, but to me they lumped all ad formats into “banner advertising” and then spun the word to “display advertising” as the performance fell below .5%, etc…

  7. If I only had the answer… wouldn’t it be great. You know the saying about porn: “I know it when I see it.” It’s the same for general advertising: you know great advertising when you see it. It will take some work from brands, publishers and the agencies to bring this all together and get the buy-in from customers.

  8. Thanks for pushing the industry to raise the bar.
    I sold my first banner advertising in 2003, (On a campaign which was deemed as a huge success by the global software giant client), only to see the barrage of ‘user experience destroying’ banner campaigns plaguing the internet in the following years.
    Online advertising was sold with unrealistic expectations, only to burn future opportunities in the fledgling advertising spot.
    If we can all do better, with setting expectations, helping advertisers become better at telling their story, this can play a strong part in resuming to a healthy industry, sustaining many careers for us all.

  9. As far as I’m concerned, I consider all forms of banner advertising as strictly creative marketing, building one’s brand.
    If my client has the money to spend, then I will recommend a “banner” campaign simply to compliment his/her traditional media advertising.
    I do however find Facebook adds far more effective, less intrusive and have better conversion than traditional banner advertising.
    Where do we go from here? How do we take banner advertising to the next level? Isn’t there an app for that?

  10. Do you think you’ve been able to move in this direction, Mitch? Can you point to one of the projects you’ve done for a client that, while maybe not Shangri La, at least is one or two steps down the yellow brick road?

  11. Isn’t it strange the we focus so much as text based advertising?
    If the future is mobile, that’s where we need to focus. And mobile supports video, hint hint

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