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Unruly CEO Reflects On His Time At Agency That Launched First Banner Ad 25 Years Ago

This Sunday marks an important milestone in the history of online advertising. That’s because 25 years ago this weekend, the first-ever banner ad was launched.

It’s a format that certainly divides opinion, but as it enters its 26th year, its impact on digital advertising since first appearing as a boxy, clickable ad at the top of the pages of HotWired.com is without question.

But what was it like to be there? Well, Unruly’s CEO Norm Johnston, who worked for the agency who created the first banner 25 years ago, looks back at the impact it had, and the monumental journey the ad industry has been on ever since.

Q. Back in 1994, the first banner ad was set upon the world, marking the start of a whole new digital ad industry. What do you remember about the launch and how were you involved?

Norm: That first banner was just one element of a general sense of euphoria over the possibilities that the internet opened up for advertisers. Remember there had been “online ads” before within some of the dial-up walled gardens like AOL and Prodigy. So the first banner was more of a milestone for the open internet, which in itself was going through a big bang of exponential expansion. 

I worked for Modem Media during the time the first banner ad launched, and was part of the subsequent slipstream of experimentation and invention with just about anything that bandwidth and budget allowed, including the birth of rich media ads and viral marketing campaigns.

Of course, it all looks dull and dated now, but those first steps were essential to uncorking so much of the creative thinking and innovation that followed. 

Q. Ever since the banner ad first appeared, critics have made the argument that it sacrifices creativity for conversion metrics. How important do you think creativity is in our current industry which is so focussed on data?

Norm: I don’t think it’s binary. I don’t think any of the digital creative teams I’ve ever worked with over the years ever felt constrained by measurability or data. If anything we used that data to learn and adapt what we were doing. We were all geeks, including the creative teams, playing in a rapidly growing sandbox of tech and data. 

My sense is that most of the blowback around metrics and data came from more traditional creative talent, who felt uncomfortable with technology and threatened by the notion that creative needs to do more than win awards. At the end of the day, it needs to deliver some value to both the advertiser and customer. That’s why Unruly’s EQ is such a powerful tool as it uses data to better inform the concept, adapt the delivery, and measure brand and demand outcomes in real-time.   

Q. The dawn of the banner ad led to huge growth in digital buying, which still continues to rise. The IAB recently released their ad spend figures for the first half of 2019 which showed a 13% year-on-year overall increase, a 27% increase in video ad spend in the UK and a 36% increase in video ad spend in the US. Why do you think digital ad spend continues to rise, even in the uncertain economy that we find ourselves in?

Norm: It’s been an arduous journey to get to the current levels of digital investment. When I first started in the industry, digital was less than 1% of total media spend. I’d say the greatest catalyst was the consumer. I remember the dot-com bust in 2001 and how nearly every advertiser raced back to more traditional areas like TV. I also remember 2004, when those same advertisers realized that their investment was the polar opposite to where people were increasingly spending their time, which was on the internet. At that point, there was a realization the internet wasn’t just a fad but here to stay. 

There were other battles along the way, such as “the internet is for direct response not branding” or “it’s not as measurable as TV” battles that waged for years. Those sorts of arguments and barriers eventually disappeared as more and more people migrated online, bandwidth improved, metrics normalized and matured, and, of course, mobile eventually made the internet accessible anywhere and anytime.  

Q. Banner ads quickly became so commonplace that many consumers stopped noticing them. What do you think brands can do to reach consumers in today’s world which is so full of noise?

Norm: I think some of the same principles that existed from the beginning still apply, perhaps even more so. Focus on the value exchange: what can you as an advertiser provide a customer that has some practical, functional and/or emotional value based on the insight and knowledge you have on them. 

Enable real interaction, and adapt your ad as appropriate to drive up relevance. Don’t ever interrupt them. You can’t annoy customers into liking your brand. Find a format and place and time where they will be receptive to your advertisement.

Q. When the banner ad first launched it had a monumental impact on the world of advertising, what do you think the next big trends are that we should be on the lookout for?

Norm: We’re about to enter a third wave of digital disruption following the previous desktop and mobile waves. We are entering a post-smartphone era, where the internet will be much more interactive, immersive and intelligent. We’re moving from clicks to conversation via voice, from going online to being online via smart devices and augmented reality, and from B2C to B2B2C (brand to bot to consumer) via artificial intelligence. Like previous waves, the pace of change will dramatically differ by market, so it won’t happen overnight. 

For advertisers, there will be tremendous opportunities but also significant challenges, particularly in areas like privacy and security as the amount of data collected, connected, and commercialized rises exponentially. 

Personally, I find all this new disruption immensely exciting. However, like the blowback that was felt by the creative agencies during the banner ad launch, it will leave behind casualties, particularly those who underestimate or overestimate the pace of change. Competitiveness thrives somewhere between complacency and chaos. 

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