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Ideas Experience2019-10-15

The 25th Anniversary of the banner ad: a personal history

Andrew Veasey

In October 2019, the humble banner ad turned 25. Despite this impressive milestone there was no rapturous applause from across the ‘Information Superhighway’. Perhaps an 🙄 emoji at best.

Since their inception in 1994, banner ads have become increasingly divisive. The charge today is that they are outdated and out-of-touch; the scourge of the Internet. For many digital publishers, however, they keep the lights on. 

Rather than getting tangled up in that debate I'd like to cast an appreciative eye back over the history of banner ads and consider how the creative industry has approached this channel. I say this as someone who has spent much of my working life consumed by filling these pixelated rectangles. 

Restrictions breed creativity

In early 2001, I was was a junior designer working at an Internet credit card startup just as the dot-com bubble burst. The business endured (for four more years at least) and my complicated relationship with the humble banner ad began.

Back then, most people’s internet connection was dial-up, so bandwidth was a critical design constraint. Publishers put tight ‘file size’ limits on ads to avoid them impacting page load times. An MPU (a 300x250 pixels ad unit) had a file size limit of 20k. To put that into context, 20k is just enough memory to store 100 milliseconds (1/10 of a second) of music.

A small ad with a small file size. But restrictions breed creativity. We quickly coined the term "20k miracles" as we squeezed more and more out of every single kb. 

At that time, most online ads were gifs (as opposed to today's HTML). Gifs have their limitations (a colour palette of just 256 colors) but they have one key advantage over other image formats: they support animation. Very handy if you’re an attention seeker.

Surf's up

Industry rules were pretty much non-existent at the time and, collectively, we made them up as we went along. Brands and clients were generally happy to take creative risks; “it’s only a banner ad” became the well-worn mantra. Agencies were still getting to grips with the medium and consumers were still happily clicking.

25 years ago, consumer behavior online was unrecognizable from today. People “surfed” the web. They browsed in the truest sense of the word without really knowing (or caring) where they would end up. Banners were simply another avenue for exploration and discovery. People would click an ad just to see where it would take them. 

In the early years, double digit CTRs were commonplace and banner ads were a very effective way of driving customers to your site. But an increasingly savvy consumer meant CTRs were quickly declining and so the ads had to shout louder. The race to the bottom had begun.

Flash Aaahaaaa!

In 2005 I first joined Essence as a bona fide ‘banner-monkey’. Dial-up was slowly being replaced by broadband. MPUs had double the file size limit (40k), and most ads were being made using Flash.

Macromedia Flash (later acquired by Adobe), allowed designers to create impressive vector animations within very small file sizes - perfect for online advertising. Interactive ads, even games became commonplace. But for me, this was the low point in banner ad design as flashy, intrusive ads fought tooth and nail for every click. 

At Essence, in early 2006 we were working with one of the UK’s largest mobile phone retailers. Mobile price plans were highly competitive and prices changed not just daily but hourly. 

Our solution was to create a dynamic ad that was capable of pulling in the latest pricing via a feed. Targeting improved and we began testing different ads for different audiences. Technology was driving online innovation whilst traditional advertising remained static.

Beyond measure

Digital campaigns were able to offer advertisers something ATL couldn’t. Certainty. With online ads you could measure impressions, clicks and even sales. It was the Holy Grail - a supposed end to wastage. 

Marketeers shifted budget online, desperate to be able to demonstrate their positive campaign ROI. In 2010, Pepsi dramatically ditched TV and moved their entire ad spend online in an initiative entitled ‘The Pepsi Refresh Project’. The digital golden age had finally arrived.

Or perhaps not.

In just twelve (presumably long and painful) months, this groundbreaking move saw the iconic brand lose almost 5% of their market share. 

Right here right now

Today, the dust has settled. Unlike Pepsi in 2010, brands now sensibly recognize the need for balance and an array of complementary media in their marketing mix. Banners alone can’t compete with TV’s ability to create brand fame or elicit an emotion. Their strength lies in reaching consumers in the purchase cycle and driving performance.

From a pure design point of view, today's banner ads are generally well designed communications. The switch to HTML has helped stem the flow of bright, flashy blocks of pixels. There are still issues around disruptive placements - especially on smaller sites that are overly dependent on ad revenue - but larger publishers seem to have found the right balance between content and clicks. 

Negativity towards the medium remains, however. Unconsciously, consumers have become habituated to the ads (banner blindness). Consciously, many have decided to remove them all together (with ad blockers). 

What's next? 

Banner ads will probably remain part of our lives for as long as we have browsers. They will continue to focus creativity and strategy in a finite space, increasingly using automation and AI to make them more relevant and more compelling in the short-term. 

Moving forward, however, it's important we don't lose sight of the lessons the humble banner ad has taught us over the past 25 years. The designers of today and tomorrow will surely do well to ensure the media we create for all of the exciting new channels, mediums, and immersive experiences that will surround our lives are as just relevant and value-oriented as the best of today's banners.