By: Doug Weaver
Exactly 20 years ago, I was part of the team that sold the very first banner ads on the World Wide Web. On Oct. 27, 1994, Wired magazine flipped the switch that lit up HotWired, the “cyberstation” that ushered brands like IBM, Volvo, MCI, Club Med and—famously—AT&T into the digital age. From the humble origin of a dozen brands paying $15,000 per month for static banner placement with zero analytics, Web advertising is now closing in on $50 billion in annual spending.
At precisely the same moment, the banner ad (and related forms like the 15-second video pre-roll and the mobile display ad) has become a social touchstone that evokes a firestorm of condescension and condemnation at every turn. But can the digital ad business really have been built and sustained through such a flawed delivery vehicle?
Digital advertising was born to an Internet that people read and watched. And advertising—well, that was a practice to be grafted onto the Web from other forms of publishing and broadcasting as technology and bandwidth allowed. Those first crude banners eventually gave way to larger, more picturesque ‘magazine’ ads and then to TV-style video spots. The business grew even as it continued to miss the larger point.
Over these two decades, the Web has become something everyone does—not something they watch or read. We look for answers, we pass jokes back and forth to one another, we buy stuff, and we settle arguments. Always on, always in our hands, the Internet has become an extension of us as people. But advertising, mostly, has not kept up. And does content no longer matter? Or does it matter more than ever? The maddeningly simple answer is that it matters when it matters; when it’s closely aligned with the experience the consumer is living at that moment in time. And not for its own sake.
Two dominant trends in digital advertising today are data optimization and the programmatic trading of advertising display opportunities. Both of these are critically important, “hard trends,” and they’ll continue—to some point—to usher more dollars into digital channels. But they are also both exercises in division and reduction: Help me show my ad to fewer of the people who don’t matter; help me buy fewer of the ads that don’t work or don’t matter.
The next great era for the advertising business will unfold only when we realize that advertising in a digital world matters most when it least resembles advertising. Google and (to a lesser and less consistent degree) Facebook start the value creation at the point of consumer action and intent. The form that “advertising” takes is malleable and built into the experience: a helpful suggestion via some text as they answer my search query; a post from a marketer on a topic around which I’m already active. BuzzFeed has made a huge splash by helping marketers create just the kind of snackable content-McNuggets that we already like to trade with one another across the very platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr—where we already trade them.
But this is the tip of the iceberg. Many current techniques will look as archaic in 2024 as the earliest banners look today. But the companies and leaders who will endure and thrive are those who consistently answer a different set of questions:
What is the consumer doing today with digital tools, and how can I help her do it better? And how might we create new value by blending discovery, commerce and productivity into a new experience to be shared by consumer and marketer?
This is an existential moment for all of what used to be called Madison Avenue and “the Media.” Because when Wired flipped that switch 20 years ago they also set in motion a chain of events that prompts the re-imagination of all advertising.
From this point forward, don’t call any of it advertising. It will either be something much, much bigger—or it will be background noise.
Over the past 17 years, Doug Weaver has worked with more than 600 leading companies, including Facebook, Apple, CBS, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN, and The New York Times. His company, Upstream Group, has served media customers around the U.S. and on five continents. A version of this column originally appeared in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications’ “Captivate” project, which presents insights from media industry thought leaders on new strategies for audience engagement.