Banner Ads: Good? Bad? Ugly?

27Mar, 2013

Banner ads.

Nobody likes them, right?

And they serve no real purpose at all in today’s online world, do they?

In fact, you might even say that they stink now. Or at least that they smell like something…right?

Well…let’s not rush to such quick judgment, shall we? Especially when it comes to the efficiency, efficacy and real-world value of banner ads.

Sure enough, people like The Atlantic Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal may ask, as he did last summer, “Why are banner ads all over the web if nobody likes them?” And someone like Brian Morrissey may join in the chorus and rail against banner ads over on Digiday, citing a “display advertising industrial complex” and demeaning display advertising as “an ugly intruder onto pages.”

Yet somehow, someway, agencies continue to create and employ banner ads. Is this merely because, as Morrissey correctly points out, “Agencies know how to build and buy them; publishers know how to sell them.”…or are there other, less sinister (and more strategic) factors driving display advertising?

The truth is, there are other reasons beyond simple familiarity or complex monopoly. And here’s one very, very good reason why banner ads remain largely in play:

Because they work. Very, very well.

In a study published last summer, eMarketer reported that advertisers spent $7.55 billion on banner ads in 2011 – up from $6.23 billion in 2010, with a total spend of $9.60 billion expected by the close of 2013. That 2011 figure meant that banner ad spend represented 23.6% of total online advertising, with the 2013 total expected to equate to 22.5% of the whopping $42.5-billion digital advertising pie (a total online advertising spend up 7.5% from 2011’s $31.99-billion figure).

This isn’t just an American phenomenon, either. According to a 2010 study conducted by the PwC for IAB France and the SRI, “it is estimated that video and rich media will represent 63% of the European market in 2014, compared with 40% today.” However, the same paper points out that “in certain cases, a static banner remains the most effective way of conveying a message.” The study’s authors recommend that advertisers “measure the impact of different formats in order to choose the ones best suited to their needs.”

This sharp uptick in banner ad sales all around the world would not be taking place if they were ineffective, or existed merely to stifle creativity…or because of a blind need to continue to employ the status quo and same old same old – regardless of what The Atlantic and Digiday might have you believe.

“This two-sentence summary that ads are bought because agencies know how to buy them and media sellers know how to sell them implies a level of laziness that is off the charts,” says Fang Digital Marketing CEO Jeff Ferguson. “It implies that agencies will just buy any old media, despite their results, just because it’s the easy way out. “While some agencies may do that, we don’t at Fang. If we recommend display media, it’s because, based on our research, that’s where your audience lives, and we’re going to make sure it’s targeted to that audience by all means technologically possible.”

That means that ads won’t be blindly placed next to unrelated content – only the bottom-feeding advertisers do that, just as they do in other types of media. It also means that results take a much higher priority over aesthetics. Creative advertising solutions are certainly commendable – and often quite memorable – but the onus is on the agencies to prove that they actually translate into real-world business results. In other words…sure they look great…but do they work?

An agency’s clients have always been – and always will be – more interested in measurable results than in bold creative flourishes. While an artistically accomplished ad that doesn’t lead to any sales may be fun for a designer to create, it does very little for the actual advertiser. Brands aren’t built on beauty, but powered by brawn…and brains.

Of course, there is always a place for creativity in design and concepting – not to mention in media buying and placement. It all just has to come within the context of meeting – and ideally, exceeding – a client’s business objectives.

“This isn’t a personal attack on creativity,” says Ferguson. “This is a matter of doing what’s best for our clients and their bottom lines…not looking to win Cannes Lions.”

And, believe it or not, doing what’s best for a budding or burgeoning brand often means creating and running banner ads. Even if some critics out there regard them as “ugly intruders.”

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