Fun With Banners. . . For Real!

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Marketers have always recognized the value -- and convenience -- of banner ads. They are easily targetable, trackable and require peanuts in terms of media spend. But before new technologies worked their magic, their inherently static nature made them limited in terms of creative possibilities. "Banners, MPUs and any other form of display advertising have taken a back seat over the last few years as emphasis in client-agency briefings has been squarely on earned media," said Tom Bazeley, managing partner of London-based agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine. "For agencies, the bigger canvas of sites, apps and film holds obvious appeal."

Yet thanks to some agile creative thinking and advances in technology, display ads have become a booming playground for innovative ideas. One of the best recent examples of big thinking in the banner space is a recent campaign for John Lewis, out of London agency Adam & Eve and production company Unit9. The teams put together a series of display ads that used geo-location tagging to determine where in the world you were, what the weather was like and then showed you outfits that would be applicable. Users could click through to find an outfit they liked, and hover their cursors above certain items to check its price and designer details as well as buy it online.

John Lewis' Spring Fashion Banner via Adam & Eve and Unit 9

"With these banners, we wanted to target people who may not necessarily go to John Lewis for the clothes, so we made the clothes the heroes of the ad," said Jai Cummings, digital producer at Adam & Eve. "With rich banners you can do so much in terms of interactivity."

And of course, Cummings added, there's the bonus of trackability. "A client's media spend becomes more measured because you're actually able to track ROI."

"You could tell from the concept stage already that this was going to be fun," said Unit9 producer Richard Rowe. "With banners campaigns in the past, it wasn't so interesting. You used to put up a banner and then spend a month resizing it for different platforms. This was a challenge."

The teams had to deal with the core limitation of the banner, which is its size (2.2 MB). But there were also other obstacles -- the kind you might expect from a sophisticated site production or even a commercial shoot. For one, the models were placed on a turntable and the video was shot in a continuous shot. They also used top-notch CGI, so the effect wouldn't look fake or tacky. During each scene, lights also had to be changed to reflect the weather -- rain, shine and everything in between. "These were appearing on and," said Robert Bader, director at Unit9. "They had to be beautiful and relaxing. It's a challenge."

Hello HTML5

While the John Lewis banners were created in Flash, the emergence of HTML5 has allowed other agencies to play with big ideas without worrying about banners' previous limitations. For the uninitiated: HTML5 is the next step up from XML-centric programming. It allows for a richer, dynamic and interactive experience, especially when put into banner ads. Both Google and Apple have been strongly supportive of the technology. Rendering is done through a browser, so Flash is not necessary to deliver the ads--a good thing for Apple users, since many of the brand's products don't run Flash. HTML5 technology is still young -- a final version is expected to hit the market in 2014 -- but that hasn't stopped agencies and creatives from experimenting with it, especially on rich media banners.

Lean Mean Fighting Machine's Thought Visualizer

In March, agencies across Europe geared up to create HTML5-powered YouTube masthead banners in a contest by Google and DoubleClick. Bazeley's agency, Lean Mean Fighting Machine, was the U.K. winner and created a thought visualization machine that turns text and speech into images and videos. HTML5 offers a "unique functionality" in banner production, said Sian McLachlan, the producer on the project. "We paid close attention to animation and showing off HTML5's canvas functionality." Canvas functionality is one of the benefits of HTML5: It allows for rendering of 2D and bitmap images, offering higher quality graphics.

On the technical side, HTML5 development is still in its early stages. Developers still have concerns about how to best use it for creative purposes and most importantly, answers to problems aren't always easily found, said Mark Lunney, the lead developer on Lean Mean's banner. "If we were to try this again in a year's time, I think we'd have much more freedom on what we could do."

For Paris-based agency Biborg, which specializes in banners, the increased cool factor of banners is a welcome change. "Sometimes when I speak with clients and I say we only do banners they say 'You're the boring guy'," said Bruno Luriot, co-founder. "But there are a lot of new opportunities now. Thanks to new technology, we can provide some really more complex banners." Biborg, which was the French winner of the Doubleclick contest, created a YouTube banner that allowed you to "fly" over France in a hot-air balloon, checking out different landmarks along the way. Luriot said that the average user dwell time on an expandable banner, like the one his agency created, was 58 seconds in 2010, up from 45 seconds in 2009.

Biborg's Flight Over France

One of the reasons Luriot thinks banners are suddenly hot is that people are spending a lot more time online. "The only time you're not online is when you sleep," he said. Secondly, earned media has become much more expensive, he said. "We now have clients who invest more in banners than their websites. This wouldn't have happened two years ago."

Haasenstein's Bunny Bonanza

And HTML5 banners are also beginning to see some gains. Hamburg-based digital agency Haasenstein was another Doubleclick winner for its bunny-filled execution. There, agency heads are noticing that user interaction with its HTML5 banner was a lot higher compared to static or flash banners, with an average interaction time of 20.1 seconds. Other research on whether HTML5 banners consistently outperform others, however, is still not available. But interactivity definitely pays off. Video overlays, where an ad appears over a video for some seconds before disappearing, which also demand user interactivity, have been shown to have eight to 10 times the click-through-rates of regular display ads.

"Display is becoming a big topic for our clients considering the targeting and retargeting possibilities inherent in banners," said Benjamin Nickel, spokesperson for the SinnerSchrader-owned agency. "It's not stupid anymore."

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the John Lewis banners were created in HTML5.
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