Ad Industry Group Picks Bigger Online Ads in Hopes of Attracting TV Dollars to Web

Winning New Ad Formats From AOL, YouTube, Unicast and Microsoft

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Get ready for bigger online ads -- everywhere.

In an effort to lure more lucrative brand advertising dollars to the web, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) anointed six new online ad formats Monday at its Leadership Conference in Laquinta, Calif. The ads were designed and chosen to play to marketers' calls for the bigger and more noticeable messages that in many ways is similar to TV advertising.

Last year, the IAB announced a competition to revise the look of online advertising, and recently chose six new ad designs out of 36 entries submitted by 24 companies. The winning ads are all fairly large and include many high-resolution and interactive elements, such as movie trailers and videos, games, quizzes and shopping modules. But despite their larger sizes, the ads were crafted to play alongside publishers' content, and so do not send readers off the native page if they choose to click on the ad. The winning entries come from AOL, Unicast, Google, Pictela, Genex and Microsoft.

AOL Project Devil
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"The goal was to develop brand-friendly ad units," said Peter Minnium, who as a consulting director for the IAB managed the competition. "We know the web is optimized for direct marketing, but there wasn't much of a creative canvas for brand advertising."

Because it can be measured by clicks, the internet grew up as a direct response medium: advertisers used it to fulfill existing demand. Brand advertisers are in the business of creating demand by appealing to emotions, which they largely do through TV and glossy magazines. The hope is bigger, more rich ad units will attract those dollars to the web, where targeting can make them more effective.

Mr. Minnium, who was formerly a managing director of ad agency Lowe Worldwide, part of Interpublic Group of Cos., corralled creative executives at major ad firms, including Alex Shulhafer of BBDO, Kaare Wesnaes of AKQA and Jarrod Riddle of Big Spaceship, to judge the competition. "My role really came to coordinate and drive the process," Mr. Minnium said, pointing out that agencies were the primary evaluators of the submissions. "We included a few publishing folks to keep it honest," he said.

Josh Stinchcomb, head of digital sales at Conde Nast, and Maggie Sapovchak, the marketing director for NBC Universal, represented the publisher's stakes in the judging. Mr. Minnium said publishers would cross out certain things in meetings for the competition, such as ad units that might crowd too much of the center space on a page. "The publishers were there as in a hockey game, acting like boards, where the boundaries should be," he said.

Those boundaries extended to include very large formats, that take up as much as half of the screen, which stands to reason given that IAB's goal was, in some ways, to entice creative directors with units that come close to television.

"I would agree that it’s giving the user more information, and it’s becoming a little bit closer to high-impact TV ads," said Unicast General Manager James Dillon, about his company's winning entry. "It's not quite Super Bowl territory yet, but it's a step in the right direction."

Other participants, however, said there's a stark difference between these new bigger online ad units and what people traditionally see on television. "TV advertising is something that disrupts the consumers," said Eric Kneler, a strategist at Genex who helped devise its winning ad format, which slides across the screen as users click on it, much like the behavior of the popular iPad. "When we talk about digital advertising, we want to talk about what enhances the digital advertising. We didn't want to impede the consumer’s experience."

Getting the attention of viewers while not getting in the way of their web experience is a tricky line to walk, which is what led YouTube to develop its winning entry, which only appears on the home page of the video-sharing site, but which nonetheless draws the user in. "What people do on YouTube is watch video," said Suzie Reider, the director of display advertising. "And when a user is watching video, that’s not a great place for a snazzy execution. The home page solves that for us -- it gave us a place where the advertising unit isn't competing."

YouTube has already been running its new ad unit, which takes over a big portion of the screen, which movie studios have bought to run their movie trailers. While online video has exploded in popularity over the last few years, advertisers remain wary as much of the content is user-generated, particularly on YouTube. Google sells what is called "pre-roll," or essentially TV commercials, only on its partner channels, which are vetted, but even then there isn't a big enough audience on those channels to justify a bigger ad spend. YouTube's home page, however, answers both the need for edited content and a high volume of viewers.

"The new home-page unit gave us the opportunity for a big, blowout Super Bowl-esque ad," Ms. Reider said.

As part of its ongoing campaign to clean up the clutter of online advertising, the IAB de-listed 11 of its 18 sanctioned ad units in 2009, which is significant as the ecosystem of online advertising, from publishers to creative executives to technology companies, relies on this universal agreement around the size, shape and function of ads.

Throughout the rest of the year, the IAB will evaluate the winners to see which ones gain a wider acceptance with online publishers, and those that do will become a part of IAB's official roster.

"We’re very optimistic that publishers will accept our new unit, mainly because advertisers are asking for it," said Jeff Levick, who is the head of sales for AOL. "We think it’s a bold step forward for display advertising as whole."

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