Player Profile: Tribal DDB's Mitchell says simplicity key to Net ads

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When Wayne Mitchell evaluates online ads, there is a standard by which he measures the banners: Would his 73-year-old father understand them?

Mr. Mitchell, 41, developed this litmus test over the summer, when his father was housebound after breaking his arm while riding a scooter. He chipped in to buy a computer, only to realize his father didn't know the most basic techniques of navigating the Internet.

But it also led to a valuable insight: "We need to put `click here' on the banners," said Mr. Mitchell, a group account director at Tribal DDB, New York, the interactive arm of DDB Worldwide. He has seen the future of the Internet and it is, he says, "dummied down."

In the two months since Mr. Mitchell arrived at Tribal, he has had plenty of opportunities to tinker with, dumb down and otherwise refine the banners and buttons for major e-tail client BestBuy.com, the online unit of electronic retailer Best Buy Co., Minneapolis.

Mr. Mitchell estimates that in the last two months, Tribal has produced 1,000 banners for BestBuy.com-more than four times the number anticipated when the site launched earlier this year.

One reason is that Internet marketers receive instant feedback on their ads' effectiveness and are quickly able to decide when a banner needs to be fine-tuned. In effect, the online audience acts as a sort of focus group, allowing online ads to be constantly adjusted through a process of trial and error.

"Everybody's making this stuff up as they go along," he said, adding that the relatively low-cost and lightning-fast distribution of banner ads make it easier to experiment. "People are more flexible in trying things in this media."

Mr. Mitchell's comfort with the Internet's pace is largely the reason he is now working at Tribal. He was recruited by Tribal Chief Media Officer Tim McHale, who worked with Mr. Mitchell at his previous job as VP-account manager at Agency.com's i-Traffic unit. While at i-Traffic, Mr. Mitchell helped direct customers to e-tail sites including CDnow.com and Staples.com.

"He really understands the interactive media," said Mr. McHale. He added that Mr. Mitchell isn't flustered by BestBuy.com's fast pace or that the account has hundreds of banners in play at the same time.

Before taking the i-Traffic job, Mr. Mitchell worked for more than a decade at New York's phone company. Although he worked on the client side for most of his career, Mr. Mitchell got his start writing radio ads in his spare time while working as a disk jockey. He graduated to writing telemarketing scripts before landing at the phone company, which was then called Nynex. There, he was involved in several high-tech ventures, including early efforts to produce electronic phone books.

Between bankruptcies, shuttered sites, layoffs and falling stocks, many are wondering about the future of e-commerce. Even though "click-and-mortar" sites such as BestBuy.com, with a combination of online stores and traditional stores, may be less vulnerable than "pure plays," online advertising faces challenges across the board.

The percentage of people who click banner or button has plunged in the last few years. In May 1997, Nielsen/NetRatings measured click-through rates at 1.35%. That fell to 0.29% for top banners clicked by home users during one week last month.

"Users are more savvy," said Mr. Mitchell. "They don't necessarily want to divert their path any longer."

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