NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- At an industry conference almost a year ago, Lee Clow, chairman and chief creative officer of TBWA/Media Arts Lab, deplored the state of online ad creative as "semi-nowhere." It's fitting, then, that arguably the most creative banner-ad execution of the past 12 months came from Mr. Clow's shop.
The ads, for Apple's Leopard operating system and its "Mac vs. PC" campaign, started showing up in spring 2008 in the form of synched ad banners running on NYtimes.com. In the fall, they started running on sites such as Yahoo Games, where iPhone ads appeared to interact with the content of the page -- game play got so intense it "busted" the navigation bar of the page on which the ad appeared.
It was enough to inspire what is perhaps the ultimate reward for compelling advertising: consumer distribution. Fans of the "Mac vs. PC" creative on NYTimes.com, for example, captured videos of the ads' animation and uploaded them to YouTube where, collectively, they got tens of thousands of more views.
Apple and Media Arts Lab weren't the first to use such tactics. Synched banners have been around for years -- an early version of an Applebee's ad ran on iVillage a few years ago. And last summer Nintendo ran a trailer on YouTube for Wii's "Warioland" game, in which the game's action busted up the entire page's navigation (the game has received 5.2 million views on the video-sharing site). But with Apple, creativity has been a consistent theme in all its web ads. And let's not forget it was only a year ago -- in this same issue -- that Ad Age wrote about the brand's paltry investment in online ads.
"Most online advertising still feels like it is a result of a conversation about click rates and the tactics of grabbing attention through gimmicks, as if tricking people to engage is a measure of true success," Mr. Clow told Ad Age via e-mail recently. "But I believe creativity should be our filter. I want to see artists and idea people find more influence in this space."
Saving online ads
His point of view has been gaining steam lately. The "semi-nowhere" remark last year was a prologue to the recent conversation about the dearth of online ad creativity. That discussion itself lies within a larger debate: Can online advertising, a once-promising medium whose momentum has slowed, be saved?
Rich-media ads with a twist tout the iPhone as a gaming device: When the user tilts the device, the web page's navigation bar follows along.
The conversation about clicks is not a pretty one these days -- fewer than 0.1% of display ads are clicked on, according to ComScore. And bemoaning dropping click-through rates as a sign display ads are dying is a big part of the problem.
"Simply put, we need a creative renaissance in interactive advertising," Randy Rothenberg, CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, challenged the industry at his association's recent annual meeting. "Because of our direct-response heritage, we've toiled under the tyranny of the click for too long. ... We simply have got to emerge from under the shadow of our technological wizardry and start paying attention to the power of great creativity."
But few are doing that. According to PointRoll, the rich-media provider that worked with TBWA/Media Arts Lab on the ads, only about 5% of online ads served today include some sort of rich media. Why so few? Reasons range from budget (rich-media ads are more expensive to run) to the fact some publishers don't accept a full range of rich-media ads, making them difficult to scale.
Engagement is possible
Catherine Spurway,VP-strategy and marketing at PointRoll, said about 6% of users who see PointRoll-served ads interact with them, whether by mousing over them for at least a few seconds or performing some sort of activity within the ad unit, showing that when creative is good and engaging, people will engage with it. Online isn't passive, she said, and "people should be able to engage with advertising the way they do the rest of the net."
Ultimately the Apple ads work, both online and off, because they're the starting point of a story. AKQA co-Chief Creative Officer Lars Bastholm called this concept "social storytelling" and said it's even more essential online, since the water cooler is built into the system. The users that took the time to capture video of the ads on NYtimes.com and upload them to YouTube were continuing the conversation that TBWA/Media Arts Lab started.
Figuring out how to "let emotional ideas live naturally" is still something most brands struggle with, Mr. Clow said. In his mind, it's not just about embracing the rational utilities of this space -- search, information and functionality -- something most brands are still trying to figure out. It's also about creating desirable content that works for the audience and the environment.
"That is the stuff that gets discovered and posted on YouTube," he said. "Because when you lead with being surprising or fun, people will pass your ideas around. But if brands force themselves into the wrong spaces, they will be called out or ignored."
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"Being contextual sometimes also means being aware of the 'physical' space," said Lee Clow, chairman and chief creative officer TBWA/Media Arts Lab. "The Touch ad actually used elements of the website to mimic the physical behavior of playing a game on the device itself. The intention of these ideas can't be a gimmick for technology's sake but a way to help with the storytelling of the idea."