The 1990s mark a watershed moment for the marketing industry. The previous decade brought the widespread adoption of PCs, but it's the linking of those computers—the growth of the World Wide Web—that lays the groundwork for modern digital marketing. In addition to the Internet, by the end of the decade, the industry adopts a number of tools and capabilities that drive communication as we now know it: email, Flash and popular file formats such as PDF, JPEG and MP3.
It's also a time of demographic change. Baby boomers are aging and moving to the Sun Belt, the birth rate is declining, and immigrant and U.S.-born minority populations are rising. These trends create new consumer segments for advertisers to target. U.S. ad spending, at $128.6 billion in 1990, jumps to more than $200 billion by 1998.
To reach key audiences, advertisers expand their focus beyond increasingly noisy traditional media venues and talk about "integrated marketing," reaching consumers with a consistent message across many touch points. They turn to database marketing, interactive media, sales promotion, direct response, PR, viral marketing and market segmentation in an effort to deepen their influence.
Meanwhile, technology and software advances enable advertisers to create more engaging ads in traditional channels such as TV. Computer animation drives some of the decade's most memorable campaigns, including Coca-Cola's polar bears and Budweiser's talking frogs.
The biggest legacy of the 1990s, however, may be the growth of the Internet. Marketers begin to embrace the Web, with AT&T running the first banner ad on HotWired.com in 1994. The site, which charges $30,000 for a 12-week run, also features ads from Club Med, Coors' Zima, Harman International Industries' JBL speakers, IBM Corp., MCI Corp. and Volvo Cars North America. The first Web measurement service, I/PRO, is founded in 1994. By the mid-1990s, Web ad spending reaches $300 million, according to Jupiter Communications, and triples by 2000.
Marketers across many sectors begin to realize the power of the Web. Promotion efforts for the movie "The Blair Witch Project," for example, generate huge success for Artisan Entertainment. The campaign, which makes its young audiences feel like they've discovered the movie themselves, generates strong pre-release word-of-mouth and establishes the Web as an important movie marketing vehicle. Meanwhile, in 1999, Victoria's Secret uses a spot in Super Bowl XXXIII to drive traffic to its Valentine's Day Webcast fashion show—so much traffic, in fact, that the site crashes.
Dot-com agencies, starting with Modem Media in the late 1980s and others such as Poppe Tyson in the early 1990s, create Web sites, banners, buttons, sponsorships and classified ads. Mid-decade, early e-commerce players emerge, with Amazon.com in 1994 and eBay in 1995. Brick-and-mortar retailers and online portals join the fray; by late in the decade, Internet commerce reaches $8 billion as consumers discover the convenience of online shopping.
Traditional agencies, meanwhile, are forced to reinvent themselves as advertisers increasingly turn to smaller specialty service providers. Agencies start in-house departments to provide competitive services and eventually spin off divisions into independent companies. Unbundled media shops include Bcom3's Starcom and MediaVest, Grey's MediaCom, Interpublic's Initiative Media Worldwide and Universal McCann, Omnicom's OMD Worldwide and PHD, Cordiant's Zenith Media, WPP's MindShare and Young & Rubicam's Media Edge.
By the end of the 1990s, marketers, media companies and technology providers alike know the Internet will figure prominently in their futures. A savvy few might even be wise to the trends and technology that will define communications after the turn of the millennium: mobile and social media.
Next week: The early 2000s
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