By Published on .

April 23, 2001

Internet advertising has become the Dust Bowl of marketing communications, a vast swath of territory,

Randall Rothenberg
once fertile, now denuded, the victim of both irrational exuberance and the natural disaster we call the financial markets. And Internet advertising people are the new Okies, thrown from their jobs and migrating from their stylish lofts in New York's Flatiron district and San Francisco's Soma to wherever the work might be.

Yet in this sad, empty space, intrepid Tom Joads are holding their own, trying to better not only themselves but also the lives of their compatriots. If they can't revive the family farm, maybe they can grow new crops on the Web. Which is how I found myself lunching with Rich LeFurgy and Robin Webster of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the trade association formerly known as the Internet Advertising Bureau.

Exuding optimism
Beleaguered as they could have been, they exuded optimism -- but not the cockeyed buoyancy of a venture capitalist trying to sell you on a B2C investment. With research in hand proving that interactive advertising can build brands as well as direct-sell, with a half decade (a long time, in Internet years) of evidence showing how Web sponsorships can build relevance while Web ads broaden reach, they displayed the solid confidence of people who know, in the core of their souls, that they are marching the road toward a better future, where marketing is more effective and consumers better informed and entertained.

Their disposition was unusual, because they could have considered me the enemy camp. Readers may remember I took a swipe at the IAB a few weeks ago, blaming it for the locusts that ate the Web -- banner ads. Banners, the pair insisted -- with great credibility, I must add -- are not the problem. They were the beginning of the solution.

"There were widely held misconceptions about why we did what we did," said Mr. LeFurgy, the IAB's founder, whom I met when he had left N.W. Ayer to plough the field of Internet advertising at in the mid-1990s. "One was that the bureau promoted banners to make life easier for agencies and advertisers, even if it got in the way of 'creativity.' But we wanted to spur creativity. There was a big resizing problem. You couldn't just resize ads for different sites. You had to go in and redo the ads each time, for each site. Consequently, agencies and media companies were wasting tremendous time resizing ads, and less time on creating them. And some were deciding to avoid the Internet altogether."

Ms. Webster, the IAB's new president-CEO, was with the Association of National Advertisers at the time, running the interactive advertising research project known as "Casie," which was inspired by Procter & Gamble Co. Chairman Edwin Artzt. She remembered the problem clearly.

"All the time, we were hearing production budgets were out of control, often more than media budgets, all because of resizing ads," she said.

"So it just made more sense to adopt standard sizes," said Mr. LeFurgy. "We saw standardized units fostering creativity, not limiting it."

Form vs. content
As noted previously in this space, I believe that banners, the form that evolved from the IAB's standards, ultimately constrained creativity in Web advertising. I presented to the bureaucrats a comparative question: Wouldn't consumers and marketers alike have been better off if TV had developed without the confines of 30-second spots, the fallback form we're stuck with today? Shouldn't the preference then, and now, be for both form and content appropriate to the product and the audience?

"I totally disagree with you!" Ms. Webster objected. "All 30-second ads are not created equally. It's not about the form, it's about the content." (With a son toiling at the hot creative shop Mad Dogs & Englishmen, she can claim an affinity for content.)

"Look at print," Mr. LeFurgy pleaded. "There's been a tremendous amount of creativity in print, all within standard formats. Formats are a foil. A truism of advertising is you need to know the rules in order to break them."

I left, still questioning the immediate future of Internet advertising, but impressed with the determination of this pair of IAB-ers. Wherever there's a fight so marketers can use the Web, they'll be there. Wherever there's a skeptic beating up on the Net, they'll be there. And when people are profiting from the interactive ads they create, and living inside the agencies of the future, they'll be there, too.

Copyright April 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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