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Think BR: Is the web banner art?

It's not only time we started celebrating the best digital display ads as art, but important to do so, writes Jack Wallington, the IAB's head of industry programmes.

Jack Wallington: IAB's head of industry programmes

Jack Wallington: IAB's head of industry programmes

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By the end of this Friday, after 120 Hours of this working week have passed, I’m hoping to have planted the seed in your mind that not only can online ads be beautiful works of art, but that it’s hugely important we view them as such.

Growth in digital display 

Last month, the IAB’s PwC adspend study revealed that advertisers spent over £4 billion in the UK online with almost £1 billion (£945.1 million) going to online and mobile display advertising in 2010, an increase of 27.5% from the year before.

Online display use is increasing dramatically thanks to a variety of factors including improved publisher products, social media, video, growing audience and increases in FMCG use of the channel.

Yet as an industry, we rarely celebrate online display ads, let alone critically analyse and reward the creative industry for their work in this area. And this is a problem.

Digital display advertising is art

Last year I heard Lord Saatchi speak at a NABs event about his experiences in advertising. A gem of wisdom mentioned in his speech was his view that advertising is a combination of art and communication.

During his speech, Saatchi made it abundantly clear that this principle extended to online and mobile too. He announced that if you’re not doing digital, you’re not doing marketing.

Yet we don’t celebrate digital advertising in the same way as we do traditional ads. Print, outdoor and TV advertising has frequently adorned the walls of acclaimed art galleries, lined pages of books, magazines and even secured dedicated prime time TV shows where a host of celebrities admire the work. And rightly so, they can be amazing.

Perhaps the digital revolution is still too young to attract such acclaim, because while there are a small number of initiatives exploring brands’ moves into digital advertising (including the IAB’s Creative Showcase awards), our time spent admiring online ad creative fails to reflect its significance in everyday life.

Strange, considering over 40 million people in the UK see these ads frequently each year (UKOM, 2010).

We’ve been using digital ads incorrectly all along

At the launch of the AdSpend report, the IAB’s chairman, Richard Eyre, questioned why, when branding works on a poster and in a magazine, do people think branding magically stops at a computer screen.

The answer lies in Saatchi’s statement about ads being little marriages of "art and communication".

Since the first online display ad went live in the 80s we’ve been using them to communicate, largely to drive an immediate direct response - a click - from the viewer.

In the early days of the web, there was so little room to get your message across that art was largely squeezed out of the equation entirely.

Before broadband it was hard to tell people about bottled water in a small rectangle, let alone give it appeal using video to showcase a troupe of roller skating babies.

Today, over 98% of people online now use broadband (UKOM 2011). As a result the online ad canvas has changed wildly over the last eighteen months.

Digital ads are bigger, they contain high definition imagery; video; interactivity; games; forms for lead gen; social sharability; mobile location etc - suddenly online ads are the most limitless advertising canvas on the planet. See the AOL Devil Format [] and IAB US’ Rising Stars for evidence [].

Response is communication, branding is art

It isn’t quite as clear cut as this of course, but the response part of an ad is rarely art in any media, it’s the communication element - the phone number, the ‘click here’, the call to action.

Whereas the branding element of an ad is usually the part that appeals to our personalities, by entertaining, humouring, upsetting, inspiring, impressing or shocking us.

In 2009 it was estimated that brand building spend online made up only 5% of total online ad spend. No wonder then that the art element was absent.

You’d be hard pressed to call a search ad art (although I’d argue there is a certain geek-chic je ne sais quoi about search ads - if Google sent me a framed search ad, I’d hang it on my wall. Well, maybe.).

Brand spend online is growing though. It grew from 11.7% in the first half of 2010 to 13.5% in the second half (PwC / IAB 2011).

Online will never lose the direct response element - it’s too good at it - but like other media, the balance with brand building will continue to level out over the years to come, and with it, more beautiful works of art.

Celebrating digital display as art is vitally important

Like all art, some is good, some is bad, some isn’t to your taste, some you hate and remember, some you love and forget, but some - some art stays with you for years and years.

And that’s the power of art that marketers strive for in creating brand ads.

The only way to learn, improve and evolve art is to sit back and critically analyse the best of what’s gone before.

To support the growing use of brand in online, we need to take time to celebrate the best brand building ads so far and applaud the raw artistic talent that managed to get it right.

That’s why for this week, in partnership with the DoubleClick Rich Media and BrandRepublic, the IAB has created the 120 Hours (of Digital Display) a celebration of online and mobile display advertising.

At its heart is a small exhibition at the IAB’s offices in Covent Garden showcasing some ads that we think are fabulous and worth celebrating.

And who knows, if you come to see them, to analyse what’s good and bad about them, perhaps next year’s exhibition will be even better and longer.

Jack Wallington is the IAB's head of industry programmes

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