The web, we are constantly told, is a young, fast-changing
And it’s true that things have moved very quickly in the past couple of
years. Investment and e-commerce are flourishing. Online advertising,
however, is not.
This situation has led many in the industry to question the role of the
industry’s trade body, the Internet Advertising Bureau, which, its
critics say, is not doing enough to sell the medium to advertisers.
While ad revenue is growing, the key issue, according to Andrew
Walmsley, head of digital media at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is the failure
to increase the number of brands advertising online. ’Raising the brand
count - getting new brands online - should be one of the main focuses of
the industry,’ he says. ’It will raise credibility for the industry as a
The problem raises its head regularly on these pages as, month after
month, Fletcher Research figures reveal the extent to which the web
still depends on computer and IT companies for its ad revenue. The point
is made yet again by the figures for June, printed below. The top ten is
much the same as one you might have come across 12 months ago. There is
growth elsewhere - particularly among financial services advertisers and
travel companies - but some suggest the unsold advertising inventory
figure on the net could be as high as 85 per cent, a depressing figure
if it is accurate.
In its letter to prospective members, the IAB claims to be devoted
’exclusively to maximising the use and effectiveness of advertising on
But it appears to have achieved little in the eight months since it was
set up in its present form (having existed previously in other
According to one industry source, no-one is quite sure what the IAB is
Charlie Dobres, the former head of Lowe Digital and now the (part-time)
general secretary of the IAB in the UK, says setting anything up from
scratch is a slow process but, with 40 members now signed up, it is in a
position to go forward using the Radio Advertising Bureau as its
Since launching in 1992, the RAB has managed to turn radio into an
attractive medium for advertisers, pushing its share of all advertising
revenue up by 120 per cent in the past five years to around 3 per
’The RAB is a good model. If we end up being as good, we can be
pleased,’ Dobres says.
So how did the RAB do it? Part of its success is down to its highly
focused strategy, Justin Sampson, the RAB’s operations director,
explains. ’If you are going to do your job properly, you have to know
where you are going,’ he says. ’We focus on the interests of the
Almost as important, however, is the RAB’s staff make-up. It is run by
20 full-time professionals who operate largely independently of its
As a result, they get things done.
The IAB isn’t quite like that. It is a body run by its media owner and
sales house members. It is dominated by committees and it has a
five-point mission statement that spreads its focus pretty thinly:
representing companies engaged in selling advertising; giving members a
forum; providing an industry-wide view; promoting the value of the
internet to advertisers and advertising agencies; and serving as an
educational resource through which members can further their employees’
Ian Murphy, commercial development manager at Channel 4, is responsible
for the station’s new media and sits on the IAB executive. He argues
that the criticism is unfair. The industry is being sold, he maintains,
by its members.
’Each media owner is signing up to promote to as wide an audience as
possible the benefits of advertising (on the internet) as an adjunct to
existing media,’ he says.
Agencies respond, however, that they are unlikely to be impressed by the
claims of individual media owners and sales houses.
Hal Pearson, the media manager at Mediapolis who heads the team buying
space for Microsoft and Intel online, says: ’Media owners’ research is
based on their own figures. It is not an industry standard and that is
what the IAB has failed to deliver. The RAB advises you on how to use
Rajar research. It is difficult to get anyone, apart from IT clients or
those with a technical message, to advertise online without
There are other crucial issues that some in the industry say the IAB
should be addressing: such as the practice of media owners bypassing
agencies to approach clients direct and the short-term focus on making a
sale at the expense of delivering on promises.
According to one industry source: ’Joe Seller says to a client ’we can
do this many numbers this week’ in the full and certain knowledge that
he cannot deliver anything like that. But if there is a pounds 10,000
budget up for grabs, he will get a bigger share of it. Maybe he will
have to give some of it back but maybe he won’t. The problem is that
clients get pissed off and those who do dip their toe in the water get
the impression that it is not very professional.’
This is what web advertising seems to suffer from most. Of course, there
are many professional outfits operating in the market but, until the
industry as a whole is able to present itself to clients and agencies in
a more professional light, its growth will be stunted.