"If you're coming into advertising today, the most creative and exciting area to work is undoubtedly online."
As managing partner of Lean Mean Fighting Machine, it's not surprising that Tom Bazeley is ready and willing to fight his industry's corner, but even so, it's a bold claim. The box in the living room is still seen by many as the ultimate creative channel.
In fact, there's a growing body of evidence to support his claim. The web has emerged as a creative playground. Banners are no longer simply calls to action, designed solely to generate click-throughs; they can now carry a broad range of content from short, pithy animations to long-running video streams. High production values are the order of the day - all with the magic extra ingredient of interactivity.
"With conventional advertising, you can see it and hear it," says Dean Donaldson, digital experience strategist at Eyeblaster, a company that provides rich media and video formats to advertisers and agencies. "With digital, you can touch it - you can interact with it."
So, in theory at least, rather than building brands somewhere else and using the web as a tool to drive click-throughs and sales, online advertising is about building awareness, driving deeper engagement with brands and even changing the way consumers perceive advertisers.
Witness Unilever's 'Tipping pot' creative. In a spoof of Guinness's celebrated 'Tipping point' ad, Unilever and AKQA demonstrate the ease of making a Pot Noodle through one minute 15 seconds of convoluted and often funny video story telling that wouldn't be out of place on primetime TV. Initially aired on YouTube and subsequently distributed virally, it was designed not to drive sales directly but to generate buzz.
"Our aim was to send a clear brand message - that Pot Noodles are easy to make - while also doing something that would get talked about," says Cheryl Calverley, Pot Noodle brand manager.
In recent months we've also seen genuinely innovative campaigning from advertisers as diverse as Nike, Virgin Games and Orange. In fact, log on to just about any major website's homepage and the chances are the banner ads will all be video enabled and/or interactive.
But is this merely the icing on the cake in an industry dominated by the notion of accountability, ROI (return on investment) and PPC (pay per click) advertising? It's a question that is particularly pertinent at a time when recession is apparently looming and everyone is reviewing their spending. Basic banner ads are cheap while elaborate concepts cost real money to implement. So will the downturn kill web creativity?
The first thing that has to be said is that truly creative web advertising is still the exception rather than the rule. "Categories such as recruitment advertising, search and classified attract the biggest spend," says Kate Walmsley, consultant at AKQA. "Display advertising is only a small percentage of the whole." And while an increasing percentage of display category features video and rich media, most advertising is still based on a call to action and effectiveness measured on click-through data.
That's partly a question of history and sticking with the devil you know. "In the past, data was seen as the driver of internet advertising activity," says Donaldson. "And when the PPC model emerged, advertisers could take comfort that when they spent money they were getting a result. They're still very comfortable with that metric."
Gambling on awareness
By contrast, advertising designed to increase brand awareness is seen more as a gamble and, says Aaron Martin, executive creative director at Syzygy, this can be attributed to a lack of reporting metrics that can match the potency of the click-through rate. "To some extent the industry has done itself a disservice," he says. "We've told clients what we can do on the internet but we haven't necessarily told them why."
It's not that the metrics aren't there. If you take the example of a rich-media display ad that allows the consumer to interact with an engaging slice of animation, it's clearly possible to gather a huge amount of information, ranging from dwell time through to frequency and reach.
Indeed, you can go a lot further than that. "We got a lot of data back from the 'Tipping pot' campaign," says Calverley. "We not only had info on how many people were viewing it but also who was passing it on to friends and writing about it in the blog space."
All useful, but the problem for many advertisers is it doesn't necessarily point to a ROI. Yes, everything that consumers do online can be tracked but not all that information speaks directly about the bottom line. "There are a lot of metrics related to brand engagement, such as time spent and participation, but it can be a real challenge to put a value to those," says Walmsley.
Mark Tomblin, director of strategy at TBG London, an agency that specialises in advertising that produces measurable results, believes that the challenge largely stems from the fact that metrics related to brand engagement are still open to an uncomfortable amount of interpretation. "Yes, you can see what people are doing and whether or not they are viewing or interacting with a particular ad," he says. "But you can never really know what is going on between their ears as they interact."
Nevertheless, a lot of brands have been prepared to take a punt on innovative online advertising that delivers engagement rather than sales, even if that means accepting softer metrics. And it's not just the usual suspects such as car companies and sportswear manufacturers, even those in the traditionally web-sceptic FMCG sector are beginning to look at the internet as a serious advertising proposition.
Indeed, it's the potential of the web as a brand-building medium that is attracting their attention. Typically, FMCG companies don't sell goods directly through the internet, so the bulk of their advertising is about raising brand awareness. Call-to-action banner advertising is of little relevance, but rich media and video enables them to chase consumers who have migrated from other media.
Again, the Pot Noodle campaign provides a neat example. "We thought that the web was the right vehicle for the 'Tipping pot' ad because that is where our target audience is," says Calverley.
However, she stresses that while web usage spans the whole demographic spectrum, Unilever wouldn't necessarily use video or rich-media ads to promote, say, Marmite. "The people who buy Marmite tend to want information on the product. They wouldn't necessarily respond to a video ad. That's simply a reflection of the fact that, as you get older, you don't necessarily use the web any less, but you want different things from it."
Use of brand-oriented advertising is also likely to be limited by cost. For instance, Virgin Games has run campaigns using both rich media and video but, with a limited marketing budget, it deploys those ads very selectively. "Thanks to ad networks, buying media space has become much cheaper but serving rich media is more expensive," says Virgin Games' strategy director, Ross Sleight. "One consequence of that is we probably run more direct response advertising than brand advertising - and we only place brand-oriented ads on sites where they will have the biggest impact."
The truth is that brands are unlikely to embrace the internet as a branding platform unless they see a strong correlation between their audience, the product and the medium itself. It's debatable whether a car insurance company would benefit much from a three-minute video distributed via YouTube. On the other hand, it could well boost sales by posting simple call-to-action banners offering cheaper quotes on strategic sites, while ensuring a healthy position on the search engines.
That said, there is a danger of setting up a false dichotomy between, on the one hand, highly creative campaigns, and on the other, accountability. As Bazeley observes, simply to get click-throughs, agencies and their clients are having to be ever more creative. "You can now do a huge amount within the banner and you don't necessarily need to generate a click-through." In Bazeley's view, creative advertising can be used to drive an immediate response and build brand awareness that may result in a visit to an e-commerce- or information-based campaign site at a later date.
Meanwhile, agencies specialising in delivering accountable results are by no means wedded to the idea that a successful campaign can be solely attributed to click-throughs from a call-to-action banner or an ad served by a search engine.
"Focusing on metrics tends to put you in a direct response frame of mind when what you should be measuring is brand impact," says Gavin Sinden, director of strategy at digital direct marketing agency Equi=media. "To do that, you have to track customers in terms of their journey. You need to analyse the banners they've looked at, the search engines they've been to and the price-comparison sites they've visited prior to making a sale. It's not all about the last click."
In other words, a customer may come to your site via a search engine, but that might represent the end of a road that started with an engagement with a rich media banner. To get meaningful metrics, you need to look at the big picture.
- Rich media formats Cutting-edge ways to promote your brand online
Users can now run full-screen HD without losing quality. Full-screen video can expand from a simple MPU ad unit.
The concept is as follows: upon viewing an ad, a user has the option to post viral content, such as a humorous or raunchy video, to Facebook or MySpace or any other popular social networking site they are a part of, simply by selecting their destination of choice from within the ad itself.
Rich-media ad servers now offer users the ability to pull content from an ad and post it to a separate location, usually to a social network. The shareable content does not always need to replicate ad content - you can run an ad containing video that allows you to post a game, for example. Users can then take it from their friends' pages, allowing the content to spread virally.
This allows people to chat and share their thoughts in the banner. Moderators can choose whether to control the content or just let it roll.
This concept is meant to be used in a campaign that takes over a specific site. The ad will give a countdown to when the chat session is supposed to start. At the designated time, the brand will buy all the ad space of that publisher for a couple of hours. During that time, the user can ask questions, which will be answered as soon as the moderator can get to them.