Getting Rich on the Downturn: Ad industry woes giving rich media a shot-in-the-arm

Internet.com (April 25, 2001)

When Merrill Lynch’s advertising gurus recently decided they wanted to run a flight of rich media ads on financial web site MotleyFool.com beginning later that same day, it was left to solutions provider Point Roll to cut through the technical red tape.

Within two hours, MotleyFool.com’s technicians had fielded, tested and approved the format.

“A year ago, that would have taken days or weeks,” says Jules Gardner, Point Roll’s CEO. “Site acceptance is a borderline walk in the park today.”

Money has always talked. But in the current slump, advertising dollars have a louder voice than ever before. That has produced good news for companies that produce rich media solutions and the ad agencies who use them.

“There’s a definite wave toward publishers being more humble and more accommodating toward online advertising as a whole and rich media especially,” Gardner says.

To be fair, even before the slump, many major sites had moved toward broad acceptance of many forms of rich media. Part of the reason is the aggressive education efforts of both solutions providers and advertising agencies.

“People have become much more accepting of rich media,” reports Karim Sanjabi, CEO of Freestyle Interactive, an ad agency. “One of the reasons is they have familiarized themselves with the various mediums and understand what online advertising can do in general.

Sanjabi says his firm regularly recommends to clients that 95 percent of the creative in their campaigns be rich media. “The term rich media is almost obsolete, because to us, it’s just the media that we work with.”

That’s not to say there weren’t — and aren’t — holdouts among publishers. But financial realities are quickly breaking down the remaining doors.

“Publishers have always wanted to do rich media, they’ve just been hesitant because they’ve thought that it was going to crash people’s browsers or not be compatible with their sites,” Sanjabi says.

“The truth is, a lot of the technical ability was always there,” agrees Ben Saitz, vice president of advertising operations at Phase2Media. “It was policy not to allow it. But as spending tightens and they more aggressively chase the numbers, they take things they wouldn’t touch before.”

But not every site is as responsive as MotleyFool.com proved to be for Merrill Lynch. The very reason some sites are dropping the barrier to rich media advertising — they need the money — is hampering their ability to accept it.

“There are definitely some sites out there with no experience whatsoever with rich media; they don’t even have rich media tags to serve up a rich media ad,” says Point Roll’s Gardner. “The difficulty is that with downsizing, you have a publisher with a desire from a sales perspective to run rich media, however you have ad testing departments that have been downsized so their workload is so much greater that something that should take a day to coordinate takes a week.”

Still, even people with a vested interest in gaining broad acceptance for rich media know that for publishers, it remains a balancing act.

“Sites have a challenge: They need to generate advertising revenue so they need to be accepting when advertisers come and they want new technologies and new solutions,” says Richard Cleveland, vice president of marketing at Bluestreak, which provides rich media solutions. “At the same time, we’re sympathetic to the fact that they have to protect their audience experience.”

Visit the web site Solbright, which produces automated online media buying and selling solutions, and you will be greeted by a pop-up window offering a free download of a white paper on flash technologies.

“We created the white paper because we noticed that a lot of people only looked at this from their own point of view, they didn’t understand the problems from the other points of view, or there were misunderstandings,” says Arthur McKinley, vice president of business development at Solbright. “Since we sit in a real central position we wanted to explain the new flash standards for all points of view.”

It’s all part of the industry’s ongoing effort to educate those still outside the loop.

Over at Phase2Media.com, Ben Saitz provides clients with a backdoor to a site he runs that contains evaluations of a host of rich media solutions and help on using them.

A lot of these vendors are creating these technologies without talking to buy-side people,” explains Saitz. “”They may not have research to prove it works. There’s no centralized authority that says, ‘this works and doesn’t crash browsers.’ There are still no standards with regards to how long an interstitial stays there.”

The Rich Media Task Force of the newly renamed Interactive Advertising Bureau is hoping to change that. It is closing in on a set of standards for rich media advertising to mirror those recently released for banner ads.

“This way the guy sitting in the garage building this stuff has an idea of what to build in,” says Saitz, who serves on the committee. “It’s about tracking, it’s testing, it’s standards for expandable banners. It’s a lot of basic things publishers think we can get together and agree on.This will allow vendors to get products ready for prime time.”

This week’s [EDITOR: WEEK OF 4/23] conference call by the group, which includes technology providers, ad agencies and web publishers, may put it in a position to issue a set of standards in early May.

Jason Burnham, president of MassTransit Interactive, thinks they are long overdue.

“You can put together a plan for 20 sites using a particular solution and find only two take it,” he says. “That makes it very expensive and not very efficient.

“All the ad servers are doing their part in educating publishers, but it’s a matter of us all coming together as an industry to educate and push publishers to take rich media,” he adds.

Cleveland of Bluestreak is hopeful: Sites have to make a decision about how they are going to balance presentation of their content with ad content and that continues to be a challenge. Maybe these new standards will help them do that.”

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