There’s a rallying cry in the online ad industry for standards. But how important are they? One way to gauge the importance of standards for the our industry is to consider the history of outdoor advertising.
The technology for printing illustrated posters was perfected in 1796. About 70 years later, this country had 300 sign-painting and bill-posting companies. Billboards were leased nationally. Yet it wasn’t until 1900, when a standardized billboard structure was created, for advertisers like Kellogg, Coca-Cola and Palmolive to mass-produce billboard ads for the national market. Standards fueled the growth of outdoor advertising, which had already been around for 100 years.
There are a lot of people in our industry hoping it won’t take a century for our standards to develop. They shouldn’t worry. While it seems the industry moves slowly, we’ve made good progress in a few short years.
Thousands of different ad unit sizes were used on the Web just a few years ago, AdRelevance reported. That made it hard for media planners to plan across multiple sites using the same creative units. It was painful for publishers who were unable to accept certain types of ads.
In 1996, then again in 2001, the IAB released size guidelines that went a long way in helping the industry develop a common buying and selling currency. Online advertising became more efficient.
There remain too many aspects of online advertising with no accepted standards. I’ve sat in the meeting at least 20 times in the last four years: the one where everyone discusses how the industry should define an ad impression. The recent discovery of reach and frequency measurement led to more opportunity, but deeper uncertainty about quantifying the Internet audience.
There’s consensus that developing standards is good. Is that always the case? I don’t think so. The banner unit, the foundation of Internet advertising during the boom years, is a standard that became synonymous (albeit wrongly so) with ineffective advertising.
Ironically, as online advertising moves towards standardization, offline media are headed in the opposite direction. On TV, product placement and creative sponsorships increasingly supplant standard 30-second spots. These buys are becoming more popular, although they defy standards that have been in place for decades.
We need measurement standards — there’s no doubt about that. But standardizing current Internet advertising practices should not be a priority. Finding new ways to meet advertisers’ objectives is our path to growth.
Standards needn’t hinder innovation. This is as true for the Internet as any other ad medium. Sixty years after billboard standards were established, the French outdoor company JCDecaux invented the bus shelter. This new vehicle caused great industry growth. The outdoor industry learned that standards are important — as is change and flexibility.