Microscope: Last Tango

Last week ClickZ published its final Microscope review. The last hurrah extolled the simple elegance of a GIF campaign for brand awareness and customer acquisition:

    “Like diamonds, these executions are structurally sound and elegant” (Charles Marrelli). “These banners are an exemplary illustration of integrated branding” (Kim Brooks). “By mirroring the simple grace of the product they’re selling, Blue Nile draws on the aura of sophistication that comes with purchasing a diamond” (Anne Baker).

But Microscope panelists aren’t always so benign or so in agreement. In fact, since September 1998, when we started subjecting web ads to the scrutiny of online advertising experts, it’s been no holds barred. ClickZ’s description of Microscope set the stage:

    “It’s industry experts dishing on ad banners, including their functionality and design. Reading the weekly Microscope banner review is like watching a geekier version of the ‘Jerry Springer Show,’ without the chair-bashing. Tune in to see what any number of interactive industry experts think of this week’s ad banner in this weekly series.”

And since day one, many a banner campaign has been slammed. But always with wit and sophistication. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a review as razor-sharp as it is entertaining (names withheld to protect the innocent and the guilty):

    “I believe that if we really, seriously want to improve the standard of quality and the level of respect for interactive creative work, we need to find a ‘technology troll.’

    “This technology troll, much like the trolls from ‘Billy-Goats Gruff’ and similar fairy tales, would appear in our offices whenever we are about to use any sort of technology in our work and ask one simple question: ‘What is your concept?’

    “If we have no good answer, the troll instantly eviscerates us (or at least steals our mouse). The troll would be a nice, memorable way for us to make sure we think about great ideas before we start thinking about great executions – almost like a nightmarish and extremely hairy mnemonic device.

    “Absent the assistance of a technology troll, we are left to rely on crude and antiquated forms of quality control like public humiliation. So, regrettably, this review continues.”

So why is this the last curtain call? For one thing, putting together the reviews takes countless hours of work and endless coordination. First, the creative must be selected and described. An announcement goes to the rotating panelists, many of whom send their regrets. Then the hunt for takers begins in earnest.

Once panelists are lined up, they need coddling and cajoling to submit copy. When the copy is edited, an advance copy is circulated to the panelists for final review, and is also sent to the design team for comments based on the issues raised. It’s a revolving cycle with several reviews at some stage of development during any given week.

Finally, after the two-week cycle, there’s coordination with internal designers and coders to get the site set up. It’s too complex for any content management system, thus has to be set up manually. All in all, a time-consuming, complex process in which a missing piece can have domino effects. Despite the hurdles, it was always a labor of love, and gratifying because of the rich relationships developed with the creative community.

Now that was the easy part! What was really daunting was getting decent creative for review. Few agencies want to submit. Can you blame them? I’ve had agencies renege on submitting promised creative because they suddenly realized they didn’t want everyone else to know what’s working and subsequently imitate it. Other times, they didn’t want clients to see their work trounced. In fact, I remember one designer submitting his work with the comment “Into the lion’s den!”

When Microscope debuted back in 1997, it was a site that simply grabbed banners off the web with a single critic reviewing various banners weekly. But in our 1998 relaunch, we decided to get permission to critique campaigns and obtain the background information that makes the reviews worthwhile. As Microscope editor, I set forth a number of criteria for review, such as concept, execution, design, media strategy, effectiveness, and general comments. This made the reviews more relevant and heuristic. The idea was to have the people who actually create banner ads dissect them to point out what works and what doesn’t.

This arrangement worked well, and in the beginning, site visitors couldn’t wait to comment on what the panelists had to say. But slowly, the great interest in banner ads started shrinking as the number of online advertising tools increased. And while the mighty banner is far from dead, it’s taken quite a beating. Just last week, ClickZ columnist Martin Lindstrom declared: “The old-fashioned banner ad remains one of the poorest uses of space on the screen, with click-throughs falling from a high of just 5 percent to less than 0.3 percent today.”

So while Microscope reviews will cease, ClickZ plans to continue bringing you fresh, compelling content in the creative area. Many Microscope reviewers have agreed to write articles for ClickZ on the art of branding with banner creative and copy.

Stay tuned for future articles on creative design, site functional design, and back-end integration. We expect to tell you all about online brand development (including both media and product development), online copy, and concept development. Look for discussions of rich media campaigns, media copywriting, online-offline ad integration, the creative’s impact on direct response and branding campaigns, offline vs. online campaigns, and more.

It’s been a great run and a lot of fun. Our Microscope reviews will always remain in ClickZ’s archives, where they’ll continue to be an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn about banner creative in the wild and woolly days of the World Wide Web.

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