The Little Banner ThatCould

I’d be lying if I said I were ashamed of my past life as a “banner writer.” My tenure as senior copywriter and creative strategist in the late ’90s was a hoot. At that time, you couldn’t hold an agency job without writing those “God-awful” banners. Lots of ’em.

You remember, don’t you? Every well-funded B2B2C-supply-chain-integration-aggregator-retail play needed hundreds of creative units to soak up all the run-of-site impressions included with the portal deals. Clients came to guys like me to get them, twice every week.

It’s not too boastful to say I gave my clients some really good ones. I was in some relatively prestigious creative award shows (even won one, with a 468 x 60 .gif), and put together a nice little portfolio to boot. This is why I’m heartsick over nagging past realities of my tenure as a copywriter and nagging present realities of online creative optimization.

To this day, not a month goes by in which I’m not served one of my golden oldie banners. This is hardly to say tons of my old banners are still running. To the best of my knowledge there’s only one still out there. But that one “little banner that could” is still being served, clocking billions and billions of impressions, day in and day out. It’s not one of those award-winning, portfolio pieces either. It’s an ugly, blinking, client-compromised, quickie placeholder. Damn, does it work!

Propriety dictates I not reveal that banner’s identity, though you’ve doubtless seen it hundreds (or thousands) of times. In my defense, it has no fake scroll bar or button, no bogus sweepstakes, none of the usual gimmicks. It’s a simple, little, four-frame copy-heavy jobber with a nice “click here,” bottom left. I recall spending two minutes writing it on the creative department’s futon, years ago. I never gave it another thought once the client bought the storyboard. I had better ideas and cooler clients to worry about.

But the little banner that could is still up, while my “good” stuff isn’t. Why?

Why do some of the ugliest, blandest, least-emotive banners become Super Creatives, while so many of the cleverest, funniest, most touching, and most beautiful pieces are optimized out of media plans within days of being trafficked? This is one of the great, unresolved Internet advertising questions. An answer is essential. As an industry, we’re getting a taste for outbound marketing analytics technology in a big way, and spending on optimization technology appears poised to hit the doubling point on the curve.

What makes good creative? Relevance? Color? Copy? Design? Results? I debated this endlessly with friend and foe alike, until it dawned on me it’s the wrong question. At least for now. Interactive advertising’s DNA has an innate tendency to seek technology solutions to questions. The Internet is, after all, the greatest synthesis of communications technology in history. Without a doubt, when technology is applied to creative optimization, we’ll learn what works. I have yet to see an algorithm or meet a Ph.D. who can tell a creative team what works.

The continued success of my super-banner is almost 100 percent attributable to dumb luck. I have no solid theory as to why it worked so much better than the other 10 units trafficked that day. More disturbing is my certainty that if I asked the top 10 agencies’ analytics groups to report why that banner is so successful, I wouldn’t hear the same answer twice. Worse, I’d never get any action items from any of them that would give me a fighting chance at replicating its success.

This is the essence of a nagging problem. I have no doubt existing technologies can provide data to tell us what’s working, what’s successful, and how to replicate that success. But data is only as good as people who see, groom, and use it. Even if we agreed a super-algorithm could keep the results needle moving in the right direction, would the solution scale? Can a marketer swap blue background over funny copy next to a midsize logo in perpetuity because the algorithm says it works? Of course not.

Someone somewhere must come up with that next round of creative. The desire to automate the creative optimization process will never preclude the fact creatives will have to create — from scratch.

Technology is no substitute for smarts, communication, and trial and error. That isn’t to say we should abandon investment in creative optimization technology; rather, we should put it in its place. Technology can’t optimize for us, only facilitate our optimization. Creative analytics technology investment is poorly spent when its output is never even seen by the department actually producing the creative. We simply don’t know enough yet to take that step. Yet, we are choosing new technologies that all but guarantee the creative optimization process will be completely siloed away from the creative departments themselves.

We still have time to align our analytics and optimization processes to produce results and business intelligence, rather than simply producing results. But we have to want to. To that end, I prefer the carrot to the stick. The gain we stand to reap from an optimization process that replicates its successes at scale is reason enough for me. If it isn’t enough for you, settle in for another good, long stretch with my golden oldies.

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