Wish List for Christmas, 2004

I already know what I want for Christmas next year. Santa was good to me this year on the personal front, but the big guy completely ignored the stuff I begged for to make my professional life easier. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s becoming more desperate. Santa’s ignoring a growing chorus of industry voices who are crying for rich media standards.

The need for standards is a topic that’s been beaten to death. And we’ve come a very long way. Things are certainly much better than they were, even a year ago. So apologies now for beating that dead horse. But I’ve had some rough rich media experiences recently and need to vent.

Nearly every rich media format seems to have its own set of questions. Answers vary by publisher. The superstitial may be the one format that’s universally standard across publishers, but it may not be appropriate for every campaign.

I’m fond of floating ads, but they’re among the most difficult, standard-wise. What are the maximum pixel dimensions for a floating ad on your site? Can it overlap the masthead? What’s the maximum file size? Can it contain audio? Video? Must the video or audio be user-initiated? What’s the maximum play time? How does the reminder/resolve ad work? Is it a floating ad, or do I have to buy an existing banner placement on your page? Can I have a replay button? What are the maximum pixel dimensions for that reminder ad, and what’s the file size there? If it’s a floating reminder and not an existing placement on your page, does the reminder ad then need to be included in the total file size for the floating ad? Are there requirements for where the close button should appear?

We recently completed development on a campaign that could have easily had 20 or 30 different executions if we had to produce a unique ad for each combination of specs. That can get expensive, of course, not to mention being a logistical nightmare.

Instead, we make hard decisions to get to the lowest common denominator. Still, it’s easy to wind up creating six or eight different versions in an effort to get the most impact out of the specs you’re handed.

What makes it much worse than it could be is publisher specs can differ enormously. A floating ad unit running on eight different publishers’ sites can easily have eight different dimension and file-size limits. The size limit is likely to vary from 50K on some of the more conservative sites to 150K or more on others. It’s not an issue of merely shaving 10K or 20K off a Flash piece to make it fit. We’re talking about a factor of three here!

In such cases, hitting the lowest common denominator is not a matter of modifying the largest spec by recompressing audio files or removing a certain level of detail from the graphics. With that level of disparity, you run into conceptual issues. Some concepts that work brilliantly at 150K are literally impossible to cram into 50K.

For some campaigns, it might be OK to have multiple concepts under the same umbrella. But this certainly isn’t true in every case. It’s easy to wind up with a concept that’s great at 50K, but looks silly at 100K or 150K because it doesn’t take full advantage of the weight.

Online creative is on the verge of a massive conceptual breakthrough. Agencies and marketers alike are learning how to better harness the power of an engaging interactive experience to deliver a message and create affinity for a brand. We are learning how to truly brand with online ads, and we’re fueling growth in the rich media sector. Rich media players have responded by radically improving workflow and tracking tools.

But I’ve watched sadly as remarkably powerful ideas get bogged down, and sometimes destroyed, by the disparity of standards, especially when it comes to things like K-weight.

The flip side, of course, is standards stifle innovation. There are some players whose approach to standardization could limit innovation. But there must be a way to get everyone in the same ballpark at least. We need a baseline that permits creativity at both the conceptual and technological levels. The baseline needn’t kill innovation. Rather, it could serve as a springboard. All sides of the equation (rich media vendors, agencies, marketers, and publishers) can push the envelope.

So, Santa, as soon as you’re back from your vacation, see what you can do on this one — please. We’ve got a lot of smart people here. Give us the wisdom to get where we need to go. (A new iPod wouldn’t hurt, either.)

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