Ben Murphy: 25 years of banner ads – how a humble digital box led to an advertising superpower

On October 27 1994, a simple and brilliant call to action (“Have you ever clicked your mouse right here?”) marked the birth of digital advertising. The online version of tech title Wired, HotWired.com, offered for the first time a square box sponsored by AT&T which enticed you to their site. Would you click that button nowadays? Possibly not.


Although banners are not considered king anymore, the digital ad space has grown exponentially; UK digital display ad spend grew by 17 per cent to reach £2.8bn during the first half of 2019, according to the IAB UK. The difference between 1994 and now lies in the strategies followed by brands to cut through the noise. The way the internet operates has changed drastically in 25 years, in turn creating a wide range of online advertising disciplines, formats, formulas and measurement tactics.

Having worked in the ad industry for over 20 years, I have witnessed how brands are adapting to the evolving online landscape and changing consumption habits. Nowadays, many brands want to be perceived as qualified storytellers as opposed to getting stuck in simple ‘quick guaranteed clickbait’ content (there are unfortunately still some cases) that does not deliver the expected results. The reason for this change is simple: it helps them not only achieve better awareness and conversion results, but also higher rates in customer retention.

One of the biggest milestones in the evolution of digital advertising has been the emergence of AI and, more specifically, machine learning. Tools powered by machine learning have come to radically change the face of marketing forever, giving those working in the industry a kind of “superpower” thanks to their ability to act on real-time audience insights and pursue goals at a scale that humans can’t match, but help guide.

This modern mindset is also affecting the way agencies work; it enables them to go back to their “bread and butter” of adding value to their clients through planning, strategy and coordinating premium publishers.

Living in the data-driven age is not a guarantee of success. A recent report showed that 80 per cent of marketers globally currently use programmatic targeting for their campaigns, yet nearly a third still aren’t confident they’re successfully targeting the right audience. We should view this as an opportunity for brands and agencies to overcome this handicap by not only rethinking the precision of their targeting but their whole digital strategy.

As we approach 2020, data expertise is more essential than ever. Bringing people on board with data-specific skill sets will enable the industry to better understand and better apply the capabilities of insights. We will then see the collective advertising workforce and their skills transform from “superpowers” to the norm, allowing us to search for the new superpower.

I’m sure it won’t take us another quarter-century to get there.

Ben Murphy is UK MD of Quantcast.

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