Editor and Publisher
Exactly 20 years ago, I was part of the team that sold the very first banner ads on the World Wide Web. On Oct. 27, 1994, Wired magazine flipped the switch that lit up HotWired, the “cyberstation” that ushered brands like IBM, Volvo, MCI, Club Med and—famously—AT&T into the digital age. From the humble origin of a dozen brands paying $15,000 per month for static banner placement with zero analytics, Web advertising is now closing in on $50 billion in annual spending. At precisely the same moment, the banner ad (and related forms like the 15-second video pre-roll and the mobile display ad) has become a social touchstone that evokes a firestorm of condescension and condemnation at every turn. But can the digital ad business really have been built and sustained through such a flawed delivery vehicle? Digital advertising was born to an Internet that people read and watched. And advertising—well, that was a practice to be grafted onto the Web from other forms of publishing and broadcasting as technology and bandwidth allowed. Those first crude banners eventually gave way to larger, more picturesque ‘magazine’ ads and then to TV-style video spots. The business grew even as it continued to miss the larger point. Over these two decades, the Web has become something everyone does—not something they watch or read. We look for answers, we pass jokes back and forth to one another, we buy stuff, and we settle arguments. Always on, always in our hands, the Internet has become an extension of us as people. But advertising, mostly, has not kept up. And does content no longer matter? Or does it matter more than ever? The maddeningly simple answer is that it matters when it matters; when it’s closely aligned with the experience the consumer is living at that moment in time. And not for its own sake.