The Banner Has Been Unchanged for 18 Years. That’s the Issue.

This may, in fact, be the first banner ever created - AT&T advertising on Hotwired in 1994, 18 years ago.

Since that time, the conversation around online advertising has focused on how hard it is to monetize online content. In 2008, Jeff Zucker then at NBC coined the famous line: “trading analog dollars for digital pennies" to explain the price destruction he saw on the horizon as media consumption and ad dollars moved online.

Yet in all that time, up until very recently, every possible woe for the challenges of online advertising has been expressed except perhaps the most glaring one: there had been little or no innovation in the ad product for nearly 20 years. And an ad product, at that, that was never considered very good. (I’m fond of saying, people don’t debate whether or not good products are good. Especially not for 18 years. No one debates the iPad is good.)

Even today, in 2012, there is a debate about pricing in mobile banners that misses the point - why are we still running banners? And why are we trying to shoehorn an 18 year old ad product onto a platform that didn’t exist 5 years ago?

The publisher problem is not digital advertising; it’s the specific product.

And so when we hear that many publishers are struggling to grow and thrive with digital advertising, it occurs to me that that statement in and off itself is an overstatement. The statement should actually be: many publishers are struggling to grow and thrive with banners as their ad product.

It would seem that before resorting to paywalls, ipad editions, and ecommerce, publishers should look first to innovate in what has been an incredible source of sustaining and high margin revenue for hundreds of years: advertising.

Global advertising spend in major media will be half a trillion dollars this year, with $170 billion in North America alone. It’s a good market.

Working with startups over the past few years, I’ve come to respect that it is always about the product. That’s why it seems so important to acknowledge the role of product in digital advertising. It’s the first thing publishers should be looking at before casting aside an entire market whose core product has undergone little innovation in nearly two decades. (Animation is not significant innovation.)

This seems especially true given the long lineage of advertising being the key to media, especially free of charge media like radio and television. There are few examples where subscriptions have carried the water in the absence of advertising. HBO is the example frequently cited, but that is tied to a larger cable bundle that is a mix of advertising and subscription revenue. Maybe you can find a few more, but they are exceptions.

There are great digital advertising businesses being built right now by Twitter and Facebook with invented and innovated upon ad products. I would add BuzzFeed to these ranks with our social, content driven ads solution, and I’d even mention small sites that are embracing this reality.

Digital advertising is growing and thriving. Attention is migrating online at an ever increasing rate, and there seems little doubt that “online” will be where we consume almost all of our media in 5 to 10 years. Digital advertising as revenue source has no issues. It’s simply the fact that an 18 year old product, whose value has been debated since its inception, is still being used by many of those seeking to build and grow their online business.

It’s always about the product. Even when you look at revenue and business, so that’s where it makes sense to look and fix first.