Flash or HTML5 digital display — that is the question.

Should you be swapping a digital lifetime of Flash campaigns for HTML5?

For over 17 years, your creative agency has been honing their Flash skills to enable your digital campaigns to flow like epic movies. As a designer, in 1998 I helped produce the Sky Digital launch campaign; the first entirely Flash campaign to run in the UK. If you’re over 30, you might remember the semi-cute Mini-Dish character jumping about on every screen. Flash enabled him to jump about on your PC, smoothly. With publisher file size limits typically 15 kilobytes or less, animated GIF banners quickly took a back seat.

Why were they only 15K in the first place?

As with other files, banners (JPGs, GIFs, SWFs etc.) are temporarily downloaded onto your computer when you open a web page. The bigger a banner file, the heavier and slower the download of that web page. Publishers introduced file size restrictions, which was the first step in introducing universally accepted standards.

Flash has been fine for 17 years. Why is everyone banging on about HTML5?

Digital campaigns have improved a lot in 17 years, but Flash itself hasn’t changed all that much. In layman’s terms, there is a far greater suite of effects at the disposal of your creative agency. But within what other media would you hold ‘effects’ in such high regard?

The predominant reasons for Flash campaigns looking so much more accomplished today are twofold:

Your creative agency

Your agency has learnt to rinse every last trick out of Flash to exploit its undeniable charms. For years, we have seen car manufacturers driving their latest models into the banner space, looking almost like video. Kia’s agency produce great looking banners. This video-like entrance is effective, but it’s simple: Take one crop of a Kia Soul with perspective focus. Move it from right to left whilst slightly increasing its size. Overlay 2 fast-rotating wheel assets. Hey-presto, a realistic car. There is creative brilliance in bringing that to life, and that cannot be undervalued. The pace; the parking lights; the slight bounce as it comes to a halt; the shadow under the car; to execute such things well takes specialist skill, which all good digital agencies have.

File size

Publishers’ file size limits (the ones that have stayed awake) are now far higher than 15K. Steered by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), the recommendations react to the constantly evolving power of the PC.

Ah, but Flash makes my campaigns glowy, bouncy and flashy…

Flash comes with a perceived advantage, even over HTML5, that a quality is attainable which no alternative offers. In effect, that is true. But I want to turn that on its head. What Flash grants the designer is a look and feel which has become a standardised client desire, due to there being no clear alternative. Anyone that works in digital media; brand; agency; publisher can spot a Flash banner. It’s not a video; but then, it’s not jittery and pixelly like an animated GIF. Frames and content flow smoothly — so it’s Flash.

So I don’t need HTML5 then!

Even if you like that standardised Flash ‘look’, the immediate and growing problem is that the audience who can see Flash ads is diminishing. No mobile devices or tablets support Flash — period. And if that isn’t bad enough, think of all the people you know who have dropped their PCs for an Apple iMac or MacBook Air. Their browser of choice is Safari, and Safari has long had a ‘Power Saver’ system. This system freezes Flash in order to save battery. In this instance, the viewer is required to choose to play an ad via the uninspiring call-to-action (in stunning grey): “Click to start Flash plug-in”.

To put it mildly, there are an awful lot of people not even given the chance to see your campaign.

OK, so I probably do need HTML5 — but can I have glowy, bouncy and flashy?

First-off, you probably want to ask yourself if you really do want glowy, bouncy and flashy and — if so — why. The short answer is that yes you can, but it will look different for now. HTML5 doesn’t allow for effects as intricate as Flash. But if you look at Flash with 17 years’ experience aside, I believe you’ll see effects that aren’t always positive. They’re smooth, but not as smooth as HTML5. The photography is anti-aliased (smooth), but often not that sharp. The effects are repetitive, and often gimmicky.

HTML5 campaigns, like Flash, require specialist skills. Most agencies offering HTML5 use one of a number of building platforms, such as Google’s Doubleclick, which is excellent. But specialist agencies combine those platforms with in-house magic to create something less clinical; more polished.

So, HTML5 has a far greater reach — and looks as good as Flash?

No. I think HTML5 looks better. Your campaign is about good media planning, strategy, concept, production, high quality assets and impact, amongst many other things; it is not about technical effects. Without getting technical, HTML5 utilised well offers better output in movement and quality. So there is a greater potential for your banner campaign to look as polished as your offline creative.

Got any examples?

Spicerack’s recent campaign for Roberto Cavalli’s Paradiso fragrance launch would have been a classic Flash production. The concept is what Spicerack call co-creation; working within the global campaign’s assets to produce a unique desktop and handheld experience. The production involves smooth flowing messaging, impactful assets, and also bespoke video with the controls you would expect. We built the ad formats using the best of Google’s Doubleclick, sprinkled generously with our seasoned digital thinking. The end result has a non-Flash look about it, as a result of smoother movement and higher quality photographic imagery. Had we employed Flash for this campaign, the non-user-initiated reach was estimated to be 35% less.

I know — it’s a crazy figure.

The animation would not have been as smooth, or as consistent across platforms. The photographic quality would not have been as vibrant or sharp. This is why I’ve used our campaign as an example, because from the minute the all-important Macaw reveals the new fragrance, vibrancy and sharp quality are a vital brand ingredient.

OK, I’m sold. How do I get involved?

Spicerack transform offline campaigns into online campaigns. I’ve been pioneering this since my career began as an information designer in 1997. Spicerack call it Co-Creation. We help brands with ideas, design, build and trafficking. We make our campaigns for desktop and handheld fresh, beautifully produced, always engaging, and — important for you, we know — never stressful.

For ten years we’ve been making it easy for global brands, working directly with them, but also creative agencies, media agencies, media owners and ad traffickers. Often all 5.

If you’re one of the above, we can work with you at any level. We think the whole process — from conception — to live — requires expertise, and we’re as proud of our QA trafficking record as our creative ideas and production. We can offer you fixed unit quotes at rates that benefit from our non-capital city base in Bristol’s thriving creative centre, Paintworks.

We never drop the ball. If you’d like to check us out further with one of our global partners within any of the above 5 categories, we’d love to hear from you.

Dave Harrison — ECD & Partner, Spicerack

Roberto Cavalli — Paradiso