Rich Media: Damn the standards, full speed ahead!

(Originally published in ClickZ, August 2001)

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) released its new rich-media standards a few weeks ago, and a number of articles in the industry trade pubs have disparaged the new standards and reprimanded the IAB Rich Media Task Force.

I’m not going to recap what’s been said elsewhere too much — after all, I wrote an open letter to the IAB Rich Media Task Force months ago, outlining my concerns. I believe that they took such concerns seriously and addressed many of them in the final released version.

Bill McClosky summed up my feelings quite well in his recent article on Media Post. I just feel deflated. As for the rest of the rich-media technology providers, I think you can get a sense for the way things are going from Pamela Parker’s excellent article in last week.

Given that plenty has been written about the new guidelines and their benign affects, I’d rather take this opportunity to talk about the real state of rich media in this industry: What kinds of things we have seen — what you can really run — and what seems to be the trend among publishers and advertisers.

Publisher Trend: Pay Up or Get Out

There is a definitive movement on the part of the major publishers to cater to a smaller group of highly valuable advertisers, shuffling all others to the side. I can’t give any specific examples, because all the discussions have been prefaced by people saying, “Don’t quote me on this,” or something similar. But here’s the trend.

Several of the major publishers (there aren’t too many left that fit that category) have said virtually the same thing to me:

We aren’t trying to attract advertisers who run one or two $10,000-$20,000 campaigns a year with us. We want high-profile, high-paying customers to make bigger commitments to us — and then we’ll pull all the stops out for them. The rest of the advertisers will get “standard” service from us. The days of advertisers running us ragged for a small piece of their media budgets are over. Rich-media campaigns must be either lucrative or very easy for us to absorb.

Luckily, Bluestreak, Enliven, and others offer rich-media solutions that are easy to implement from all sides — agency, advertiser, and publisher. But this trend will change the way the industry works. If you’re planning to build a complex edge-pushing rich-media campaign that requires extreme effort for the publisher to implement, and if you’re planning on spreading a smallish media buy across many locations, good luck.

This will have two effects:

  • The publishers will drive use of new rich-media technologies more than the advertisers and agencies (which was how this had been happening). 
  • The new IAB standards will be marginalized or used as a lever to apply higher prices to more cutting-edge campaigns.

Another example of this new approach is the trend toward publisher-specific rich-media offerings. For the first time, publishers are working directly with the rich-media technology providers to build custom offerings that ignore the standards in place. They are differentiating from each other — and it has nothing to do with running campaigns across channels. They want to keep your media dollars with them. Publishers want top dollar for very effective and innovative special promotions.

These publisher-specific formats will require custom creative work by the advertisers who make use of them, with the payoff being better results. This actually follows the online sponsorship model, not the online advertising model. I predict that you’re going to see a trend that blurs the lines between sponsorship and advertising in the very near term.

The good news about all this is that there are fantastic partnership opportunities for advertisers out there — and publishers are more willing to work with you.

Advertiser Trend: Publisher Partnerships for Highest Value

We’re going to see, along with the change in policy by publishers, a change in practice by advertisers. Major advertisers are going to choose a small group of publishers to partner with — and we’re going to see big innovations from them. This already started with Yahoo running those well-publicized Ford Explorer ads a few months back. Publishers will be doing far more of these deals — and they’re going to be much more open to innovation.

I predict that uninitiated video will be all over the place in the near future. It makes a lot of sense: With online publishers who have offline properties, they can cut cross-media deals to run video ads online without any difficulty. Advertisers have always wanted to run their offline videos on the Internet.

The “traditional” thinking of online advertising strategists has been that running offline video commercials is a terrible idea; the thinking has been that effective ads on the Internet must be interactive to elicit a response. Given the recent data on branding effectiveness of online ads, there is a lot of value to running video ads online just for branding.

We’re going to see a lot more of the kinds of deals that got press recently for LifeSavers when the “O” in’s logo was replaced with a LifeSaver. I would guess that the advertiser or the agency came up with this idea, not the publisher.

In the end, money talks and everything else walks. Advertisers are finding ways to get more value from the online space. And publishers are showing that innovation comes from necessity — and that the realities of making the business run in a post-bubble world require thinking outside the box. How are you going to fare in this new world? Let me know what you’re doing to shake things up. If it’s interesting, I’ll write about it.


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