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Looking back on 25 years of digital advertising – Part two

As total digital revenue in New Zealand continues to climb, it’s time to look back at how we got here and celebrate the first 25 years of digital advertising. Graham Medcalf talks to a few digital pioneers, as they reminisce and reflect on a quarter of a century of struggle against the odds.

Read part one here

The first banner ad Sam Ramlu of Method Digital remembers doing was for Australian Tourism and the ‘Shrimp on the barbie’ campaign. “It was an expanding banner that let you flip the prawns – all in the name of getting you over the ditch.”

Banner sizes were always “the bane of our life”, Ramlu says. “Trying to fit all that functionality into 25kb or 40kb! Yikes! Even a simple word doc was bigger. Especially when we were always trying to push the boundaries with creating interactive banners that cut through.”

Ramlu is struck by how long it took clients to move from traditional methods and commit to digital. Or to think about digital as a medium in its own right.

“We often had requests to put TVCs on websites, as the intro.”

More often than not that “skip intro” button became very popular.

“Once we were even told to put a radio ad as the intro and it didn’t matter how much we pushed back, the agency insisted. Suffice to say that campaign was a bit of a fail.”

Budget and timing were always major issues in those early days. Ramlu believes this was because digital is so much easier to access and update, and so clients think it’s easy, cheap and quick. “They wouldn’t balk at $100-$200k for a TVC (which is at the low end) but put that against a digital experience or campaign and it was (and can still be) a much harder sell, media excluded.”

When Jonathan Dodd started marketing Research Solutions (now Ipsos) around 2002, they ran an animated banner ad plus a Google AdWords campaign. Dodd can’t remember how well they performed but “we grew strongly so they can’t have hurt.”

For ages in the 2000s, social media was not seen as having any serious business application. Clients who played in the digital space were far more comfortable building a do-all website and creating bespoke digital mechanisms that social media now perform routinely. 

When Cadburys took Snifters off the market, Pearson Davis quickly set up a website and sent out emails to bemoan the withdrawal. In one day, the website attracted 5,000 comments, as well as comments in in news media and TV about the Save-the-Snifter campaign. It was a great example of how ‘viral’ worked before the social media revolution.

Despite this, businesses struggled to get into social. Until very recently, social media was not seen as professional. Businesses solved on-line marketing problems with websites and email – not social media. 

One of the first memories of a digital campaign that Grant Hyland (now KBR Digital) ran was for a MasterCard All Blacks Sponsorship rugby game. This was in the mid-2000s and was one of the first WAP mobile games ever developed in New Zealand. Hyland partnered with the guys from Snakk Media to execute it, and It was played by about 20,000 Kiwis, which at the time was massive.

Most of the issues Hyland has faced over the years stem fundamentally from the rapid increase of spend and the increased importance marketers have placed on digital. “A skill shortage has been an issue all agencies have been navigating and still navigate today,” he believes.

Hyland remembers working with a client in the mid-2000s who was spending $20 million+ on all media per year.

“I devised a digital strategy for them that was a toe in the digital water but provided a roadmap to scaling their approach and improving their performance. When budgets were discussed we ended up being allocated $80k for the year. Ultimately the challenge in the early days was getting clients to understand the sheer size of the opportunity and volume of people using digital media but equally the necessary investment to generate meaningful results.”

There have been many successful New Zealand digital advertising campaigns over the past 25 years. Air New Zealand’s ‘Grab a Plane’, House of Travel’s ‘Mix and Match’ stand out for their ability to get Kiwis sharing campaigns. 

Some of 42 Below’s early work was pretty interesting too, certainly unconventional. ASB, GO Rentals and Air New Zealand digital campaigns were also impressive, with their consistent pursuit of best practice.

Sorted (the retirement commission) really embraced digital with their cute mouse mascot helping New Zealanders calculate their savings across finance sites like www.interest.co.nz, which is still going strong today.

Two others that stand out from the early 2000’s, winning awards in New Zealand and Internationally, while driving strong sales for clients, were the ‘Purina 30-day challenge’ and ‘Smirnoff Half Day Off’.

Touchpoint partnered with Publicis (Simon Morgan) for the Purina 30-day challenge and reinvented this as a digital campaign.

With Smirnoff Half Day Off, Touchpoint partnered with WRC/DDB for the second year of this campaign and implemented their ideas as a very interactive multichannel campaign using online, SMS, email and in bar.  

One of the most successful campaigns of the period was the NZ National Depression Initiative with John Kirwan as the frontman. The online platform FCB created was incredible and truly helped people suffering from depression at a time when it was not widely discussed or acknowledged as the issue it is today. The approach won numerous media and effectiveness awards and even had NASA approach FCB about it as a way astronauts may be able to mentally deal with long periods in isolation in space. Hard to believe, but a true story all the same.

In those early days the industry consisted of passionate people who shared a vision of how all marketing would eventually be digital. They struggled with low budgets and survived with a lot of patience and perseverance. With most of the money continuing to be spent in traditional media, digital received a small experimental share of the budget. But ultimately it was an exciting time as everyone was learning, testing and moving forward. Eventually, mainstream marketers and agencies came on board and took it seriously, and then announced themselves as experts.

“At some point around seven to eight years ago I remember thinking: ‘Wow it’s really happened—digital has become the major channel—and the future had arrived.’ And now today nearly everything has turned digital or has some digital component,” remarks Shearman.

In the early days in this country, most publishers used traditional print metrics of fixed weekly placements instead of CPMs, just to keep it simple, and few tracked anything past a click. Now most advertisers want to track ‘return on ad spend’ and evaluate bounce rates and user interaction once they land on their website.

A lot of digital advertising today feels like wallpaper. There is so much of it wherever you browse and so a lot is ignored. The need to surprise and delight customers and prospects with interesting or intriguing storytelling has once again become paramount.

Scale and proliferation are the critical changes – more consumers using more devices more often with more apps, platforms and time spent than ever. Coupled with this is the increased level of sophistication. In today’s landscape pretty much all the big brands are fully committed to digital. It would be surprising if there were any top advertising spenders not heavily invested in digital.

Digital will continue to proliferate. Every day we are seeing new adtech and martech come to market. Preconceived notions of what is effective are being challenged. Questions are being asked around what best and how digital advertising should be executed.

Of course, you can’t write about digital advertising without mentioning the two elephants in the room, Google and Facebook. Google has always been front and centre. The company continued to evolve and increase market share over the past 25 years. Facebook is the other big benefactor of ad spend and, both being largely self-serve platform buys, have challenged the traditional agency model. It has forced the digital media agencies to question their value and forced them to build a stronger story around their strategic capabilities. It has also seen the rise of specialists, at the expense of one-stop shop agencies.

The introduction of Google Adwords in 2000 added a potent direct-response platform to digital media, and their auction-based bidding platform democratised access so it was equally accessible to all advertisers. 

YouTube added scale to video advertising online, and Social added more two-way communication and introduced the concept of social proof to digital media. They’ve all been additive to digital media, rather than directly replacing anything else.

What has been a major impact is the increase in competition for local ad dollars by international publishers. The local publishing industry has had to fight hard to retain advertising revenue in the face of stiff competition.

The future for digital advertising looks to be really interesting. Online consumption has become so varied – from streaming to social media and online shopping. There are so many ways to get in front of an audience, but the digital proliferation of advertising has become annoying to the point that ad-blocking is becoming ubiquitous.

The key way to think of digital’s future is its’ ability to adapt in real-time and be customised for the audience and the context. Finding good people in the industry will be the most challenging part. People make all the difference.

After 25 years of digital advertising, it is time to pause and thank those early pioneers for their perseverance in the face of adversity, bringing us all into a future we now take for granted.

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