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Stop Selling Ads and Do Something Useful

By:  Joe McCambley Feb 22, 2013
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Screenshot from Polar Bowl ad

Banner ads didn't always suck. I should know. I helped create the first one.

My children tell me that's like inventing smallpox.

It was October 1994, a fantastically idealistic time on the Internet. Many pioneers of digital advertising believed it possible to create advertising so useful it's a service. We knew that if we asked ourselves, "How can we help people?" rather than, "What can we sell people?" we could rewire people's brains to seek out brand experiences, rather than run from them.

That first banner that Modem Media, the fledgling digital agency where I worked, built for AT&T, was helpful, and it was useful. At a time when people wondered what the Web was all about, it connected visitors of hotwired.com to a tour of seven of the world's finest art museums. It demonstrated how AT&T could transport people through space and time via the Internet — just as AT&T had done 100 years earlier with the first long distance network. Of those who saw the ad, 44% clicked.

Not only did people love the experience, they loved it enough to share it with friends. We were blown away. "People don't share ads," we told ourselves. "They share candy bars, and Coca-Cola, and porch swings." It was the first time I heard the word "viral" applied positively. We were on to something.

For a few wonderful years, while big agencies slept with their backs to the Web, we did incredible work for major brands — not ads, but content experiences that delivered utility. We knew, as my Modem Media boss G.M. O'Connell once said, that, "People read newspapers, listen to the radio, and watch TV, but they go to the Web to get things done."

By 1998, though, spending on Internet advertising had grown to the point where the established agencies woke up. Innovative shops like Modem Media, Razorfish, and Agency.com were snapped up. Before long, content and utility were corrupted by the only thing big agencies understood: reach and frequency. We were back to delivering what TV spots, radio spots, and print ads had delivered for years: sales messages. The rest, as they say, is history.

But this is a very interesting time. There's a perfect storm building that will give us all the chance to redeem ourselves, and change the course of advertising forever.

Joe McCambley is co-founder and creative director at The Wonderfactory, a New York-based firm that designs and builds branded digital content experiences.