Billboards in disguise

25 years of the banner ad and the future of digital display


In October 1994, a small rectangle inciting you to ‘click right here’ appeared on and the banner ad was born. It was an immediate success, achieving clickthrough rates of over 40%.

The first banner ad, for AT&T

The ad was for US telecoms giant AT&T, part of a series promising a bright future powered by amazing technology. Some of it happened (like satnav) and some of it is comical in hindsight: sending faxes from the beach didn’t turn out to be the killer app they thought it would be. Similarly, the prediction that we would all click ‘right HERE’, didn’t turn out quite as expected. 

We just don’t click

Fast forward 25 years and our initial enthusiasm to click where directed has all but died, with clickthrough rates languishing at around 0.3%. Despite this, the market for digital media is vast, spanning Google ads, YouTube, paid social and the programmatic ad exchanges that buy and sell space for publishers. Digital display is now the worlds second biggest advertising medium (after search), worth £6Bn in the UK alone. And it’s growing fast, digital ad spend is set to grow 17.6% by the end of 2019.

Why? Because that’s where the people are. Around 4.5Bn people use the web each month, compared with about 3.5Bn using social media. We can’t afford to ignore such a vast audience. So, given that the humble banner ad is more important than ever, how should your brand be using it? Well, probably not in the way many marketers do.

Hyper-targeting under threat

A key selling point for digital ads is the targeting. We can find and reach just about anyone who’s interested in our product. But for how much longer? It’s not just that some consumers are going to significant lengths to avoid advertising with ad blockers or by overloading trackers with fake data, the tech industry is changing fast in response to public concern over privacy. Facebook removed 5000 targeting options last year. Meanwhile, Google’s targeting gets ever more opaque, increasingly asking marketers just to ‘trust the AI’. And on the other side, Apple brags about its “Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.0” which kills the tracking cookies that let AdTech vendors profile and target us. On top of all this, the ICO is gearing up to take on the programmatic platforms over data sharing and privacy.

The era of hyper-targeted performance marketing certainly isn’t over, but basing your digital marketing strategy on its continued existence may be unwise. And not just for technical or legislative reasons.

Being efficient isn’t always effective

Targeting too tightly gives you short-term efficiency over long-term effectiveness: it gathers sales from current buyers but does little to nurture new ones.

The most effective advertising, however, creates awareness, trust and positivity around your brand. When a consumer comes to buy, your brand is a safe choice. One they feel comfortable with. Cheaper alternatives exist, but it takes time, energy, and a willingness to take risks to buy those over your brand: the known and trusted ‘default’ option. If, by contrast, you wait until that consumer is digging through search ads before advertising, then you’ll find yourself competing with cheap commodities at the bottom of the sales funnel.  

Too much focus on narrow targeting doesn’t work long-term. It doesn’t build brand value. It’s great at converting short-term sales, but long-term growth? Less so. That’s the province of brand ads.

Adidas has recently relearned this hard lesson. For several years, it shifted up to 75% of its ad spend into performance marketing. And found itself over-reliant on promotions to sell trainers amid falling prices, in contrast to Nike, whose brand-led approach needs no introduction. Adidas is now returning to a brand-led approach.

You can’t click a billboard

We’d argue that banners are primarily a brand tool. Retargeting aside, clickthrough rates are low and search or shopping ads outperform display for last-click conversion, so they are best used to create brand awareness and consideration.

Yet this is only a good approach if we can prove that banners generate brand effects. And they do. As this recent IAB study shows, there is a clear and measurable uplift in brand awareness, recognition, favourability and information-seeking as a result of exposure to display advertising on desktop and mobile.

So, whilst it’s harder to measure the immediate last-click return on brand-led digital advertising, it works in much the same way as a 48-sheet billboard does in promoting sales. And most brands still buy Outdoor display media even though you can’t click a billboard.

How to create brand-building banner ads

Time for a reality check. We’re discussing web banners, not 100 foot high billboards on Times Square. And, on the face of it, cramming awareness, positive emotional responses and consideration into a rectangle a couple of inches square seems like a big task, even if the numbers tell us it works. Fair point. But, if you think about it, how is that different from a paid social post? Yet we have no trouble accepting paid social as a brand-building tool.

So, how exactly can we get cut-through and create brand-building impact in a banner ad?

With relevance, simplicity and incredible creativity.

Relevance drives action

Relevance, or rather, the marriage of creativity and relevance makes your ads stand out. Mars’ “Sticky searchuations” campaign is a good example.

Banner ads were placed around the web highlighting intriguing situations relevant to people’s current activity. On travel sites, for example, they were prompted to search “How can I fake an accent to blend in?” On beauty sites, “How can I unbotch botox?” And so on, always alongside a big pic of a Mars bar to ensure maximum brand visibility. Then, if people searched, they were invited to win enough chocolate to deal with any situation. It worked. With an engagement rate of 5.9%, 20x the average for banners, it shows clearly that relevance and creativity are a great pairing.

Simplicity cuts through the noise

Just like billboards that you see only briefly as you drive past, your ad may stay on screen for as little as half a second. Or, it may be largely ignored for 10-20 seconds as people read around it. Point is: it’s not the focus of attention.

What does that mean for banner creative? It means this is no time to be subtle.

Simplify. Strip it back. Strip it right back to the purest, simplest, possible message.

Be punk. Be bold. Don’t muck about.

The Guardian do it with an Aubergine, Apple do it in black and white and EE simply repeat themselves entertainingly. The point is this: make sure your ads stand out.


Creativity creates cut-through

Since we’re working in a small, noisy, crowded space, the creative has to work hard to garner attention. And yet, the web is awash with lazy, mindless, banner ads: brands serving up the TV ad in two-inch square space. As though anyone is going to watch it for 30 seconds to see your branding.

If you are going to spend thousands of pounds buying millions of impressions, then make them count. And that means treating banners as a core plank of your campaign creative, not an afterthought.

These banners from Apple illustrate the point. Simple, arresting and persuasive, they strip out everything except the core message: Apple is your ally in the battle for privacy. And the message cuts through, precisely because it takes out everything unnecessary and focuses on that message alone. 

Where does this fit into my brand strategy?

Digital journeys are disjointed; sprawling across apps, the web and social media on multiple devices. All campaigns are at their most effective when we consider that whole journey, meeting people with great ads in a range of moments from awareness to conversion. As the IAB study referenced earlier shows, brand effects are at their greatest when people encounter you in multiple channels. So, your brand has to be in all the right places.

And, simply put: banners let us talk to audiences in moments we can’t reach with social, TV or print.

To get the best returns, we need to pay banner ads the attention they deserve. Lazy re-cuts of TV ads or dull, functional messages won’t get great ROI. But, because so many people are using online display so poorly, there’s a real opportunity for any brand smart enough to capitalise on it. So, if you think about banner ads only as a conversion tool, then it might be time for a reappraisal. They aren’t search ads in a frock, they’re billboards in disguise.


To see some of our work, click here for case studies on how we’ve helped Pets at home, Silentnight, Marriott, Brother, BUPA, Wagamama and many more. 

Alternatively, if you’d like to learn more, give us a call on 0161 831 0831 and ask for Nicola or get in touch at

Contact Us:
To find out how Dinosaur could help you get great results, phone Nicola on
0161 831 0831
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To find out how Dinosaur could help you get great results, phone Nicola on
0161 831 0831
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