Twenty-five years after the first banner ad, technology reigns supreme and brands are more than just logos.
In just over four months, New Year’s Eve parties will kick-start the third decade of the 21st century — a period sure to see even hotter discourse about issues hitting the airwaves each day. For marketers, sparking positive interactions with people saturated with negative information can seem daunting.
But a look back to the late 20th century — another time of tremendous change — reminds us what the best brands have always done: stoke curiosity while listening to what people want and need.
“Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE?” asked AT&T, in one of the first banner ads to run on October 27, 1994. “YOU WILL.”
And sure enough, people did.
Of the first internauts seeing the ad on hotwired.com, 44% clicked on the small rectangular ad to find information on Musée D’Orsay’s Louvre Treasures exhibit, according to “Stop Selling Ads and Do Something Useful,” a 2013 Harvard Business Review article by Joe McCambley. McCambley is the Modem Media creative who wrote the copy. The article remains the definitive resource on the milestone.
On the same webpage, the telco introduced people to a useful invention — “The entire toll-free directory, online!” — and marked a new era of two-way conversation: “You want a valuable Internet experience, we’d like to deliver one. Please use the following space to tell us what you’d like to see AT&T do on the Internet.”
“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,” McCambley writes.
The CMO of online luxury mattress company Saatva, McCambley is one of many digital pioneers with the luxury of hindsight driving them forward. What was true then is true now — an era’s greatest technological innovation will always drive creativity. And as the universe, literally, is expanding, so are the diverse mindsets and vocal groups that brands should value, according to an intergenerational group of professionals.
As Modem and AT&T were fascinating the American public, Mark Curtis was founding CHBi, the UK’s first digital agency, where he created the world’s first online trip planner for automotive services company RAC. (Curtis sold his agency to Razorfish in 1998.)
Curtis also co-founded Fjord, a service design company now part of Accenture Interactive. He believes we’ve entered a “creative revolution,” a theme developed in the 2019 Fjord Trends Report.
Referring to the environmental chapter, Curtis says: “In essence, the logical follow on from The Last Straw is the total redesign of (almost) everything to be sustainable. I believe that we (especially the younger we) will come from a combination of science and creativity.”
To be sure, public concern about the planet spans every type of human imaginable, which leads us to another Fjord design trend — the idea that companies risk excluding entire groups of people when trying to talk to the individual.
Gone are the days when brands could rely on demographic data to sync their messages. Now it’s about mindsets, from saving habits to fashion trends turning cultural attitudes (and biases) upside down.
“…if my contention that personal relevance is in decline is true, then that is a huge and complex and meaningful challenge for designers and the broader creative community. I don’t think there are two bigger challenges than sustainability (fixing our world) and relevance (helping us) in the 21st century.”Mark Curtis, Founder, FJORD
Bring a Scientist to Work Day
Sometimes it comes down to some serious mental stretching, even thinking like a physicist. A teenager in 1994, Mike Wente is chief creative officer at Swirl mcgarrybowen in San Francisco. He’s used time and space to spark a cultural movement.
“People can’t support a brand if they don’t understand it,” he says, referencing a 2017 campaign for Cool Effect, a non-profit fighting climate change by offsetting carbon pollution. “So mcarrybowen decided we needed to find a way to make the invisible threat visible.”
The device of choice was a Forward Looking Infrared military-grade camera (FLIR) originally designed to detect gas leaks. When fitted with a special filter, it visualizes CO2 as a bright blue menace.
The agency team mounted the FLIR alongside a normal camera, juxtaposing the real world and the carbon swirling into the air “like the fires of hell,” commented a San Francisco pedestrian.
Footage from cars, planes, ferries, and factories — coupled with digital out-of-home units and on-the-street teams — generated significant public donations and new corporate sponsors.
Having worked at AT&T from 1996 to 2000, CARAT CMO Robert Schwartz recalls a time when American brands weren’t charged with solving the world’s problems.
“[They] came to the table with a certain set of predefined attributes because they were American brands and we had a much greater understanding of what those brands meant. What we see now is the need for those brands to become much more explicit in what they believe in and what they do.”Robert Schwartz, CMO, CARAT
Nike’s well-documented support of Colin Kaepernick, forced to leave the NFL after protesting against systemic racism, represents “good old-fashioned marketing” that addressed “a lack of parity with certain competitors,” Schwartz says. “What do those audiences believe? Nike has a deep passionate belief in the athlete and they reinterpreted that in today’s political world.”
Art Directors Keep Their Jobs with AI, but Why is Siri a Woman?
Schwartz also reflects on his time at IBM to calculate the benefits of Artificial Intelligence. IBM Watson has been driving digital transformation for nearly a decade, from beating Jeopardy champions at word games to helping banks make tailored financial recommendations.
AI is likewise going to have a profound effect on advertising — helping creatives and account managers quickly pull up fashion trends, choose the right color palette of an ad by daypart, pick a particular unit size, or suggest the right language to use.
Should visual storytellers and copywriters be afraid?
“The job of the art director changes and the level of technical skills change,” Schwartz says. “They have to know, ‘that’s what the platform does for me and I do steps 9, 10 and 11’ but the idea that we’ll replace 1,000 art directors in big and small agencies all over the world because we have some AI picking colors is a misnomer.”
At the same time, AI is upholding long-held traditions of racism and sexism, according to Kriti Sharma, founder of AI for Good and a United Nations Young Leader helping to implement the Strategic Development Goals. Included on Forbes “30 under 30” list in 2017, she hasn’t known life without the internet.
Speaking earlier this year at TEDxWarwick, she asked attendees to consider the following statements: “A black or Latino person is less likely than a white person to pay off their loan on time,” “A person called John makes a better programmer than a person called Mary,” and “A black man is more likely to be a repeat offender than a white man.”
“You’re probably thinking, wow, that sounds like a pretty sexist, racist person, right?” Sharma said. “These are some real decisions that AI has made very recently, based on the biases it has learned from us, from the humans…these decisions are all being filtered through its assumptions about our identity, our race, our gender, our age.”
She also notes that female personas such as Siri and Alexa take orders, whereas Watson and robot lawyers have male voices.
“Some of our brightest minds are creating this technology today. Technology that they could have created in any way they wanted. And yet, they have chosen to create it in the style of a 1950’s ‘Mad Man’ secretary. Yay!”Kriti Sharma, Founder of AI for Good
Read Part 1 of this 2-part story, It Was Just a Page.