Publishers Divided Over Ad Unit Size, Online Marketing Role

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LOS ANGELES -- Size and format of Internet advertising units dominated a forum yesterday at @d:tech Los Angeles on the future of interactive advertising.

Opinions spewed forth when @d:tech chairwoman Susan S. Bratton posed the question: Are larger online ad units better for advertisers?

David L. Smith, president and media director of Mediasmith Inc., is gung-ho about bigger units. He preferred "page-dominated advertising, rather than the strip mall."

Disney Online also thinks big is better.

"I think it's hard for anyone to argue that more real estate gives you a better palate," said Ken Goldstein, executive vice president and managing director of Disney Online. "But you have to find a middle ground. At the end of the day, it's the consumer that matters."

Technology news site CNET Networks, a major experimenter of unconventional ad units, strangely was not so supportive of big units.

"I don't think it's about size," said Barry Briggs, president of media at CNET. "It's the ability to deliver better rich media advertising."

Instead, Briggs preferred rich media formats that allowed advertisers to tell a story within a story.

Lon Otremba, executive vice president of interactive marketing at AOL, said marketers have yet to crack the code in balancing ad size issues with content.

"The user experience is still developing," he said, citing Procter & Gamble Co.'s model in the 1950s where it integrated advertising into its sponsored television soap operas as one to possibly follow.

Another major unresolved problem facing the interactive industry is the standardization of formats. Again, the camps were divided.

"Every time you bring up a standard, it stirs up creative juices," Smith said.

One of the recommendations touted by the panel was for the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Online Publishers Association to take some ads off the table. Advertisers wanted simplicity.

But Clark M. Kokich, president of interactive agency Avenue A, did not think standardization would solve any problems.

"Everything's so standardized that you lose the creativity of the medium," he said.

The conversation then veered toward another key issue: Does clicking matter? Not many panelists were entirely in favor of using the Internet as only a direct response vehicle. Goldstein said he doesn't believe in judging ads by their clickthroughs. He cited outdoor media as a model to follow.

"People have been buying outdoor for years, using that real estate to increase affinity and research," he said. "They can see it [and] read it. There is reach and frequency."

Goldstein suggested that online ads be viewed both through the branding and the direct marketing prism.

Of course, a big problem for online publishers is the traditional mindset of media buyers. The panelists felt the industry has not sold the Internet well enough to become part of the marketing mix. Another issue is the lack of direct marketing skills at the publishers' end.

Otremba said that TV and the Internet, for instance, were a perfect complementary buy.

"So the power of the Internet to complete the sales process, bring some of the people down the purchase path, is enormous," he said.

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