When the gif banner was king

Digital advertising has come a long way but, says Matt Powell, the contribution of those early years should not be overlooked

All the computers in the world are going to crash in a few weeks time. It is going to compromise our national security, bring financial institutions to a halt and shut down our emergency services. All the planes will fall from the sky. And you won’t be able to get any cash out.

That is pretty much what I read in the newspaper on my way to my first day working in a digital ad agency. I’m still at that agency, and I’m still slightly disappointed that nothing exciting happened when the clocks struck midnight. The year was 1999, and the story (it must be coming back to you slowly) was the Y2K bug – the theory that all PCs would fail to cope with the date changing from December 31, 1999 to January 1, 2000. While the boffins got it hopelessly wrong, it serves as a reminder of how digitally primitive we all once were.

Stop and consider how much we’ve all changed since the turn of the millennium. Colour screen mobiles, Google Streetview, Wi-Fi infused coffee shops, the iPad – they were all beyond our wildest dreams. Laptops were as thick as encyclopedias. There wasn’t even home broadband. A few knew that the internet was going to change everyone’s lives for the better, but a lot of people were cynical, even afraid of it. When I think about how I felt on that first day at work, more than anything I remember a great sense of possibility. There was very little hierarchy or job definition within small agencies back then, and no-one really had any relevant experience to fall back on. Businesses were built on hope more than expectation. As it transpired, that hope was well placed.

As a consequence, in newly- founded companies across London and beyond, it was a creative free for all, and banners were very much on the menu. A typical day for a creative back then involved getting up, getting in, grabbing a brief, thinking up an idea before lunch, crafting out a banner by the end of the afternoon and – almost invariably – spending the evening in the pub. It felt as if the internet was a void waiting to be filled. It felt good.

The clients around at that time exaggerated the feeling too. There 2 3  were so many new dotcom brands starting up each week that banners soon became a kind of currency. For a year or two in the late 90s, the gif banner was king. And it changed the course of advertising forever.

The banner became a symbol of change, the standard bearer for two major shifts in the industry. Firstly, traditional agencies made the fatal error of ignoring them, caused by a combination of dismissing the format and a lack of willingness to change a regime that had served them well for decades. Secondly, the tight constraints that banner advertising posed drew out the best in a new breed of creative person – advertising grads, graphic designers and entrepreneurs who knew it was now or never.

The challenge was to make a persuasive, coherent advert within a format shrouded in limitations. The gif banner was just 468 pixels wide by 60 high. That’s nearly an 8:1 aspect ratio; perfect for setting a line of copy but not much use for anything else. Then there was the 12 kilobyte filesize limit, barely enough to drop in a logotype and a background colour, leaving precious little space for a concept or graphic.

Finally, there was a limit of just 256 colours, although having said that, working with just 40–50 colours was more like the truth. If those dimensions seem tedious, forgive me. I built hundreds of banners in those early years, and just needed to write down the numbers for posterity. It’s what many designers had etched permanently on their minds.

As if those parameters weren’t tough enough, there was also the pressure that clients suddenly had access to real campaign information. What had once been hard to quantify, now suddenly became maths, pure and simple. By dividing the number of clicks on an ad by the number of times the ad was seen, shazam, clients suddenly knew if an idea had succeeded or failed. They weren’t afraid to let you know either.

So was it all bad? Hell no. For starters, what you saw on your screen was your end product – no plates, no wet proofs with colours that didn’t match the Pantone swatch, no delays. You could animate (a tiny bit), and you could control the duration of each frame to 1/100th of a second. This, allied to the fact you had creative freedom was more than enough to sweeten the deal.

So we drew and wrote and presented and illustrated and animated – and it was a blast. The ideas gradually grew in complexity, but the parameters of the gif banner remained the same, and creatives had to get clever at cutting corners. This in itself was an art form that got very little praise. Like a mountaineer cutting his shoelaces shorter to save a few grams from the weight of his feet, designers began removing the imperceptible colours from the palette to save a little here, and replacing a proper animation with a motion blur to save a little there. Happy days if you had creative OCD.

Spool forward over ten years (and those years have flown by) and suddenly the gif banner barely gets a mention in the modern digital studio. It’s the boring bit, the backup for the 2% of people who have somehow managed to find a browser without a Flash plug-in. But, the gif banner deserves a fond obituary before it slips from memory altogether.

Look at the banner’s legacy: I doubt any of us would be the creative directors we are today without all those early experiences. The gif banner taught us a great deal; how to tell compact, concentrated stories to consumers and how to take advantage of the context of a webpage. It helped us learn how to spot a stray pixel from a mile away and how to never accept defeat. Critically, it also left us with a permanent desire for hardware, budgets and bandwidth to grow and grow and grow some more.

The 12k gif banner may no longer be royalty, but it will forever be a benchmark of how far we have evolved. It will rightly be associated with a new chapter in advertising history, and as such deserves to be treated as an icon.

You may have noticed the leaderboard banner on this page isn’t actually from one of our advertisers. The ‘shoeless runner’ was an ad created for Mizuno by Almap BBDO, Brazil. The shoeless runner on the left bounces up and down while the Mizuno wearer stays smooth. Client: Mizuno. Agency: Almap BBDO, Brazil.

Matt Powell is creative director at digital agency Profero London. This article is taken from Digital Advertising: Past, Present and Future, a collection of essays by leading digital creatives, published by Creative Social. If you would like to buy a copy, please go to creativesocialblog.com


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