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It began as the most annoying feature of the Web: the banner ad. Those obnoxious little rectangles were the Internet equivalent of Vegas Strip lights and late-night infomercials—loud, blinking and insistent that you click here and click now to instantly get unbelievable rewards. Today things are different. Online advertising has embraced kinder, gentler methods. The best ads now try to draw users in with games, humorous content and useful applications.

Even so, online advertisers face a bewildering landscape of possibilities whenever they approach a campaign. They have much bigger budgets, but are expected to attract even more friendly eyeballs. Just how to do that is the billion-dollar question.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the unsettled nature of online advertising better than the four firms who contributed to this article. All operate differently, have different organizational structures and advocate different processes. And all are convinced that they represent the wave of the future. (Some aspects of the ad business, like extreme confidence, never change.)

The most traditional among them is Rethink Advertising, a mid-sized agency in Vancouver, Canada. Though its processes are collaborative, it still advocates the same idea-based framework that the industry has been using for the last 50 years.

“Our online work is still about strong ideas and always will be,” says partner and co-creative director Ian Grais. “Human nature hasn’t changed. People still want to be entertained, surprised and let in on a secret.”

A different approach can be found at Struck. Located in Salt Lake City and known for its viral work, it sometimes operates as a Flash-intense production house for agencies like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Other times, it serves local clients as a full-service agency.

The Los Angeles office of TEQUILA\ and TBWA\Chiat\Day provides the most interesting of the current models: two semi-independent agencies inhabiting the same space. One is a traditional agency, the other a non-traditional agency with digital expertise. Members from both sides are invited to create pitches, and the one whose concept wins leads the project.

“The people in TEQUILA\ have two e-mail addresses,” says creative director Paul Nguyen to emphasize the point. “You can reach them through Chiat or TEQUILA\.”

R/GA, a large interactive agency based in New York, has a still different approach. It works almost exclusively from technology out and produces everything from e-commerce platforms to full-fledged campaigns. Its processes vary greatly, but often resemble software development more than advertising.

So what are they producing? When creatives sit down to write briefs, they have a huge array of options: videos, online applications, complex sites and simple banners. Still, the most important feature of online campaigns remains the destination site. On this point everyone interviewed agreed: The destination has to deliver something to the user.

“Online, it’s about what people want to look at,” says Steve Driggs, executive creative director at Struck. “So you have to entice them to look for you and make them want to stay. You can’t do something boring.”

The end product is largely determined by the brand. In general, destination sites can make you laugh, entertain you with games or offer useful information. Some are simple, like Goodby’s museum-style site (which Struck built) for Specialized, a high-end bike company. R/GA’s work for Nike is much more involved. Nike , for example, enables runners to plot runs, compete with others and create clubs online. It’s as much about creating a community as promoting a message.

The problem with destination sites is that they don’t generate traffic. Instead, users must be pushed toward them. Whether they do this through blog postings or banners, smart advertisers have to continually devise new ways to draw in fickle consumers.

Excelling at online guerrilla marketing, TEQUILA\ uses many unorthodox methods to pump up traffic. To promote its Autoclaustrophobia campaign for the Nissan Versa, it placed an entry for the term on Wikipedia. This tactic raised both eyebrows and traffic numbers, especially since Wikipedia greatly increases search engine results rankings.

The firm used a more involved method to draw attention to its online campaign for the Shadow of the Colossus video game. It deployed a wide array of podcasts, blog postings and fictitious sites to create an online puzzle. Gamers became so intrigued that they collaborated in forums to “solve” the mystery.

Browse Projects

Click on an image to view more from each project

Nevertheless, when you’re trying to push people toward a site, nothing beats a banner. And luckily, they aren’t what they used to be. Thanks to third-party vendors like PointRoll and Eyeblaster, design firms can easily add video and interactivity to them. The goal is to make the ad entertaining.

Many banners are not intended to drive traffic so much as to provide a branded experience. A recent Goodby ad for Adobe (executed by Struck) offers a good example of one-stop online advertising. It features a man sitting at a desk. As people approach him looking for documents, users can spin them around, and in a way reminiscent of the old Asteroids video game, fire away at them. “It does a great job of getting across the idea that this is a way to send documents,” says Driggs.

Of course, most companies would prefer not to pay for banners. A good banner may ultimately only yield a half-percent click-through rate, and they can be quite costly. The answer to this problem? A viral campaign.

However, viral is a high-risk strategy. It can either drive lots of traffic, or none at all. And it often succeeds by being outrageous—an option not open to every brand. A recent Struck campaign for testicular cancer awareness features a video with a man dressed up like a giant male organ. He skates around an ice rink before being brutally checked off his feet by a hockey player. “Check Your Balls,” the ad advises. At once crude, unexpected and hilarious, the video has attracted lots of eyeballs for a small investment.

Unfortunately, success is never assured. Viral advertisers not only have to compete with other online campaigns, they must compete with everyone else on the Net. Companies like Struck usually put out a lot of possibilities at once, hoping one will stick. “Check Your Balls” was part of a video series it created for the client. The rest did not fare as well.

“Viral is impossible to guarantee,” says Grais, “You’re competing with sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and cobras swallowing hippopotamuses. How can you rise above that?”

As a result, many advise safer forms of viral. r/ga took a popular approach with its Action Hero site for Verizon. It allowed users to upload a picture and, using 3-D technology, grafted it onto a superhero’s body and made into a short film. Users could then send this video to their friends. Above all, it relied on R/GA’s technical prowess to create something so novel that users would be compelled to distribute it virally.

Even so, high tech is not always necessary. Rethink’s admirably low-brow Scream-O-Meter for Playland asked people to yell into their computers as loud as they could. The viral component? Everyone within shouting distance would want to know what was going on.

Whatever tactic used to drive and retain viewers, online advertising is obviously at an early stage. Successful campaigns can be high tech, low tech, as simple as a banner or as complex as TEQUILA\’s Shadow of the Colossus. Not surprisingly, few of those interviewed for this article wanted to hazard a guess about where the industry is going.

“William Gibson once said that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” says Grais. “We have the tools to create amazing new applications and new paradigms of communication, and they’re evolving around a generation of users who’ve been raised in the online world.” Then he pauses. “But we have to solve problems for clients.”

As we said, some things in advertising never change. ca

Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.

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