As the ad world descends on New York for Advertising Week, the watchword for most is "digital." Yet despite the belief that the future of the industry is written in bits and bytes, the Internet, after 15-plus years, has not yet proven itself as a branding medium.

To be sure, the Web can't be called a failure for advertising. It generated $22 billion in 2009 in the U.S. alone, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Yet a huge chunk of that -- 65 percent in 2009, according to eMarketer -- is in direct response advertising rather than the brand-building efforts that define larger media like TV. Just look at the top advertisers online vs. on broadcast TV: The online list is dominated by DR advertisers like Experian, Scottrade and NexTag. TV, meanwhile, is a Who's Who of branding, including Pfizer, General Motors and Procter & Gamble.

"We need to concede that going back 15 years, without meaning to or thinking about it, we fundamentally created the medium to be a direct response medium," said Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the IAB.

To explore this argument, we asked a group of publishers, agency execs and technologists how the Web can fulfill its potential for building brands, and put together some of their thoughts.


Rethink Web Design
Many said that because the Web was built by technologists, the layout is an eyesore that creates an inhospitable canvas for creative.

AOL, for one, is doing something about it. Next week it's unveiling an ambitious plan to change the entire page layout and so, it hopes, the shape of advertising. Code-named Project Devil, the nine-month effort has included the input of designers and creative agencies and aims to break out advertising from the sidelines of content.

Project Devil includes new ad units that blur the line between content and advertising. It calls for agencies to assemble new, large ad units -- they take up half of the page -- from a variety of advertising assets, including video, maps and social networking updates. Their size provides a big canvas for fetishized product shots more reminiscent of magazine spreads than cramped banner spaces.

"If we really want to fix brand advertising online, we have to go directly to the creative community," said Jeff Levick, president of global advertising and strategy at AOL. "We have to understand the limitations of today's unit that drives them crazy."


Ditch The Click
Web advertising's greatest strength -- the ability to track customer response through clicks -- is a double-edged sword. The click helped the industry grow into a formidable business (just look at Google) -- and remains as a top metric in many campaigns. But it's also the symbol of how the Web has fallen short in moving brand metrics like awareness, purchase intent and consideration.

In reality, very few people click on ads. Worse, measuring clicks can be counterproductive: Research by Lotame, an ad network, indicates that campaigns with high click rates are often inversely correlated with success in lifting brand metrics.

There are also problems with the most common way of measuring branding: site-intercept studies, or floating ads that ask users to take surveys. IAB-commissioned research by methodology expert Paul Lavrakas found the surveys use quasi-experimental research designs and that "the methodology ... simply doesn't hold water from a professional research standpoint," Rothenberg said.
The IAB is now pushing metrics that correlate to brand goals. One promising area is an attention-based metric derived from the time a user spends on a page or with content.


More Art, Keep The Science
Digital media's utopian promise has been "right message to right user at right time." But most of the focus has been on the machinery surrounding the last two goals at the expense of the first. Creativity, the heart of great advertising, has taken a backseat to the quest for fine-grained targeting.

Web advertising "has failed as a rich experience compared to TV," said Nick Law, North America CCO at R/GA. "We do a lot of banner work. Almost all of it is about effectiveness. As a creative medium, it doesn't have the same narrative capabilities as more traditional media."

Rothenberg believes that, at times, the industry has become obsessed with emphasizing technology at the expense of "aesthetics, beauty and cleverness."
The result: Creatives view display advertising as confining.

Mark Beeching, CCO of Digitas, believes display ads can be reinvented to emphasize the "play" in display and become outlets for creative executions in branded entertainment and utilities.

Digitas poured most of its energies and budget for Philadelphia Cream Cheese's effort with Paula Deen-the online show "The Real Woman of Philadelphia"-on the program itself, which was then placed on the banner. The unit no longer just "advertised the advertising," said Beeching.

"That's where we started to get bigger and bigger engagement," said Beeching. "It was a complete shift. It became a very important leg of that campaign."