What Advertising Looks Like When You Ignore the Rules

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If I look back, I am lost. - Daenerys Targaryen

A lot can happen in 15 years. In 1998 we were hanging on the edge of our seats to see if Ross would marry Emily or leave her for Rachel — today, we’re collectively traumatized by The Game of Thrones’ infamous Red Wedding scene. Game of Thrones broke the rules and those few minutes of TV have changed television forever.

Last December, The New York Times did a similar thing to long form journalism with its Snow Fall feature. It was a revelation in so many ways. The content is great, the design shows that old media can really innovate, and the parallax effects are mesmerizing.

Yet the ads in the piece were downright embarrassing.

To be fair, this is business as usual on the Internet. Basic online ads haven’t evolved much beyond what we used to see on HotWired.com in 1998. While many have tried to innovate around the banner (Say Media included) we’ve been literally confined by a set of formats that feel idiosyncratic in this new multi-device world.

The Native Problem

A few years ago, we launched the Clean Campaign, our way to start a conversation about content on the Web and why it didn’t need to look, well, awful. Thankfully, editorial experiences are getting better, in some cases much better, but advertising remains something we mostly design around.

We can carve out space around advertising, mark out little zones around content. Advertising is definitely a consideration but remains an invasive species. It doesn’t feel native. I don’t mean native in the way social networks inject sponsored messages into their feeds — I mean truly native, an integral part of the reading experience. In an industry often characterized by how quickly it changes, digital advertising remains relatively primitive. Our own AdFrames ads innovate within those confines, but a brand’s message remains quite literally boxed in.

We decided to look at what truly native advertising would look like without restrictions, without an old set of rules. So how would we design online advertising if we were starting today?

Everything Is Content

You can’t rethink the reading experience if you don’t rethink the advertising experience. Today more than ever, advertising needs to exist naturally alongside content, it needs to be content. It needs to be a core part of a publication and not simply a moment of interruption. If we’re going to take ad-supported media seriously we need to look beyond a solution that’s been around for fifteen years.

At Say Media, we have a unique advantage of owning media properties, the publishing platform and the ad network. This allows us to really look at things holistically. We set out to not only rebuild our responsive site building framework from the ground up, but we also created two brand new device-agnostic ad products called Adaptive Ads.These were the steps we needed to take to really prove that the only way to move forward was to innovate advertising out of its standardized box.

This week we debuted a brand new ReadWrite, one of Say Media’s key tech properties and one of the most widely respected tech sites on the Web. It is the first site to ever feature Adaptive Ads. These are responsive designs that exist within the flow of content. Not interstitials, not banners that sit on the side or between articles but fullscreen experiences that appear naturally as you scroll.

Adaptive Ads work their way into the reader’s view naturally. They scroll away as they came in, on any device. They exist in a very native, natural state within the content. Like flipping the page in a print magazine, they’re part of the experience. They adapt to mouse or touch controls and feel native to whichever device they’re experienced on. And they’re great content in their own right. I’m really excited to see what brands do with this new canvas.

When content and advertising coexist like this, it allows us to take design in interesting directions. On the site, we’ve reduced the amount of interface you see on screen. We embrace scrolling, instead of working around it. Less competition for the user’s attention means that content can take center stage. The mythical “above the fold” area in your browser is no longer the only thing that matters (not that it ever did really, but you get the point). The reception so far has been great.

Adaptive Ads are a bold experiment and we hope they will inspire others to start thinking beyond the banner. For us, this is also a way to infuse some magic into the content experience - to not only bring back some of the beauty of print but truly create something that feels digitally native. After all, this isn’t 1998 anymore.

Alex Schleifer is creative director of Say Media. Follow him on Twitter @alexoid.