Contrary to lore, there was no "first" banner ad. When HotWired, Wired magazine's digital arm, launched 20 years ago, it did so with not one, but many, banner ads to support its exclusive digital content.
Fourteen advertisers had signed on, a roster including AT&T, MCI, Club Med, defunct malt beverage Zima, and Volvo. Not all of them were ready in time, but according to multiple sources, somewhere between six and 12 appeared simultaneously that day. And yet, over the years, only the ad from AT&T has stuck in our collective memory as "the world's first banner ad."
Despite not technically being first, the "Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will" ad has entered the canon of Internet history for its influence on all the web advertising that has assaulted our browsers ever since. The AT&T banner's success proved the enticing theory that people might willingly click off of a piece of journalism to check out a sponsored campaign, and have fun in the process. AT&T's wasn't the only clickable campaign that ran on HotWired that day, but the irony of its message is hard to beat, given that most people today don't click banner ads. Now, most banner ads have an abysmal click-through rate of .08%. "What has come later is horrendous," says Otto Timmons, one of the creators of the AT&T banner. He cops to using multiple ad blockers to protect himself from the offending ads.
At the time, however, Timmons—now a consultant— and the others who worked on the project had an optimistic view of the future. "There was an incredible idealism around advertising then," says Joe McCambley, who also worked on the ad's creative.
First, the idea of ad-supported content fed into the proto-Internet mantra: Information wants to be free. Advertising was the way to make that happen. Second, digital was a new, yet to be tainted frontier. "We came with the attitude that this was a sacred ground. The rest of advertising had been ruined and dammit, we weren't going to let that happen this time," recalls McCambley, now the cofounder of digital marketing firm The Wonderfactory.
It was a given that HotWired would rely on advertising to support its content. The months prior to launch, it had worked with various ad agencies to educate them on the benefits of Internet advertising over static print ads. AT&T had heard through one of its own agencies, Modem Media, that its competitor MCI had signed on for one of the original spots. At the time, AT&T had been losing market share to MCI, and didn't want to lose out on the chance to launch with HotWired, too. "We were trying to be very competitive," said Bill Clausen, who worked in marketing at AT&T at the time. The telecom signed on as an advertiser less than a week before HotWired's launch, paying somewhere in the $20,000 to $30,000 range for the media buy, according to various sources.
All parties involved in the ad's creation—Wired, AT&T, and the digital creatives hired to create the ad—agreed that the banner would be clickable to take advantage of the medium's interactivity. Wired had set the specs for all of the banners at something around 460 pixels by 60 pixels and determined that they would run on what today is referred to as the leaderboard spot at the very top of the website. The design and what would happen after people clicked was left up to AT&T, Modem, and Tangent (digital consultants hired by Modem to help with web design).
Holed up in a Westport, Conn. office for three and a half days, a group of five creatives hashed out a plan. "We talked extensively about the fact that we already knew advertising is controversial. We don't want it to feel like an ad," remembers Craig Kanarick, who worked as a freelancer for Tangent at the time. They wanted the ad to feel like a sponsored pleasurable experience, not something people would run away from. "Let's not sell somebody something. Let's reward them for clicking on this thing brought to you by AT&T," added Kanarick, who later founded Razorfish and now runs Mouth, an "indie food" supplier.
At the time, AT&T had a popular television campaign with the tagline "You Will" that showcased the (astoundingly accurate) future that AT&T was working to bring to the masses. The spots, voiced by Tom Selleck, would ask hypotheticals like "have you ever crossed the country without asking for directions?" and show a not-yet-existent GPS technology. "You will."
The idea was to bring that campaign online, to show people that "AT&T has this magical future vision that is actually here now," as Kanarick explains it.
The ad was slated to run on the arts and style section of HotWired, so they thought the "reward" for clicking should reflect that content. As for the design, they wanted to banner to stand out on the gray pages of the Internet, hence the '90s rainbow letters.
When clicked, the banner, which didn't even sport the AT&T logo, led to a separate, gray page with three hyperlinks. The first led to a map of the United States labeled with clickable links to art museums and galleries that had online presences, including digital-only galleries. The second was a directory of AT&T websites, which did not exist anywhere else, not even on AT&T's own page. The last link on the page led to a survey, asking people about the ad. Clausen wanted it to feel like a "handshake": Welcome to the Internet, here's how you use it.
At that time, the web was hard to navigate. Yahoo had just launched as "Jerry and David's guide to the World Wide Web" earlier that year, and provided only a handful of links. "Part of the mystery of the Internet was: What is on the Internet? What is out there?" explained Kanarick. The AT&T ad demystified the web in a small, specific way.
"I absolutely 100% know that we nailed it. We did it, we did a great job. The response rate was phenomenal," Clausen told me.
And it's true. The ad was a smashing success. By some accounts, after the initial excitement, the click-through rate settled at around 44%, which as a percentage is an astonishing figure. Of course, there were only about 14 million people online at that point. And only tens of thousands of people were reading HotWired. Plus, at that time, people clicked things out of curiosity. "It did well because it was new and the Internet was new," said McCambley, who worked at Modem at the time.
Novelty can only account for part of the AT&T ad's influence. Some of the other banners that ran that day provided similar experiences; they were also new and different. Timmons, who worked for Tangent at the time, recalls some of the competition as "really good, actually."
In the end, if any entity deserves credit for "inventing" Internet advertising, it's HotWired. "What HotWired did was really cool," said Jonathan Nelson, who cofounded Organic and designed some of the other ads that ran that day; he is now the CEO of digital advertising giant Omnicom. "It was super innovative; nobody had ever done it before."
Despite today's derision for banner ads, none of the people who had a hand in the ad regret their involvement. (Although many of them jokingly apologized.) They stress that they didn't ruin the web; that came later. "I think we tried to do the right thing. We came into it with really pure intentions," said Kanarick. They hoped that ad would act as an example of how Internet advertising could better target readers. That hasn't entirely happened; just look at Facebook.
"My only regret," says McCambley, "is that it didn't turn out as awesome as I thought it would."
Update: For those interested in time traveling back to the '90s, some of the ad's original creators put together this mock-up of the original banner ad experience here. Enjoy!