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Read My Banner
The medium is only so-so
By ERIC ELLIS

September 16, 1999
Web posted at 8 a.m. Hong Kong time, 8 p.m. EDT


Name the last ad you can remember seeing online.

Tough one, eh? This is the nub of the issue facing (or impeding) the growth of the Internet as yet another marketing tool. For all the Net's ability to track and deliver the most focused consumer data in the history of capitalism, the sad fact is that online advertising still doesn't sing.

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Singapore's I-One International is a case in point. Its Internet booths along Orchard Road are supposed to speak of e-commerce, but so far much of the actual money is coming from the Volkswagen ads adorning the booths' exteriors.

Admittedly, it's early days. Goldman Sachs' Hong Kong-based Net analyst Rajeev Gupta reckons online advertising in Asia is about to enter "a very rapid phase." He predicts Asian ad spending online will reach $1.5 billion by the year 2001, 5% of the region's total advertising market. That compares with just $10 million in 1998. ("Traditional" Asian major-media ad spending in 1998 was $21.4 billion.)

Numbers like that naturally attract players. U.S. giant DoubleClick is rumored to be hooking up with Singapore-based Tricast, which posts the Asian franchises of MTV, CNET and E!Online, while DoubleClick's main rival in the U.S., 24/7 is franchised by China.com and affiliated with America Online's growing regional operations.

The online ad industry is evolving much differently from the path taken by traditional media. Tricast is a content provider; Hong Kong-based China.com is the content portal that recently went public on New York's NASDAQ. Marriages of advertising agencies and media are rare, mostly because of the strict division between church and state.

In Asia at least, this new strain of ad industry suggests that the mold is being broken, with the exception of a third homegrown player, SpaceAsia Media. SpaceAsia was founded in typical seat-of-the-pants Net style: by a few guys in a bar with an idea who slapped down some cash and created a company. Not affiliated with any content or portal site, SpaceAsia says it uses the most industry-specific, consumer-specific technology around, short of evoking the specter of Big Brother.

Tracking consumers with state-of-the-art technology is one thing, but the message itself must also improve. The sharpest online ad I've seen came unsolicited from the official Austin Powers movie site. When I opened the attachment, an animated Austin took over the desktop, danced around the screen and mooned me before being besieged by Dr. Evil. You had to click on Austin to save him, at which point an animated Richard Branson arrived on a Virgin Atlantic jumbo and whisked Austin away via the Virgin e-commerce Website. Viva Las Vegas, baby ... yeah!

It was cute--but, more importantly, it held my attention for a whole two to three minutes. It crossed borders. O.K., I didn't buy a Virgin flight, but I did see the movie. And yes, getting a few of these every day would get annoying, but it highlights the new medium's potential.

We are likely less than 1% of the way down the Internet advertising track. Wait to be annoyed in ways you never thought possible.

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