When the 12 KB GIF Banner Was King

Since writing the article for the CSbook, the animated gif has become even less important to digital advertising. You can’t gamify a gif banner, put one on the app store or attach arduino to it (well maybe you can but I’m not going to try). But despite this, the animated gif refuses to die completely. Like me, you’ve probably noticed the occasional blog post crop up, showcasing photography enhanced with a tiny amount of animation. A couple of examples for you:
Far better than 3-d animated gifs that savor a passing moment
Cinemagraph

It’s a technique has the ability to catch you off guard, and done well it can have a lovely simplicity. So, even if the banner disappears, maybe we’ll still see the style rolled out now and again like tilt-shift or rotoscope. And that’s good enough for me. Anyway hope you enjoy my original essay:

When the 12 KB GIF Banner Was King
All the computers in the world are going to crash in just a few short weeks. In turn, our national security will be compromised, financial institutions will be brought to a halt, and our emergency services will be shut down. And all the planes will fall from the sky. And you won’t be able to get any cash out.

That is pretty much the long and short of what I read in the newspaper on my way to my first day working in a digital ad agency. I’m still at that agency, and I’m still slightly disappointed that nothing exciting happened when the clocks struck midnight. The year was 1999, and the story (it must be coming back to you slowly) was the Y2K bug – the theory that all PCs would fail to cope with the date changing from 31 December 1999 to 1 January 2000. While the boffins got it hopelessly wrong, it serves as a reminder of how digitally primitive we all once were.

Stop and consider how much we’ve all changed since the turn of the millennium. Colour-screen mobiles, Google Street View, Wi-Fi–infused coffee shops, the iPad – these were all beyond our wildest dreams. Laptops were as thick as encyclopedias. Home broadband didn’t even exist. Do I need to go on? A few knew that the internet was going to irreversibly change everyone’s lives for the better, but a lot of people were cynical, even afraid of it.

When I think about how I felt on that first day at work, more than anything I remember a great sense of possibility. Back then small agencies had very little hierarchy or job definition, and no one really had any relevant experience to fall back on. Businesses were built on hope more than expectation. As it transpired, that hope was well placed.

As a consequence, in newly founded companies across London and beyond, there existed a creative free-for-all and banners were very much on the menu. A typical day for a creative back then involved getting up, getting in, grabbing a brief, thinking up an idea before lunch, crafting out a banner by the end of the afternoon, and – almost invariably – spending the evening in the pub. I’m simplifying things, of course, but it certainly felt as if the internet was a void waiting to be filled. It felt good.

The clients around at that time exaggerated the feeling too. So many new dot-com brands were starting up each week that banners soon became a kind of currency. To put it plainly, for a year or two in the late nineties, the GIF banner was king. And it ultimately changed the course of advertising forever.

The banner became a symbol of change, the standard bearer for two major shifts in the industry. Firstly, traditional agencies made the fatal error of ignoring the banners, caused by a combination of dismissing the format and a lack of willingness to change a regime that had served them well for decades. Secondly, the tight constraints that banner advertising posed drew out the best in a new breed of creative person: advertising grads, graphic designers, and entrepreneurs who knew it was now or never.

The challenge was to make a persuasive, coherent advert within a format shrouded in limitations. The GIF banner was just 468 pixels wide by 60 high. That’s nearly an 8:1 aspect ratio – perfect for setting a line of copy but not much use for anything else. Then there was the 12 KB file size limit, barely enough to drop in a logotype and a background colour, leaving precious little space for a concept or graphic. Finally, there was a limit of just 256 colours, although working with just 40–50 colours was more like the truth. If those dimensions seem tedious, forgive me. I built hundreds of banners in those early years and just needed to write down the numbers for posterity. It’s what many designers had etched on their minds.

As if those parameters weren’t tough enough, there was also the pressure that clients suddenly had access to real campaign information. What had once been hard to quantify, now suddenly became maths, pure and simple. By dividing the number of clicks on an ad by the number of times the ad was seen – shazam! – clients suddenly “knew” if an idea had succeeded or failed. They weren’t afraid to let you know either.

So was it all bad? Hell, no. For starters, what you saw on your screen was your end product – no plates, no wet proofs with colours that didn’t match the Pantone swatch, no delays. You could animate (a tiny bit), and you could control the duration of each frame to 1/100th of a second. This, in addition to the creative freedom, was more than enough to sweeten the deal.

So we drew and wrote and presented and illustrated and animated – and it was a blast. The ideas gradually grew in complexity, but the parameters of the GIF banner remained the same, and creatives had to get clever at cutting corners. This in itself was an art form that got very little praise. Like a mountaineer cutting his shoelaces shorter to save a few grams from the weight of his feet, designers began removing imperceptible colours from the palette to save a little here and replacing a proper animation with a motion blur to save a little there. Happy days if you had creative OCD.

Spool forward over ten years (and those years have flown by), and suddenly the GIF banner barely gets a mention in the modern digital studio. It’s the boring bit, the backup for the 2 per cent of people who have somehow managed to find a browser without a Flash plug-in. So why write this essay? It’s because even if this is true, the GIF banner deserves a fond obituary before it slips from memory altogether.

Look at the banner’s legacy: I doubt we’d be the creative directors we are today without all those early experiences. The GIF banner taught us a great deal – how to tell compact, concentrated stories to consumers and how to take advantage of the context of a web page. It helped us learn how to spot a stray pixel from a mile away and how to never accept defeat. Critically, it also left us with a permanent desire for hardware, budgets, and bandwidth to grow and grow and grow some more.

The 12 KB GIF banner may no longer be royalty, but it will forever be a benchmark of how far we have evolved. It will rightly be associated with a new chapter in advertising history and as such deserves to be treated as an icon.

Taken from Digital Advertising: Past, Present and Future

Editors note: More about Matt Powell, Creative Director, Profero – London

Matt originally trained as a book designer and spent a whole year creating an Atlas of World History. Opening the finished hardback in a store, the first thing he spotted was a typo. He turned to digital and joined Profero where he still works today. Over the last decade he has worked on brands such as Channel 4, Johnson & Johnson, and MINI but is most proud of a succession of government campaigns protecting children on the internet from predators and cyber bullies. He is highly awarded and been on a number of juries, including the Cannes Cyber Lions. Matt tries to spend as little time in London as possible but fails spectacularly at this on a weekly basis. Follow him @observatron.

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