Gone in a Flash: The Changing Landscape of Banner Ads


Online display ads, or “banners”, have until very recently been the almost exclusive domain of Flash. But last September, Chrome and other browsers activated a feature that automatically stops Flash animations. This dealt a mortal blow to the Flash banner. 

But what does this mean for brands and how can digital agencies deliver the same level of quality in this changing landscape?

First of all, a quick flash back

Flash has been an amazingly expressive tool, but almost since the beginning it’s had a hard time. I was an early adopter, picking up Flash (v2) work around 1997. In 2000 usability guru Jacob Nielson wrote an article criticising Flash, Flash: 99% Bad. The 99% Bad storm made me wonder if I had hitched my horse to the wrong post. The burgeoning technology took a huge knock but managed to come back, stronger and more accessible. The Flash community pulled itself together, eventually dropping the notorious skip intro animations, and became the de facto standard for web animation, video and banner ads. The future seemed rosy.

Giants fall hard and fast

When Apple announced the iPad would not support the flash player in 2010 it felt serious, but not like the end. HTML5, the touted replacement, was a naïve technology and would not be ready to pick up the mantel for years. I reckoned there was a good 5 years before I needed to worry. However, in 2011 Flash work started drying up, and by the time those 5 years had passed many browsers had already turned Flash content off. As of June 30th this year, the DoubleClick ad platform will deliver the coup de grâce and will no longer accept Flash banner creatives. As of January 2nd 2017 they will not run any Flash creative on the platform at all. Flash banner ads are dead and now HTML5 has to pick up where they left off.

The difference between Flash and HTML5

It’s been an interesting 6 months reskilling and retooling the Realise banner production processes. The primary reason is that, whereas Flash ads could be made by tech-savvy designers, HTML5 ads need design-aware techs. Flash wrapped everything up for you. If you wanted custom fonts, a video, particle effects, an animation and a form in your ad, it was no problem. Flash could do that in a single file that would play (almost) everywhere. A HTML5 ad needs to load three versions of each font, requires two video formats and needs elegant supporting CSS and JavaScript code. They also have reduced animation capability and issues with consistent styling of form elements across browsers. 

In addition to these complexities, we now have to consider file size - especially for mobile. A large banner ad slows the loading of a page, delaying a user’s access to the content they require. Any interaction with an ad should be borne out of positive interest not frustration, so we have to keep file size down. Flash could deliver a rich animated ad in just 35-70kb (not including video). With HTML5, supplying just one font with support for all browsers can add over 100kb to a banner. This only leaves enough file size for some copy, a logo, and perhaps a background image. As you can imagine, delivering the same results we used to get from Flash in HTML5 has been a little challenging.

We had to get clever

So we’ve whittled down our fonts, minified our code and crushed our images. We’ve written our own animation tools, shaving off tens of kilobytes, to offer the same possibilities in a smaller package. But this alone was not going to be enough. We had to stop asking the question “Can HTML5 do…?” and replace it with “How can we make HTML5 do…?” For example, 6 weeks ago HTML5’s lack of animation paths, a design staple, came up as an issue. So we wrote code that provides them. 

We’ve made ads with particle effects of snow and glitter. 

We’ve created a plane flying through endlessly flowing clouds. 

We’ve animated a hailstorm of objects including chopsticks, coins and even a hard hat. 

Our creative desire and technical curiosity are constantly pushing what Realise can deliver in the ad space using HTML5. We’re also keeping a very close eye on the IAB’s evolving Display Advertising Guidelines to ensure we’re at the front of the curve. As a result, I believe we’re in a place now where we can look forward, not back. 

And if we were to future gaze a little… 

You don’t need to be a fortune-teller to know that mobile and social spaces are only going to become more important. We should be making ads that leverage the technologies these platforms have to offer. Let’s start using cameras, locators and movement sensors to offer users different interactions. Why not let users share the brand love through their social accounts e.g. endorsements ‘signed’ with a selfie? 

Although HTML5 has raised new challenges, it’s also triggered a new wave of ingenuity and creativity for banner ad marketing. The only thing to do now is to keep clicking and find out more.

Paul Bruce