Blog Post

Don’t say display ads are dead: ESPN shows there’s life in an old format

Many online publishers spent last year fretting over how advertisers are paying less to display their messages beside news stories. Indeed, some say display ads should be declared dead altogether and replaced with “native advertising” that mimics a site’s editorial content.

This overstates the case. A better way to look at the situation is that it’s time for publishers to make better ads, and not to chuck the display format altogether. Check out, for instance, ESPN’s(s dis) dynamic wall paper ad for an upcoming college football game that wraps around a story and lets viewers vote on their favorite team:

ESPN ad screenshot

The ad, first reported by AdWeek, expands dramatically for those who click to vote but still does not take over the entire screen:


The football message, which also contains video and social media features, is effective compared to traditional banner ads because it’s less intrusive and is relevant to the surrounding content. One can imagine this formula working well for other genres like travel or food.

According to Marc Horine, VP of Revenue & Operations for ESPN, last year brought about a “creative renaissance” that is letting brands “break through the clutter of the traditional ad experience.” Horine also points to ESPN’s investment in technology that lets the site display elegant TV-like ads behind a story.

ESPN is hardly the only one making innovative ads, of course. Another example is OneSpot, a Texas firm that makes customized content for major retailers and inserts it in relevant places around the web. The result is a sort of hybrid between traditional display ads and the fully bespoke native advertising.

The new ad formats are promising, especially when paired with sophisticated analytics tools that let brands measure an ad’s ROI in real time. The one wildcard is whether nervous publishers will double down and invest in these promising new ad formats at a time when the larger online ad market is declining.

5 Responses to “Don’t say display ads are dead: ESPN shows there’s life in an old format”

  1. How is that an ad? It’s promotional content for the game. It’s not an ad for GM or Tide or American Airlines. Someone will click on it because it’s fan based. Tell me how that applies to an ad that actually makes money – and how you get anyone to click on one and not click “close” as fast as possible.

  2. Sarah Prater

    These ads cool, but they are not completely dynamic and are not in the wallpaper space at all. You can see that if you make the page smaller the ads stay fixed (not dynamic). And you can see that there is still empty white space outside the content page and below the graphic, when you scroll.

    To see what truly dynamic ads would look like on this page when they fill up the empty space outside the content page, click here:

    Zoom out to see the ads liquefy dynamically to fit the available space. This kind of ad can be implemented on ESPN or any fixed, responsive or mobile site with a one-time, one-tag approach.