Why is Online Display Advertising so named? After Offline Display Advertising of course. But why was that so named? To distinguish it from Classified. We’re talking about the full colour double-page-spread ad for the new Porsche vs. the densely packed page-full of ads for lonely-hearts and second-hand cars. And like offline, Online display is about finding the audience while they’re doing something else and attracting them to your brand; representing, at its best, a skilful combination of targeting, creative ideas and high-quality execution.

We’ve heard of ‘banner blindness’. Many people claim never to click on display ads and many regard them as an irritation. Yet the global online display advertising market is forecast to rise by 20% annually between now and 2014, according to the latest forecast from ZenithOptimedia which predicts that display advertising will account for 40% of global internet advertising in 2014 (=US $47.75 billion), up from 36% in 2011, growing faster than paid search. Overall, online advertising is expected to grow on average by 16% a year over the next 3 years. It is clear that Marketing budget holders believe in online display and are diverting spend towards it. But why?

Once upon a time, I was a graduate trainee at Procter & Gamble (P&G). They taught me loads about brands and how to build and sustain them. In the years that followed, I grew up in Direct Marketing agencies which were at the time becoming fashionable but which were, generally speaking, populated by frustrated ad men and women along with data boffins who couldn’t quite deliver all that they yearned to.

The DM industry of the late 20th Century dreamed of generating large volumes of ‘instant’ response at low cost and of getting hold of lots of lovely data which we could mine to achieve insights, to target better and build profitable long-term relationships. These prayers were at least partially answered by the emergence of the Web. Today, we have email marketing, clickable rich media ads and more web analytics data than we can handle. So much for direct response.

Advertising was always something rather different: all about image, brands, big creative ideas, big suits, big hair and long lunches (sorry: got a bit carried away there but it was the ’80s…) and those guys were more relaxed about response, favouring the mantra “build a strong brand consistently over time and consumers will beat a path to your door…”

So now here we are in ‘The Digital Age’. But have things really changed so much? Advertising has always been about a) finding your audience, b) attracting their attention and c) selling them stuff. There has always been a time interval between c) and the actual purchase which represents a large part of the difficulty of proving that any advertising actually works. Since around 1995, it’s certainly got a whole lot more complicated. But only because people are now spending time on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube as well as in most of the old places. So media have fragmented (with no accompanying increase in marketing budgets!) which has presented big challenges for brand owners and their media planners. Yes, we have new places to advertise in our efforts to reach an increasingly elusive and distracted audience. However: the role of advertising (via whatever channels) remains largely unchanged: to build the brand and create sustainable demand for it.

And what of ‘DM’? For over 20 years now, Direct Response marketers have defined their mission as ‘Using data to target individuals to elicit a direct response and/or transaction at any location’. Suppose however, (and at the risk of playing with words) that the ‘response’ is in fact a series of neural processes in the target consumer’s brain? Then we are approaching a holistic view of communications: every single brand experience can build awareness and also generate a ‘direct’ response. Either represents success!

Online marketing is often hailed as being fully accountable; because we can measure the results. But measure what exactly? Clicks are great because we can count them; they are an easy and attractive metric on which to base your KPIs. But that’s only part of the job that online display can do. It is advertising after all!

The new marketing is 24-7.People expect to be able to reach out to your brand via the web, mobile or high street retail outlet as and when it suits them. This doesn’t necessarily exactly coincide with the times you can put your brand in front of them, but that needn’t be a problem. Online display advertising is, firstly, doing the same job that a billboard at the side of the road does: delivering impact and awareness. But it can now also include video, making it more like TV. The user can switch the sound off if it’s getting annoying, or mouse-over the banner to expand it if they’re interested. Even better, they can, if they wish, click on the ad, progressing to a landing page and a website to find as much more information as they require and in many cases can, with a few more clicks, actually purchase the product. However not all users will choose to follow this entire user journey all at once; this should not be seen as a failure. Online display can deliver a range of benefits to the brand. Indeed case studies consistently show that the best online advertising not only generates short-term sales and long-term awareness, but also, by providing ‘air cover’, increases the effectiveness of all other marketing activity (offline and online).

As marketers, we seek to persuade people to buy things. Not necessarily immediately, but soon and repeatedly. If the user clicks it certainly tells us they’re at least partially engaged. Which is nice. And if yours is an eCommerce business, you’re certainly going to need clicks at some stage – and lots of them. But if a user sees your online banner ad and then does nothing until the following week, at which time they start buying your brand and then continue to do so for the rest of their lives, then most of my Clients would settle for this result, regarding it as a good return on the cost of that Ad Impression.

As P&G and other successful brand owners have always known, the real battle is for the hearts and minds of the target audience. The ‘direct response’ doesn’t need to be an immediate action; indeed achieving awareness increase and attitude change is actually much more important; few sustainable businesses are built on impulse purchases alone. So when evaluating your online advertising, count clicks by all means, but also consider other engagement metrics and do everything you can to measure contribution to actual purchase decisions. The significant benefits offered by online brand building are reflected in the increasing share of global ad spend allocated to online display. As Brand Managers, we can live without immediate clicks, but not without long-term sales.

Mike Berry is an internationally-recognised Digital Marketing Consultant and Author