The Dreamweaver Hangover

How Hand-Coding Became The Unnecessary Ad Standard

Everybody likes to hum along to the Gary Wright song Dreamweaver, with its blissful melody and tone…

“Driver take away my worries of today

and leave tomorrow behind”

Such bliss was also the promise of Adobe’s Dreamweaver application, which takes the worries away from creators and automatically writes HTML code for web designs.  Such was the promise anyway, and in Adobe’s defense, Dreamweaver was way ahead of its time and can be useful for making simple sites and quick comps.  But for anyone who writes HTML code by hand, you know that under the curtain it gets messy, and the code is bulky and definitely not elegant.

In the creative agency world, this bulky code led to a hangover that has lasted for years, and extends to other What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) authoring tools as well.  Creatives have opted mainly to stick with image-based tools such as Photoshop for design, and hand-coding remains the standard for implementation.

I think the underlying thesis for WYSIWYG is a good one…let the software deal with the coding and free the creators to focus on the creative.  Clients don’t really care how many lines of code are used, or frankly what technology is leveraged altogether.  Clients do care about their brand and that the consumer has an outstanding experience when their message is delivered.  So why then does the digital advertising world build HTML ads by hand?

“Ooh dream weaver, I believe we can

reach the morning light”

WYSIWYG’s were so bad back in the day, that they created the common belief they were strictly to be used by amateurs. The culture of developers worships those who code each line by hand, as anything less would indicate you’re some kind of hack. As a veteran designer/developer myself, I believe there’s no better way to create a really nice custom rich media ad unit than to write some, or all, of the code yourself. However, the majority of ad units in a typical campaign are considered “standard” and thus have limited functionality. If the original objection to not hand-code was ultimately about stability, I think that a mature and refactored WYSIWYG is great option, especially considering the reduced budgets and timelines that agencies face today. If the unit is bulletproof from a code point of view, and looks incredible, isn’t that all your client really cares about?

Said differently, clients care about outcomes, and creative drives metrics. These two ideas are the bedrock of digital advertising.  For agencies, staying ahead of the technology curve has distinct advantages. I’m hearing about a lot of agencies who are still suffering from the transition away from Flash. Of course those who were more prepared are thriving in the new HTML ad world. Unfortunately the most painful outcome for agencies with the Flash transition has been that the actual creative has suffered — with all of the scrambling around to learn how to code, the creative quality for many teams (and clients) has diminished, which is sadly the fundamental core value of any creative agency regardless of the technology du jour.

“Cross the highways of fantasy, help me

to forget today’s pain”

Taking a step back from this situation and comparing to the world of websites, WordPress is a good example of a platform which minimizes the need for coding and provides a framework in which average people can build upon.  WordPress is not a WYSIWYG tool like Wix, Squarespace or other drag-and-drop website builders, the trade-off being a basic WordPress site looks like a page from Wikipedia.  But if you know how to use the platform, a WordPress site can be upgraded with professionally designed and developed themes while the robust content management platform remains attached. Because people have recognized the value of a standard code base and appreciated the ease of deployment, WordPress now powers over 24% of the web*.

As HTML ads are like little websites, so it seems the same platform approach can apply.  Instead of absorbing the cost of ground-up development, agencies can (and should) focus on innovative and high quality creative by leveraging all the available frameworks at their disposal. Plenty of ad platforms exist (includingAddroid) that provide stable underlying technology and frameworks for creative execution, without the need for hand-coding.  Furthermore, with the proliferation of data-driven media buying, the need for better and higher quantities of creative is growing.  Platforms enable easy duplication, copying and swapping of media, and those who remain adamant about creating ads by hand will simply miss out on the efficiencies that today’s market demands.

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