Not much about the future of advertising looks certain right now. Will newspapers become a niche medium? Will advertisers stop footing the bill for network TV if they don’t get more control over content? Will Google find a way to monetize YouTube before Hulu steals its whole audience? And in the short term, what’s going to happen to those of us who rely on marketing budgets to keep our companies afloat?

Amid the chaos, a few certainties have emerged. Among them is the idea that, at least over the next year, advertisers will try to make the most of their smaller budgets by putting their money into digital media. They’re doing this not only because advertising dollars go further on the Web, but because those dollars are more easily tracked, measured and accounted for online.

Which means now is as good a time as any to talk about why that’s such a bad idea.

Don’t get me wrong — as vice president of strategic development at Tribal Fusion, the fifth largest global ad network, the last thing I want to do is discourage advertisers from investing more of their money on the Web. Indeed, I’m thrilled at the prospect of major advertisers increasing their investment in digital media, where they can indeed accomplish much more for considerably less.

But if all you want to do with your advertising dollars online is track them, you might as well keep them under your mattress.

What makes for great advertising on the Web is no different from what makes for great advertising in a magazine, TV show, billboard or the underside of a Snapple bottle cap: creativity. If your Web advertising doesn’t start with that, it won’t end with the results you’re after.

But too often I see Web campaigns that start and end with an obsession over a single thing: impressions. Advertisers want to know how many clicks, how many eyeballs, how many unique views they can rack up through the placement, far and wide, of their ad units. What they want is the banner seen ‘round the world, rather than the idea that electrifies it. And while it’s surely easier (and perhaps temporarily better for your job security) to count millions of impressions and claim you’re making a difference, the fact remains that impressions or clicks will never measure whether you’re having an actual impact on your audience.

In short, its time to stop counting impressions and start making them.

Look at what marketers like Burger King have done online. Subservient Chicken, the bizarrely entertaining site that let consumers issue demands to a giant chicken in what appeared to be real time (“chicken your way,” get it?), changed the way we look at what is possible with digital media. It’s hard to imagine anyone arriving at such an inspired idea if all they were focusing on was how many clicks or impressions they could get, yet that site was seen by so many people it qualified as a bona fide phenomenon, one of the first in interactive marketing.

But I fear that as the economy worsens and marketers grow even tighter-fisted with their ad dollars, the industry’s obsession with safe, easily distributed banner ads will only take a firmer hold. But we have to move past that obsession and get on a path to creativity, the thing that inspired all of us to get into this business in the first place.

I say this not to disparage the banner ad. Banner ads were first and are ubiquitous and will probably continue their dominance as the most popular ad unit for some time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the banner ad does have its place in the marketing mix. It can provide reach and frequency and creates a visual signpost for your brand that can be replicated easily all across the web.

But what we have to realize is that this format is not the be all, end all, and that we can use the banner to supplement and bolster different objectives and strategies. The Web lets us do so much more with the same amount of money and just a bit more creative effort.

The creative energy that attracted us to this industry needs to be reinstated within our culture. I started in the business at one of the most legendary creative shops, DDB Needham. From the revolutionary VW “Think Small” ads of the 1970’s (which still adorn the walls of my home today), to the Budweiser “Wassup” ad from the late 1990s, that agency’s work started out defining an era and ended up defining an industry.

With the exception of a handful of instances — such as Apple’s Mac vs. PC campaign (see video below), we have yet to deliver consistent creative innovation like we did during the rise of television and print, even though we now have more tools to do it. We as marketers need to use those tools to tell a better story than we’re telling right now, or our own story won’t have a very happy ending.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SgqjNlJQI4&hl=en&fs=1]

Donnovan Andrews is based in New York and is VP of strategic development at online ad network Tribal Fusion, headquartered in Emeryville, Calif. He’s worked in the media and ad industries for more than 10 years.