When I started in advertising, I was taught to ask if my ideas were big. Today, I'd rather ask if they are interesting enough to be worth experiencing on-demand—not only as on-demand TV, but any form of user-initiated media consumption (web, video games, mobile...). As the world consumes almost 70% of its information in a digital format, controlled by consumers and passed along, marketers are no longer fighting for more attention for the time they bought. We are all trying for a chance to be played, and that's a totally different game.
In order to steal any second of someone's time when they have so much to do, see and play with, marketers and their agencies are now forced to create experiences absolutely worth the consumer's time. The good news is that different from what some people tried to make us believe, consumers don't mind being advertised to, as long as these ads are interesting enough for them. Otherwise, Nike's "Write the Future" wouldn't have reached 7 million views on Youtube in less than five days.
Addressing this demand requires mixing the storytelling skills of traditional advertising with the on-demand discipline of the digital natives—and there is a whole generation of agencies being born just to explore this new language. But there is still one piece missing: bringing advertisers to the discussion to reshape the essence of what an assignment really is.
For the last 20, 30 years, agencies have been told by their clients to think in a very specific way: find the core attributes we need to talk about, then the best story to carry them to every consumer we could reach. Some marketers even got to a point where they established best-practices determining how many times a logo should be seen, how many smiles should be displayed in between. . . In an interruption-based model, that may have worked just fine. But think on-demand, and it doesn't make sense anymore.
It's still way too early to try to establish a recipe to make it work—consumers themselves haven't determined their own patterns yet. But we do know one thing: on-demand campaigns work better when you reverse the order we currently use: first, we find an idea that is interesting for the consumer where a brand can play some role, then we find the best way to include the product there somehow. LEGO Photo, for example, didn't show a single kid playing with the product. But the little iPhone app that turns photos into LEGO Bricks mosaics in a matter of days became the #4 most downloaded app in the US, #2 in the UK and #1 in Japan.
From the perspective of the current marketing checklists, LEGO Photo is far from perfect. There was no tagline, no wrap up making the benefits absolutely clear... But those guys in charge of the mouses, smart phones and remotes don't care about our checklists anyway. We want their time, we gotta give them something in return: information, utilities or fun moments that will make their lives a little better.
Am I saying that mass marketing and classic ads don't work anymore? Of course I'm not. They will always have a place, especially when it comes to reaching scale, quickly. But you can definitely get better attention with way less money if media is helping you reach critical mass so the content can spread faster, instead of relying exclusively on paid forms to make a message be heard. But if the media aspect has been discussed, the creative aspect has been erroneously minimized as a digital vs traditional war, when it really is a matter of reshaping how we tell stories altogether.
One of easiest ways to understand what's effective in this new storytelling scenario is tracking how videos get viral on websites like YouTube. Take a look at the AdAge's viral charts during the last months, for example, and you won't find a single video showing the "right" portrait of a happy audience, or with the "perfect" balance between story and product display. The majority of the videos naturally being shared by consumers are rule-breaking narratives created to be shared, not repurposed TV commercials. The few exceptions, such as the beautifully written [Old Spice] "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" and Evian's polemic "Roller Skating Babies" are TV spots indeed, but clearly written thinking first of what would get consumers excited, then how the product could be present.
Rather than thinking of those exceptions as anomalies though, I'd rather see them as two of the few honest attempts to reach consumers in this new scenario—something that can definitely be replicated in large scale, by more agencies and brands, at the same time. An interesting analytical exercise to prove that is tracking back the entire series of SuperBowl spots. The big game is the one time of the year that consumers treat advertising as entertainment, and advertisers play along. This year, the explosive combination of massive reach of TV and click forward potential of the internet attracted not only a lot of eyeballs on TVs during the game, but millions and millions more views on websites alike. During that unique moment of enlightenment, suddenly the ad industry systemically lived up to the promise of competing against pop-culture phenomena Saturday Night Live and Lady Gaga's videoclips. And for the first and only time, spots made for TV took all 10 positions on AdAge's viral chart.
There are multiple challenges to adopt this discipline entirely, but procrastination is getting progressively more dangerous, since every day there are fewer opportunities to force a story in front of consumers. That's the kind of revolution that you either join early, or it will run over you. But once you accept it and let go of the way we have always done it, suddenly everything becomes simple again and fits into that original question: "Is this idea worth experiencing on-demand?"—for which answering is usually easy, but can we live with the truth?
PJ Pereira is founder and creative director of Pereira O'Dell, San Francisco.