Around the World in 80 Days in 6 Seconds: YouTube Challenges Agencies to Shrink Classic Books into Short Ads

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Who says you can't tell a wonderfully complex story in six seconds?

Certainly not YouTube, which challenged creatives in the ad world to adapt Western civilization's best books into six-second videos.

The request from YouTube was meant to showcase its new six-second video ad format, created for the mobile viewers who have little time for 30-second commercial interruptions. So, the video service tapped Madison Avenue—J. Walter Thompson, Wieden & Kennedy, Deutsch and other filmmakers—to condense some of the most complex stories ever written into a super-short format.

YouTube and the agencies unveiled the work, reinterpreting "Romeo and Juliet," "On the Origin of Species," "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and other tomes, at SXSW in Austin.

"We asked ourselves what that would look like," said Sadie Thoma, YouTube's head of creative agency development. "To tell the essence of a longer story in a short form."

For the project, the agencies clearly couldn't just retell a classic piece of literature chapter by chapter. They had to rethink what's at the heart of the stories and capture that in seconds.

J. Walter Thompson chose two of the books, "Romeo and Juliet" and "On the Origin of Species," using puppies for the first, and they animated the second.

"What is the most efficient way to tell that story," said Jennifer McBride, director of digital at J. Walter Thompson. "And how do you do it in a fun way that you just get it."

For "Origin," they animated a fish eating another fish and then transitioned to a scene of baby growing into a man wearing virtual reality goggles as he reaches for his fish sandwich.

It was also an exercise in efficiency on the production side. The agencies are learning to adapt to the demands of brands that need faster turnaround times on strict budgets.

"We did this in-house, really quickly, with a tight timeframe with a really tight team," Ms. McBride said. "That's how we model everything now. No more of this big hulking team of 50 people. That's dead."

YouTube recently said it would phase out unskippable 30-second ads, and it launched this six-second ad.

YouTube wants advertisers to plan for six-second ads from the start, and not just shave a 30-second commercial down to fit a spot.

"It was harder than shooting anything else, because it was so quick," said Craig Allen, Wieden & Kennedy creative director.

Mr. Allen adapted "Dracula," creating a modern-day version of the mythical figure, and showed how he might look in a world of Instagram and social media.

The creatives are coming to terms with the digital constraints placed on the industry from so many platforms. Some places might require a vertical video, some play videos without sound, and some offer just six seconds.

"This was eye-opening," Mr. Allen said. "If I got a brief to do a six-second ad I would be pretty bummed, but now if you use it to your advantage it could be cool."