Gone in six seconds

Short ads: creativity killers or new tools to convey a single-minded message?
Days Inn

A man belly-flops into a pool in a six-second spot for Days Inn to mark the summer’s solar eclipse.

This article appears in the November/December 2017 issue of strategy.

In the 1960s, a group of French writers developed the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, abbreviated as the Oulipo, roughly translated as the Workshop for Potential Literature. Founded by writer Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais, the mission was to impose constraints, such as algorithms and wordplay, on the creative process. Georges Perec’s detective novel La Disparition didn’t contain the letter “e.” Jacques Jouet wrote his Poèmes de métro by riding the Paris subway, composing one line per stop, and starting a new stanza whenever he transferred. No revisions were permitted. The idea was that the restrictions on creativity would lead to an unexpected kind of freedom.

Advertising is facing its own arbitrary constraint in a new, restrictive format: the six-second ad. With YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and others now offering them, and Fox adopting them for NFL games in the U.S., the short spots are gaining currency. But are they a creativity killer, or a useful limitation that forces a laser focus on what you want to convey?

Alanna Nathanson, partner and CD at Giants & Gentlemen in Toronto, has made six-second ads for the Mac’s Froster and Days Inn. For the latter, the agency built the hotel chain’s sun logo into spots around last summer’s solar eclipse. The team used sharp cuts to jump from the epic (earth’s rotation around the sun) to the mundane (a man belly-flopping into a pool).

Nathanson says the ads manage to tell a complete narrative – with the backstory quickly understood and the punchline almost immediate. The format is useful for brand awareness, she says: “a quick hit to engage and intrigue your audience. Nothing more, nothing less.”

BudBoston Pizza recently released six-second ads to target Canadian football fans on mobile. The resto partnered with Twitter, Budweiser and the NFL to show game highlights to fans scrolling through their feeds, says James Kawalecki, director of marketing, sports programs and sponsorships at Boston Pizza.

The simple spots aim to create top-of-mind association for the brand: basically, you’re watching football, so why not do it with wings and Budweiser at Boston Pizza? Because of the digital targeting (the spots are also on YouTube and mobile apps for Sportsnet and TheScore), the brand knows football is already a passion point for the audience, making broader storytelling less important, Kawalecki says.

He sees a place for the short ads on broadcast too. “I’m sure [broadcasters] aren’t going to allow themselves to lose to the online digital mobile channels because it’s either a more efficient buy or clients and brands can’t afford to do all different kinds of formats,” he says.

But moving the format from the web (where the assumption is that attention spans are shorter and there’s less tolerance for longer ads) to TV would mean encountering a different kind of viewer.

“When you’re working to disrupt someone’s feed, you know you need to be intrusive like that,” says Brian Howlett, CCO at Agency59, which just made a series of six-second ads for the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada (IBAC).insurance2insurancer

He calls the spots “hit-and-run advertising.” The opening frame, a silent white screen with the words “Insurance is boring until,” is meant to lull the viewer before a jarring cut to 1.5 seconds of dramatic stock footage – a flood, a fire or a car crash – followed by another cut back to the white screen and the IBAC logo, calling for viewers to find a broker.

They leave the viewer asking “What did I just see?”, which works in digital when the ads are likely to be viewed many times, Howlett says.

What’s less certain is the impact when disrupting longer-form viewing, where the audience mindset is different. Mark Tomblin, chief strategy officer at Juniper Park\TBWA, says TV viewers, whose brains are more relaxed, can be engaged at a deeper level.

Tomblin worries that downsizing media leaves advertisers in “smaller spaces in which to do our job.” He sees a role for the shorter format, especially for highly targeted messaging, but is concerned brands will lose sight of what the format is and isn’t good at and dump their entire budgets on them.

Those consulted for this article agreed that the “sixes” only form part of a campaign, and that longer ads will always have a role. But some also said rising to the challenge resulted in creative satisfaction.

“The benefit for the creative team is it’s a really nice, precise, simple brief,” Kawalecki says. “It’s got to be a simple story. But often the best ads, no matter how long they are, are simple stories well told.”

Nathanson cites Mark Twain’s quote about writing a long letter because there’s no time to write a short one. The six-second ad forces creatives to be “laser-focused,” she says. But it still needs to be emotive to be effective. “If an ad doesn’t make you feel something, no matter what the length, you’ve failed.”

Tomblin is skeptical about the ability of six-second ads to do the heavy lifting of brand building.

“Brands are psychological constructs,” he says. “How things get in our brains and resonate should be a really important aspect of the whole creative project.” His concern about many new media formats is they don’t help creatives generate connections that make brands live in people’s brains.

Rather, they may be designed more to suit the tech companies who built the platforms.

With all the recent controversy around how views are counted on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, there is even some suspicion in the industry that six-second ads are a convenient fix for the tech companies: if the ad is so short that the viewer doesn’t have time to scroll past before seeing most of it, the viewability problem is solved – even if it doesn’t necessarily do much for the client.

There is also a smaller difference than clients might expect in the cost of making a six-second ad versus a 30-second spot. Shoots still have similar costs for crews, equipment, talent and location, Nathanson says.

Though there are exceptions. Agency59’s spots for the IBAC used stock footage because the scenes were just a flash, and Kawalecki says it’s easier to avoid using actors in a six-second ad.

“There’s not necessarily a need for dialogue to drive the spot. You can have more fun with product visuals, sound effects, animation,” he says. “All of those are more cost-efficient.”

Post-production and editing is also generally cheaper because of the length, though Howlett said that, because of the precision required to get the sound and cuts just right in an ad of that length, those costs can also be higher than expected. Basically, clients shouldn’t expect to pay one-fifth the price of a 30-second ad just because it’s one-fifth the duration, he says.

When it comes to placing them, Kawalecki says there are pricing advantages for those getting in now, because the tech companies have the inventory and fewer brands are competing to fill it at the moment. Nathanson says the CPM (cost per thousand views) for a six-second spot is roughly 37% less than for a 30-second digital ad.

Ramona Persaud, media manager at Agency59, says the CPM rate is the same for placement on Twitter and TheScore. On YouTube, the calculation is more complicated, she says, as the real-time Cost Per View bidding includes factors such as relevance to the viewer.

The main benefit of buying “sixes” as part of packages that also include longer formats, she says, is “creative diversity” depending on the campaign’s KPIs.

In a few years, six-second ads could be a forgotten fad, viewed as a knee-jerk response to disproven assumptions about attention spans. Or they could be an established component of the advertising tapestry, used on broadcast TV, and challenging creatives to be even more efficient in their messaging. Who knows – they could be working on three-second ads by then.