Suspend disbelief

I always wanted to work in an advertising agency, and yet after ten years in the ad industry I’ve just accepted a position with Viacom.

One of the great things of working in adland is that you encounter people from very different backgrounds -in these years I’ve worked with pharmacists, philosophers, graduates in political science and even a Hollywood director. People who ended up in advertising mostly by chance. Contrary to most of my colleagues, I always wanted to work in advertising. Well, maybe not always, but ever since I was eleven and I had a letter published in the local paper complaining about a new drink aimed at teenagers that Coca-Cola had just introduced in Spain.

While advertising is hardly the world depicted in Mad Men, it’s still good fun. In the last decade I’ve worked for ad agencies like Publicis, Razorfish and Saatchi & Saatchi in Madrid, Paris and London for clients like adidas, Toyota, Nissan, Sanofi, Mondelez or the International Olympic Committee. I’ve been to Montevideo, Rome, Joburg, Shanghai and Bollywood, spent some 45 minutes with Leo Messi (before he decided he was too bored to shoot an ad) and shared some quick Spanish tips with Maurice Lévy. And yet, I’m quitting my life in an ad agency.

Why? Mainly because ad agencies have hardly evolved since the days of Mad Men. Their model is still largely based in interrupting people by pushing commercial messages. This was logical back in the day of passive media consumption, when people -in the milieu we refer to them as consumers- would sit in front of the television set and put up with a rapid fire of 30 or 60" TV commercials during breaks. While this is still a valid model for traditional media (TV, cinema, radio, print press, outdoor), the way people interact with digital media is different: browsing the internet is an active experience, and adland should understand that people will only watch what they want to. So when I found myself churning out a 30" re-edit of a TV commercial to be used as a pre-roll ad on YouTube (one of those little clips that play before you watch a video and you cannot skip -sometimes they’re even longer than the video you actually want to see) I thought other advertising is possible.

Interesting beats interrupting

Suspending disbelief is a semi-conscious decision in which you put aside your disbelief and accept the premise as being real for the duration of the story. This theory is usually applied to the works of fiction such as movies, where people would ignore that you can see the wires holding Christopher Reeve in the air because it is much better to believe that a man can fly… at least for the duration of Superman, the film. I’ve always thought that good advertising, just like good cinema, was about suspending disbelief, about taking people to a place extraordinary enough for them to go along with the narrative. To care for the story enough that they would forgive it not being real.

However, this is much harder to achieve in advertising because people have been traditionally forced to see it and, on top of that, ads are always trying to sell something. It’s like being force-fed a spoonful of something and being asked to buy it. The suspension of disbelief requires the audience to give the story the benefit of the doubt, and this in a world where consumers decide what (and what not to) watch, may be a little bit too much to ask from them.

I strongly believe in advertising and the power of marketing to turn great products into great brands. But rather than by being interruptive, by being interesting. Engaging. Even fun. Is this even possible? Can we get people to like ads? Even to share them? It’s not only possible, but some brands are doing it already. Think of that Felix Baumgartner jump that got 52 million views of what basically was an out of this world (pardon the pun) Red Bull ad. Or lately that series of cartoons featuring Zlatan Ibrahimovic that Nike created on real time with the animated version of the football star reacting to the latest World Cup action and questions from fans who used the hashtag #AskZlatan.

People are being bombarded with countless commercial messages every single day and they know how to tell apart an ad from a non-commercial message. Moreover, while traditionally consumers would get to know about a product through an ad in mass media, then go to the store to purchase it, nowadays most of them are checking online reviews before hitting the store, and even once at the point of sale they check the product on their smartphones too. This means two things: first, bad products won’t sell that easily any more; second, advertising will need to have actual entertaining value to attract interest and get people to watch (and eventually share with their friends).

That is why I’m joining Viacom, because the owner of brands like Paramount, MTV, Nickleodeon or Comedy Central knows how to entertain people. Because they’re less interrupting and more entertaining. Because they know how to create characters and craft stories that people actually care about. Because they’re simply brilliant at suspending disbelief.

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