Know Thy Enemy

James Clee
Jun 13, 2019 · 4 min read

Often when talking to clients about competition we end up showing them a reel of their closest competitors — usually close category competitors who sell very similar products. Sometimes if we’re being clever we show them competition from indirect competitors or from a broader definition of the category.

Plus every now and then we’ll get clients into the office to show them the best of the best: either the best stuff the agency has put out that year, a “Cannes Round Up” of the work we feel is most relevant to them, or some other round-up of ads: Christmas or the Super Bowl maybe.

To be clear, not doing this stuff is a dereliction of duty, for sure. Clients — and teams — need to be kept up to speed on what good looks like for the category and in the industry generally.

But it does lead to a particular type of tunnel vision. You’ll have seen that oft-repeated stat about ‘the ads being as good as the tv shows’ (repeated below for those of you who’ve been living beneath a rock).

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Tango’s “Orange Man” was released in 1991, if you’re wondering

Once this is combined with digital powerhouses telling everyone that what consumers want are tiny bursts of a picture of the product it leads to boringly formulaic work. All the industry ends up churning out are “snackable” pieces of content that are simply a packshot competing for real estate with a logo. No creativity, no story, no narrative.

There’s a piece of received wisdom that consumer attention spans are shorter than ever, and they’re still falling. But, as lots of people have pointed out, that’s bullshit. Kids are blacking out from playing 40 hours of video games, films are getting longer, we’re in the “golden age of TV” where consumers will happily binge watch an entire 20 hour season of a show in one day.

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What people are watching is constantly developing. People are consuming more content — just less of ours.

What’s actually in freefall is the consumer’s tolerance for boring. When there were three channels on TV sitting through the ads was pretty much the only game in town. Beyond getting up for a cup of tea (hardly a thrilling proposition either) there wasn’t much else to do but sit there while the ads were on. Nowadays 75% of people double-screen while watching TV, and you best believe the second the ads come on they’re firing up Twitter or Candy Crush.

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This is the number of media channels the average consumer is exposed to. These are nearly all things they’d rather be doing than watching your ads

This isn’t another spiel about how TV advertising is dead — it very clearly is not — but all these factors pile up to create a situation where showing “Category Competition” is actually detrimental to the work, not beneficial.

Once the five competitor ads are shown back to back in a sterile meeting room with all eyes on the screen, and they’re all 6 second pack shots or product demos — the bar looks very low indeed.

Clients are competing with other clients for ‘share of mind’, absolutely, but the number one thing they’re competing for is — still — attention.

We’re all guilty sometimes of forgetting that what we’re really competing with is everything else in our consumers’ lives. Candy Crush, swiping on Tinder, doing DuoLingo while waiting for a coffee, reading long reads they’ve got saved, podcasts, chatting with friends, staring at nothing in particular on the bus. People’s ability to distract themselves has exploded in the last 20 years. We need to constantly remind clients — and one another — that getting noticed is still our number one priority.

Clever positionings and great products are helpful to say the least, but it makes no difference if no one pays any attention to the work.

As an example — the recent Inside Number 9’s Halloween Special showed that advertising is up against some serious stiff competition — even TV is stepping up its game. It was a “live event” that played with both form and function, and acted as a multimedia entertainment show. It’s near-impossible to categorise as it’s so unique (the nearest thing that comes to mind was the original broadcast of War of the Worlds). Millions were gripped and jumped between platforms to follow the action as it unfolded in real time.

This is the issue that brings us back to the stat we’ve been talking about. The programmes have gotten better and better, and the advertising has failed to keep up.

It’s time to remind our clients we’re not just competing in the category, we’re competing with everything else out there too.

Don’t wait for a competitor review to come through and then take the client or creatives through it, show them how people really see ads. Show them an entire ad break but obscured by a phone as someone flicks through Instagram stories and finishes a French lesson and gets a match on Tinder. Show them a Boiler Room playlist on YouTube with bumpers that gets tabbed out of to check Twitter when the adverts show up. Show them your consumer robbing a train in Red Dead Redemption, then show them the category competition.

Show them what we’re really up against.

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