I’m Calling B.S. on 6-Second Ad “Storytelling”

This summer marked another Cannes Lion Advertising Festival, the annual gathering to celebrate the world’s best marketing creativity. Google amped up its presence again, featuring YouTube, which took over the beach for the week. YouTube used this stage to unleash a breakthrough new creative storytelling platform for advertisers: The 6-second pre-roll ad.

Rather than spitting up their complimentary cocktails at the idea, most attendees seemed to accept it. Maybe we’re all beaten down by the soul-crushing march of technology at this point…

Is this what we have come to, fellow marketers? I submit that the 6-second ad is yet another point on the path of disruption that we’ll look back and laugh at — a final turning point away from the interruptive model of advertising and toward useful, content marketing that our consumers actually value.

Video is where the action is

Marketers have known for decades that video is the best medium for advertising creative. The sight, sound, and motion of video captures attention on multiple levels and allows for deeper communication. It also helps that these ads take over the TV show or video clip that consumers want to see, thus forcing an undivided impression. No wonder 88% of marketers say video is an important part of their strategy, and brands are willing to pay significantly more for video ad impressions.

To tap those funds and steal from TV networks, digital platforms are adding more video options: Instagram Stories is seeing ramped ad spend, Pinterest recently added auto-play video ads, Facebook is creating original long-form video content and experimenting with mid-roll video ads.

Platforms fear losing user attention

But everything marketers like about video ads — the forced interruption with sight, sound and motion — is hated by video viewers. When given the option, reports show that from 70% to 94% of pre-roll video ads are skipped after five seconds. Of course we’ve all had those moments when a publisher forces an unskippable 30-second ad in front of a 15 second clip. A study last year showed that pre-roll video ads are the biggest reason for the rise in Ad Block software installs.

So these digital platforms must fight to balance the needs of the audience, who wants entertaining and informative content, with the needs of shareholders and advertisers, who want to interrupt this content with a commercial message. Digital companies must carefully watch this mix to avoid losing their audience to competitors, including to video platforms that are already ad-free, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.

Facebook has been posting incredible quarterly growth — in large part due to the rise of in-app video ads — but the company has warned investors that there is a point where its “ad load” of interruptions cannot increase without risking lost users. YouTube already pulled out of selling 30 second pre-roll video ads, despite its advertisers’ strong preference to simply reuse the ads they have been running on TV.

Enter the 6-Second Solution

Perhaps 6 seconds is ideal because it’s a little longer than the 5 seconds before YouTube offers a skip button, yet slightly below the 8.25 seconds that studies say is our average attention span. According to Debbie Weinstein, Managing Director of YouTube, its 6-second pre-roll bumper is “the optimal place to maximize user attention but also to make sure we deliver a return on marketing investment.” It first announced the ad format last April, created some example ads at Sundance this year, and got Fox Networks to embrace it at Cannes in June.

Obviously YouTube would love for other digital platforms to similarly embrace the 6-second bumper, both to make it easier for brands to produce one ad unit for many uses, but even more so that competing platforms don’t undercut them and steal eyeballs. Supposedly Facebook is testing it, but there’s not been broad acceptance yet.

Perhaps it’s because these ads just don’t pass the marketers’ sniff test. Here’s an example from Audi:

This looks like what happens when you are a little off in tapping the DVR fast forward button through commercials. Yes, it’s technically a brand impression and I’m sure there’s some kind of research that suggests a tiny up-lift in brand awareness. And, yes, there will be some funny and compelling executions. Geico won an award for this one. Ask creatives to think outside of a box — even a tiny one — and they usually come up with something.

But is this really where we want their precious energy spent? And what’s next? Will our attention spans decline further next year? Will we see the 4-second bumper at Cannes 2019? Maybe 2-seconds will be plenty by 2022. Hell, let’s just throw a logo on the screen for 1-second and call it a day…

It’s Time to Embrace Brand Content

Brands and their agencies are starting to face a fundamental choice of whether or not to continue forcing an old, interruptive model or treating their customers with care and providing content that they actually choose to watch. We’ve already seen the rise of Brand Safety issues in which wedging your ads (of whatever length) in front of others’ content can backfire. Now is the time to (finally) create your own brand content.

You might need help from creative specialists and influencers to make your product part of a compelling story. Thankfully there are lots of us at the ready. You might choose to work with Buzzfeed and its Tasty brand, which is earning over a billion views per month. The Tasty team makes brands part of a mouth-watering story.

Our company, Ahalogy, similarly helps bring brands into bigger ideas. We tap into the creative minds of passionate influencers to come up with new ideas like this:

Believe it or not, people are choosing to spend hours per month watching video that helps them make a recipe, plan a trip, teach a kid to drive, or figure out how to take better GoPro videos — and that’s just in my house! Brands have an important role to play in video information and entertainment, just as they have a role to play in our everyday lives. This is where true storytelling happens.

And it’s not just about getting a logo on the screen longer than 6 seconds. By creating useful, interesting content — particularly when people are trying something new — brands can build a bond that leads to loyalty for decades.

It’s time for all marketers to read the writing on the wall: Frankly, if you don’t laugh at the prospect of 6-second video ads you might be out of touch. Let’s turn away from dumbing down our messages and marketing craft, and instead tap into all of the tools and people that digital technology has made available for creating marketing with meaning that improves our consumers’ lives.