The ad industry feels like Silicon Valley is killing creativity

Don Draper Mad Men

  • Advertisers are grappling with having to make shorter ads for social and mobile platforms.
  • Agency executives are worried their creativity is being squashed by Silicon Valley’s push for six-second ads.
  • Media sellers don’t love these short ads either as they tend to snag lower prices.

The ad industry seems to agree that it needs much shorter video ads. And the six-second video ad is quickly becoming the new 30. That doesn’t mean everyone likes going so fast.

Creative executives at top ad agencies worry that six-second ads are simply too short to tell a story or connect with consumers on an emotional level, both key tenets of classic TV advertising.

Meanwhile, the creative crowd may have a unexpected kinship with the money guys. Ad sales executives, particularly those at big traditional media companies, don’t particularly love short ads, say ad industry executives, in part because these ads don’t fit well with existing ad space.

And more importantly, six-second ads come with an inherent pricing challenge. It’s hard to ask advertisers to pay anywhere near the price they’ve paid for 30-seconds ads for ads that are one-fifth the length.

Breaking with traditional thinking

The 30-second TV spot has a rich history in the ad business. These ads have brought Americans everything from the iconic “I’m Lovin It” McDonald’s ads to Budweiser’s “Whassup” campaign. Creative executives have historically loved the format to reach the masses and make mini-movies that might win awards. And media companies certainly enjoyed selling 30-second ads on TV for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop.

Yet, over the last decade, as more people watched video first on the web and then their phones, digital media executives have advocated for marketers to make shorter ads, or ideally ads designed for digital platforms. Regardless, many grumbled that marketers who spend millions on TV ads were more inclined to simply run those ads on the web or edit them down for YouTube or Facebook.

That’s despite the conventional wisdom that people, particularly younger audiences, won’t tolerate 30-second TV ads on web video, particularly on mobile. And lately, power players such as Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat are coalescing around very short ads. Recently, Fox made waves by advocating for six-second ads, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Creativity under fire

What do advertisers lose if you run a six-second ad over a 30? For starters, “emotion and a story arc,” said Jason Sperling, senior vice president, chief creative development at the ad agency RPA. Sperling isn’t against shorter ads, but worries that they can’t do the job of telling a marketer’s story. “My biggest fear is in brand building,” he said. 

Plus, Sperling noted, “actors haven’t gotten cheaper. Production costs haven’t gone away.”

Jeff Stamp, deputy chief creative officer for Grey NY, believes that six-second ads could work, but doesn’t like that that the giant digital platforms like Facebook and Snapchat are dictating standards, and may change their minds at the drop of a hat.

“I know the creative community in this industry can get good at anything,” he said. “We don’t trust that it will stay the same. All of a sudden it will be three-second ads. And we’re experimenting on clients’ dime. There’s been a lot of head fakes by [the big platforms].”

Sperling thinks the move toward short ads is short sighted. Instead of the digital ad world making better ads with existing formats, “we’ve decided that people hate the stuff we’re making so we have to just go shorter,” he said. “Had we done our jobs right or better or more effectively this might not be needed.”

TV-driven inertia

On the ad buying end of the spectrum, there are a lot of reasons why 15 and 30-second ad lengths endure, according to David Campanelli, senior vice president, director of national TV at the ad buying firm Horizon Media. 

On TV, commercial breaks typically have set uniform lengths, making units like six-seconds an awkward fit. Plus, short ads fetch lower prices. “Generally speaking, sales teams don’t like to sell anything less than 15 seconds,” he said.

Then there’s the question of impact. He said 15-second ads have long been good value for advertisers, because they cost half as much as 30 second ads.

“We know that most of the time the 15-second ad is less effective than 30. Not usually half as effective, but less effective,” Campanelli said. 

Campanelli acknowledged that asking people to sit through 30-second ads before short web video clips don’t provide a great value exchange. But will switching to very short ads have comparable impact?

“If the testing and data showed that running campaigns with all 15 second ads would pay off, that is what everyone would do,” said Campanelli. “So if 15 seconds are only effective to a point, how effective can six-second ads be?”

Who says 6-second ads will even work?

Jim Helberg, executive vice president, chief media officer at RPA said that while conventional wisdom says that younger consumers can’t deal with ads of any real length, he’s yet to see research that proves it.

His team is in the midst of a “pretty significant test” with Acura, which is running a series of six-second ads on YouTube. The hope is to figure out if these ads work best as part of larger ad campaigns or on their own, or not at all.

“My personal interest is more about relationship between 15 seconds and six seconds,” he said. “The question is, are they valuable in conjunction with ads, and are they valuable at all?”

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