Digital’s creative paradox: lots of effort, small audience

22 Jan 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
Digital’s creative paradox: lots of effort, small audience

Belvita Next Stop: Good Mornings

Advertisers are spending the most money on the least effective ads, and the least on the most. It's an upside-down world, writes Dominic Mills

Those clever people at System1Group (formerly Brainjuicer) held their annual showing of the world’s most emotional ads - aka the Feel More 50 - at the Curzon on Shaftesbury Avenue last week.

System1’s schtick is that ads that drive an emotional response perform far better (up to 3 per cent more growth) than ads that focus on the rational. It’s an argument that is, despite resistance in some quarters, winning. To measure emotion, representative panels score ads on a five-star scale.

#1 in the FeelMore chart was this two-minute UK ad for Belvita. It is real footage, shot on Blue Monday 2017, and features train guard George cheering up a bunch of glum commuters.

By the end of the journey, they are smiling and (shock) doing that most un-British of things - interacting with their fellow travellers.

Virtually none of the audience had seen it before, or indeed any of the top 5 emotional ads. That’s because they were all shown on digital channels.

Nonetheless, the packed audience - researchers, planners, production people, some creatives - came away charmed, entertained and, let’s be honest, with a solid dose of confirmation bias.

I came away with those feelings too - albeit the recognition that the power of emotion is underpinned by significant cultural differences. By this I mean that what, say, the Latin-speaking countries (and the US too) find emotional, I find nausea-inducing.

But thanks to this chart, I came away with something else: a growing sense that, while there is great video creative out there on digital, it’s not visible.

Let me explain. This chart, co-produced as a test with Ebiquity, matches TV spend in the UK in 2017 against all ads in certain categories - 2,500 to be precise in charity/public sector; fmcg; auto; finance; and health and beauty.

What it clearly shows is that TV spend is maximised against one- and two-star ads, and minimised against those System1 scores the most emotional.

Which brings us to the digital creative paradox. Huge effort and resource (on the part of both clients and agencies) is going into creating emotional ads, but they’re not visible. What a waste of resource, what a squandering of talent. At the same time, more money is being focused on the rational ads, those that System1 (and many others) believe are less effective.

System1’s Orlando Wood, head of innovation, puts it better than I ever could: “The industry is either shouting into the void [i.e. on TV] or whispering in the wind [digital].”

We can figure out some of why this might be. To achieve the narrative arc that best drives an emotional response, it helps if you can use the longer form. That longer-form is available ad infinitum on digital, where it is also cheaper.

But nobody sees it amongst all the detritus that passes for digital advertising, even if the potential reach figures look large. As I understand it, view-through rates (VTR) on Facebook and its peers are around 1.2 per cent on shorter-form content, so even lower on 1-2-minute ads. Audiences are also fragmented and atomised by time.

Meanwhile, advertisers are pumping out the rational stuff on TV, because if you’ve got less time, it’s much easier and less risky with a rational ad.

Could they do it in a 60-second TV spot? Undoubtedly, as those great ads from the past show. But how many 60-second ads do you see on TV these days (Christmas apart)? Too few. The 30-second appears to be the dominant length, and of course has the advantage that it can also be chopped up and shunted across to run as pre-roll.

So...there’s the irony. Advertisers are spending the most money on the least effective ads, and the least on the most. It’s an upside-down world. But that’s nothing new.

Advertising lessons IRL

And old contact phones...

“Hi. I’ve got an idea for you. Could you do a piece looking at the parallels between Carillion and the ad industry?”

Me: “You mean like ‘Ten lessons for adland from Theresa May’s election disaster’?”


Me: “But I hate those things. They never work. They’re always forced.”

“But I love them. Go on. Try.”

Me: “(Sigh)...ok.”

Indeed, there are some parallels. The big outsourcers - Serco, Mitie, Carillion, Capita - are a bit like the holding companies, bidding ferociously against each other for every contract going. And guess what? They’re all in a financial pickle, and as Carillion proves - and the Labour Party has been quick to exploit - their business models are bust.

So that’s parallel #1: vicious underbidding is a death spiral.

Parallel #2 comes from a quote last week from a Carillion executive. In an unreported comment to City analysts, its erstwhile chief executive said: “In too many cases we were building a Rolls-Royce but only paid to build a Mini.”

Sounds like that familiar problem of scope creep to me.

He continued: “Carillion has become too broad and too complex with too many layers of management, too focused on the short term.”

Wow. He could be talking about the Big Five.

Still, there’s one area adland knocks the outsourcers into a cocked hat - the ability to write complex contracts that leave lots of wiggle room and the ability to turn a few quid on the blind-side.

Outsourcers don’t do that. But as we know, that window is being closed firmly shut.

Meanwhile, in a cheerier way, the OOH industry should enjoy its moment of Hollywood sunshine via the medium of the brilliant film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

As the heroine Mildred Hayes demonstrates, OOH can be both broadcast (her posters generate TV coverage) and targeted at one individual (see the trailer or the film if you need an explanation).

Mind you, there’s one bit I don’t understand. She pays $5,000 a month (in advance) for three manky posters on a quiet country road in Nowheresville with about two cars a day passing and zero footfall.

She was done. She should have hired a specialist to negotiate for her.

Which gives me the opportunity for a last-minute plug for Mediatel’s OOH summit tomorrow (23 Jan) where all the big issues will be laid out on the table for robust debate.

And who knows, we might even sprinkle some Hollywood magic.

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19 Jul 2019 

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