A matter of time: can the six second ad connect with consumers?

Laurence Thomson, chief creative officer, McCann London discusses the six-second ad format.

Advertisers, agencies, media owners and tech platforms are all moving towards shorter ad formats. Of course, a big idea should fit in any length. But can it ever really stick given only a few seconds? Creatively, can it reach a level of poignancy and human connection? Can the six-second format really represent the immediate, urgent future of advertising?

The first TV ad was nine seconds long. The 1941 spot for Bulova watches featured a clock, a map of the US and a voiceover claiming ‘America runs on Bulova time’. But is America, and the rest of the world for that matter, ready to run on Bulova’s time again (give or take a few seconds)? Will the much-lauded six-second ad format have a starring role in the future of this industry?

In the early days of TV advertising, the 60-second spot was quick to become the standard. This gave way to lower cost 30-second slots in the 1970s before the 15-second format emerged in the 1980s as marketers looked to do branding on a budget. This was all, of course, before tech and social media changed human attention spans for ever.

A new canvas for creativity?

“Audience attention spans are getting shorter and everyone is waiting to be able to click that ‘skip ad’ button,” says Nathan Mallon of We Are Social.

“And no matter the content, if you can create a piece that tells the brand or product story in a shorter time, there’s a greater chance the consumer will take it in rather than tune out.

“The best ads don’t force a product down your throat but bring a level of human connection that makes you feel something,” says the creative director. “Doing that in six seconds truly is an art.”

The way to approach this shorter format is to think of it as a headline, according to Alexei Edwards, the head of social at Tribal Worldwide London.

“The attention economy is a cruel mistress and takes no prisoners,” he says. “Get their attention in six seconds or not at all.”

Last year a study by comScore found online ads targeted at millennials need to be five to six seconds long to be effective. And if millennials spend 61% of their online time in smartphone apps, 8% browsing on mobiles, 25% on desktop and 5% on tablets, a short viewing period really is critical.

Edwards explains that the six-second format was born from necessity, not desire, because consumers skipped 10-second spots given the opportunity. “The frustration of not being able to skip a pre-roll almost forces engagement. But if you’re going to force someone to watch something, it better be good.”

There has also been increased willingness from advertisers to try any, or indeed all, new formats to capture fragmented and waning attention spans of consumers – especially when it comes to chasing the ‘younger’ eyeballs. But not everyone is convinced. McCann London chief creative officer Laurence Thomson sees the six-second as nothing more than a dynamic banner ad.

“It feels like the mundane wallpaper media equivalent of ‘boring’ unskippable advertising, rather than truly doing something interesting with your marketing budget,” he says. “So you’ve got to ask yourself, would you rather be the six seconds before or the content after?”

Adam Singolda, who is the founder of New York-headquartered content recommendation firm Taboola, says marketers seem “hyper-focused” on the idea of “snackable” content.

“Six-second videos are still low scale in comparison to the traditional 30-second spot, but have become incredibly hyped and ‘cool’ these days with the idea being that we need to capture audience attention right at the start. Even with videos that are between 30 and 60 seconds long, there’s research to show the first six to 10 seconds matter most.”

In turn, says Singolda, brands are now focused on creating stories that tell an entire narrative, including the punchline, in a shorter time frame. “What I would recommend is adding an overlay of the brand, text or call-to-action at the beginning of the video which draws the user’s attention from the very first second.“

Wunderman’s global chief creative officer Daniel Bonner wonders whether six is just an arbitrary number. “It’s an exciting format if the idea defines it as such, but it’s not exciting if a message intended for a 30-second spot is forced to fit it,” he says.

“No doubt in time we will have research to suggest 3.1 seconds is the optimum window for engagement, and we could very well be asking ourselves if that too is the future.

“And, by the way, I know the answer already. It isn’t.”

The movement towards snackable content

The six-second format debuted about two years ago when YouTube launched its bumper ads, and the march towards creativity in a small space really took off when it took some of the best examples of its six-second hackathon to the Sundance Film Festival.

A year later, Fox Network Group became the first broadcaster to commit to non-skippable spots and earlier this year Snapchat started testing non-skippable ads in its TV-like shows, promoting movies like Deadpool and Adrift and products including Samsung’s Galaxy S9.

For James Watson, the global client director at creative agency Imagination, the ‘six-second rule’ started with Vine, “the now-defunct video sharing app swallowed then spat out by Twitter”.

In 2013 Dunkin’ Donuts launched the first-ever TV ad made completely on Vine, with its short six-second-loop video format. Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice, Mars’ Snickers and Twix, and Duracell’s batteries are also all dabbling in this concept of how a big idea can fit any length.

“Today, most consumers can’t even read 250 words. They grow frustrated at 10-second pre-roll ads and become anxious when a WhatsApp message’s blue ticks go unchecked. Short, sharp dopamine hits keep the modern consumer engaged,” says Watson.

Google creative agency lead Paddy Collins disputes the purported shrinking of our attention spans, saying that while “totally unscientific”, he’d dispute such claims given that he “can sit watching hours of video”.

“Who hasn’t had that thing where, after four episodes of something, Netflix has to check we’re still conscious? What has changed is our attention is less a span and more like a muscle that’s being trained to divert itself every day by the sheer number of ads we see. We’ve become reflexively ready to skip or scroll away from anything that doesn’t interest us.”

According to Google, a 2018 study found that in over 600 campaigns worldwide, 90% of bumper ads drove a significant lift in recall. The average lift was around 38%.

The era of soundbites

But there’s a word of caution from Thomas Wagner, the head of planning at BBH Singapore. “Where it gets tricky is in the use of the word ‘average’,” he says.

“When research says that, ‘on average’, short is as effective as long, this neither means that 30-second or longer can’t produce better results, nor that the short advertising we are forcing people to watch should be the same averagely forgettable work we subject people to. On the contrary, it means asking what can make a disproportionate difference.

“And while shorter ads might seem like the holy grail, being both efficient and safe, focusing narrowly on them could be a missed opportunity for marketers who are looking for the kind of fame we know longer format ads can deliver.“

Of course, there is no single dominant format for commercials any more. The important metrics, according to Saj Nazir of GroupM’s media arm Wavemaker, include brand engagement and purchase – factors hard to deliver in six seconds. The head of integrated delivery says: “It is about the viewing experience, and the format as a reinforcement of a longer form of advertising – a teaser, a sequential storytelling.”

So is there ever a case to tell a compelling story in soundbites? Collins gives the example of Campbell’s Soup which, as part of its ‘We’ve got a soup for that’ campaign, served people searching for Pokémon Go the message ‘Legs hurt from walking around?’ and asked football fans checking the results of an unexpected defeat ’Had your money on England?’

By building a series of six-second stories that offered different facets of its message, Campbell’s Soup showed that short-form ads can provide powerful touches to boost the broader story.

But, as Singolda concludes: “The risk in this over-optimistic discussion is that we also have to evolve how we measure success. Right now the metric is completion rates, but obviously six-seconds videos get completed more compared to 30-seconds. It doesn’t mean it’s better all the time though. That should be a work in progress for the industry, brands, publishers and platforms.”

The Drum asked six top creatives from McCann, Ogilvy, R/GA and more for their views on the six-second ad.

Learn more about the future of short and longform advertising in The Drum's video issue, out now.

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