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Editor-in-chief at The Drum

How short can you go? Inside the quest for the two-second ad

Consumers' automatic skipping habit has driven brands to shorten ads as much as possible

Resigned to the fact consumers will never break up with ‘Skip Ad’, IPG Mediabrands has revived the quest to convey the most brand information in the shortest time possible. The two-second ad has been toyed with before – will 2020 be the year it finally breaks through?

Back in 2009, Miller High Life saved a lot of cash during the Super Bowl spending frenzy.

The beer brand abandoned what was then a $3m charge for a 30-second game spot and instead bought pre-game airtime in one-second chunks. These were filled by actor Windell Middlebrooks looking into the lens and shouting the words "High Life!” at the viewer.

The TV spots, or ‘blinks’, aired on 25 local NBC stations and reached approximately 60% of the TV audience. The guerilla tactic led to a sales boost of 8.6% and was widely heralded as a successful, innovative media buy.

But MillerCoors’ success was driven primarily by PR.

YouTube had landed in the lap of Google just over two years before the 2009 Super Bowl. Pre-roll ads had started appearing just three months prior to the game. And the ‘Skip Ad’ button wouldn’t make its debut until 2010.

Since then – the dawn of consumers actively rejecting advertising – the industry has grappled with creating digital advertising so engrossing that ‘skippers’ will change their ways.

Google and Fox Networks added unskippable six-second bumper ads to their inventories in 2016 and 2017 respectively, while a number of brands creatively riffed off the format (Geico’s ‘Unskippable’ campaign was perhaps the most memorable).

But for some, six seconds wasn’t short enough. Two seconds began to emerge as the holy grail of short form video advertising, particularly as social media inventory began leaning towards ultra-skippable ‘Stories’ formats.

“I believe any advert that’s distributed through a social channel should go through the creative lens of a two-second filter,” says Oliver Yonchev, US managing director of Social Chain.

“In a noisy, congested, endless scrolling environment, every marketer's first task is to overcome the challenge of getting someone to pause and pay attention.”

But the idea of creating a two-second ad for digital media outside of social was arguably first presented in 2017 by P&G’s Marc Pritchard.

“For too long, we flooded digital media with 30-second ads, treating it like another form of TV,” he told an Association of National Advertisers delegation.

“But now that we have the data, it shows that the average ad viewing time can be as low as 1.7 seconds. We stopped wasting money on 30-second ads, and we’re now designing ads to work in two seconds.”

It’s unclear whether P&G has continued to format ads in this manner; the company did not respond to The Drum’s request for an update at the time of writing.

But for brands working with a tighter media budget, the two-second buy has been harder to trial and commit to.

Google allows advertisers to purchase bumper spots that run less than six seconds if requested, but a number of other publishers – especially media owners’ proprietary players – do not allow for the format.

Additionally, brands and creatives have little experience in creating such short video spots, and little knowledge of what works best in the format.

So, for the past year, IPG Mediabrands has attempted to do something about that lack of understanding.

“Our main question was ‘how short can you go in communicating a message?',” says Menno van der Steen, chief data and tech officer at IPG Mediabrands. “Then we began to come up with a research design.”

The agency’s Shortcutting Video research comprised two parts. The first showed a group of research participants the first two seconds of a range of regular, 20-second ads and quizzed them on brand recall. Unsurprisingly, it found this was highest when the product and brand identifier were shown right at the beginning of the ad.

“This part showed us what we should do with a regular video ad: optimize the first two seconds so you don't lose all that advertising money when people skip your ad after watching two seconds – because you’re going to have to pay [for the full 30 seconds] anyway,” says van der Steen.

“Part two was about diving deeper into what kind of editing will work best. So, we tested two types of editing: human- and neuro-based editing.”

Neuro-based involved measuring the brain activities of respondents through eye tracking and an electroencephalogram while they watched various ultra-short cutdowns of an ad. The most effective were taken and compared to human-based edits, which saw a team of creatives select “the most important characteristic images” in the regular ads.

IPG Mediabrands is now going to test these two-second edits in real-life. This trial will be rolled out in partnership with an array of unnamed clients and Sanoma, a Dutch publisher that is mulling selling two-second ads as part of its standard inventory.

“They are really interested in adding it to the inventory portfolio if the results are positive,” said van der Steen.

“At first we will look at whether the findings in the neuro lab will also apply in real life: do we see the same level of effectiveness? Is the message cutting through on brand recognition, message recall and does it trigger emotion?”

In the meantime, IPG Mediabrands will begin advising its clients to think about pushing brand, logo and call to action (CTA) in the first two seconds of its digital video ads.

Such a suggestion will, to some extent, upend the scripting process for creatives – effectively killing off the idea of any brand ‘reveal’ and posing a barrier to sophisticated, narrative storytelling.

That’s not such a bad thing, says Becky Brinkerhoff, a copywriter at Arnold Worldwide.

“I think it is fine for direct-response advertising that pushes CTAs and promotional content,” she explains. “Putting the CTAs at the beginning of a 30-second is interesting and might make the rest of the ad have to do less heavy lifting when it comes to straightforward messaging.

“But I think it won't do much for brand affinity and will make storytelling difficult, to say the least.”

She adds a purpose-made two-second spot will work well for brands reliant on humor “since absurdity lives well in bursts”.

Ryan Engelbert, creative director at We Are Social, agrees – but warns against every advertiser adopting such a super short-form strategy simply because “it’s what the other brands are doing”.

“Some stories need breathing room, even if that breathing room is an extra 13-28 seconds,” he says. “I don’t love leaning on the notion that shorter attention spans must equate to shorter ads and content.

“I’m speaking to all the creatives reading this – let’s not settle for fewer seconds or a brief that calls for a two-second cut down when a story demands more. Let’s challenge ourselves, but let’s also defend our stories.”

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