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Marketing Agency Leadership Advertising

Advertising’s new clutter problem: How marketers are waging the war for attention


By Sam Anderson | Network Editor

November 24, 2023 | 10 min read

The battle for attention is nothing new for advertisers, but its frontiers are ever-shifting. We gathered ad execs from The Drum Network to map out the terrain.

A cluttered home garage

How are advertisers dealing with a new era of clutter? / Todd Kent via Unsplash

One of marketing’s latest credos is that advertisers’ job is to ‘stop the scroll’. It’s a telling slogan, evoking THE SCROLL as a monolith to be battled, and we humans doing the scrolling as (at most) the mindless meatbags attached to the thumbs attached to the phone performing the scroll.

Not all that charitable to the already embattled race of humanity, then, but true enough: whether you’re advertising on TV, app, or print, you’re vying for the attention of minds (for better or worse) remade by the vertically scrolling feeds of social and short-form video.

This is not a single change, but a raft of them. One is dwindling attention spans: one oft-cited piece of research, now eight years old, claimed that the social media age had reduced our average attention span from 12 to eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish; a more recent study is more generous, putting the number at 75 seconds (both of have been criticized). Another is the sheer availability of information. Another: the personalization of our feeds, delivering algorithmically tailored content doses.

We can group these changes together purely negatively: mendacious Silicon Valley types have stolen our attention and broken our brains in the process. It’s also possible (though a little harder) to find a positive spin: we’ve become more discerning, more used to picking out what we like and skipping the chaff. The truth is probably a little of each.

The new clutter?

Cutting through the noise, though, is what advertisers do, and even when there’s a lot of it. For decades, marketers were worried about ‘clutter’: with ad placements expanding, the number of messages a person would see in a day grew, as did concerns about drowning in the soup.

But as the boundaries have blurred between what is and isn’t advertising, we don’t hear the ‘clutter’ concern so much. Take TikTok: a short scroll will see some fully-fledged ads dropped into your feed; some videos with paid promotion; some from brands you follow (including media); and a whole lot of promotion for the personal brands of influencers for whom your attention is their currency.

The concept of clutter, in other words, is harder to pin down in the age of personalization and mixed media. “We’ve passed peak clutter in terms of as many ads as possible on a page,” says Jean-Paul Edwards, managing director (product) at OMD Worldwide, “ but clutter manifests in other ways, now: far more types of channels; consuming more channels at once; far more inputs going on; and far more advertisers out there: 20 years ago, [broadcaster] ITV maybe only had three to four thousand advertisers a year; now, Facebook claims it’s got 10 million”.

Shorter creative and the creator-led solution

What can marketers do? For a start, they can change formats and creative to make an impact more quickly. A skippable-after-five-seconds YouTube ad isn’t much use if it’s not interesting within five seconds; more generally, shorter ads seem better at gaining traction than longer ones. As Edwards says, “It’ll probably only be on the screen for a second or two; now, the art is to get someone to pause.” The good news? “There’s lots of information that shows that, to form new memory structures, you need about three seconds of attention – but if you’re relying on pre-existing memory structures, you get away with a lot less.” Recognizable brands, in other words, can get you to the front of the line.

This is bread and butter for social strategists – as is a nuanced understanding of how we pay attention in different channels. “Different channels have different natural kind of attention delivery – a function of human physiology, how our eyes move; how we consume text, pictures, video; whether we’re scrolling or swiping,” says Edwards. “The mere fact of shouting more loudly isn’t at all sustainable and annoys customers… and that can drive more ad avoidance”.

But what will actually stop scrolls is arresting creative. Wasserman’s social strategy lead Grace Bright boils down the brands that achieve that enviable feat into three categories: first, those “which operate with a startup mentality: jumping through less hoops; the content feels less contrived; they use real people that work for them and customers. The beauty industry does this well, as does online banking – like Revolut.” The other categories: second, “ads that don’t feel like an ad”, and third, “brands with a portfolio of creators that you constantly work with – [sports retailers] JD and FootAsylum are great examples: their formats are fantastic, and people keep coming back because they love the creators.”

The latter point might require some humility from marketers: creators are the channel experts who know the nuances of attention in their area of expertise. As Will Marsh, account director at The Goat Agency puts it, smart marketers simply open themselves up to “the sheer amount of talent that’s available to everybody on the internet,” across the spectrum of huge stars to niche creators – “they are your content machine”.

Yazmin King, Croud’s paid social account director, says that smart creator-led strategies now focus on scalability and “working with lots of different creators – TikTok are doing amazing things in this space with the TikTok Creative Exchange program, which is a smart solution that can be used organically and within paid.”

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Old strategy and new tools

This modern kind of clutter is problem and promise all in one – as Marsh puts it, “I see the clutter of platforms as an opportunity”: to stand above the deluge of content by understanding platforms and users better than your competitors. “Users today are more savvy,” says Tom Emrich, director of product management at Niantic, “they understand more about how algorithms work, and with the nature of influencer marketing, they’re more tribal.”

Emrich goes on: “One way to combat that fatigue is to really lean into personalization – if the ad feels part of the conversation, if they feel like they’re part of a collaboration, then it feels much more organic. That’s the direction we’re headed in: to more of a collaboration between brand and user. We see that in AI to cater to the user, and even allowing the user to manipulate the creative. Each experience will be different because the user is the main actor of that experience.”

Amid all this talk of AI and personalization, though, some of our panel report what Amy Stamper, Impression’s head of paid social calls a “return to the old-school traditions of media planning,” encouraged by the same phenomena. “We’ve all seen clients complain that they’re seeing their ads too many times, and we’ve all set up automations and dashboards to signal when an individual might be oversaturated. We’re coming back to ‘who do we want to saturate and when do we want to saturate them?’”

“We’re bringing it back to brand awareness planning, making sure we’ve got the right frequency rather than going for absolutely everyone. It’s about picking your battles, picking your channels… even if you’re going wide with everyone, you can stand to be a bit more selective, contrary to what the platforms sometimes say.”

Marketing Agency Leadership Advertising

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Croud is a global, full-service digital agency that helps businesses drive sustainable growth in the new world of marketing. With a rich heritage in performance, we apply that mindset to everything we do; brand planning, strategy, integrated media, social, creative, and data.

Founded in 2011 with the mission to reinvent the agency model, we combine 500+ in-house digital experts with a global, on-demand network of marketing specialists. This agile, scalable model gives us more time to really understand our clients’ businesses, and deliver truly incremental growth.

Part of the Croud Group, which also includes luxury specialists VERB Brands and social-first agency Born Social, Croud is proud to partner with leading global brands, including Audible, Vans, IWG, and AllSaints.

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We are Digital Growth Specialists helping ambitious brands push boundaries and drive impact. We define and deliver integrated digital strategies that transform our clients from market players to market leaders, and keep them there.

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Niantic builds augmented reality technology that powers the real-world metaverse. Its Lightship platform is the world’s first scaled AR platform, enabling developers around the world to create sophisticated AR experiences for phones and eventually AR glasses. Lightship is also the foundation for Niantic’s hit games, including Pokémon GO, Pikmin Bloom and Ingress.

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The Goat Agency

We’re the leading global social media marketing agency powered by influencers. We pride ourselves in bringing together data-led performance, real human relationships, expert creative strategy, authentic, engaging content and laser-sharp paid media targeting.

We have tracked the performance of over 200k influencers and 450k pieces of content, growing to 200+ staff with three global hubs in the US, UK and Singapore in just seven years!

As a result, we have worked with, retained and scaled some of the biggest brands globally, delivering best-in-class social campaigns that drive trackable ROI and ROAS in over 70 countries and 28 languages.

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Wasserman is a global sports, entertainment, and lifestyle marketing agency with expertise in creating connections between brands, properties, talent, and consumers.

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