The tyranny of ‘best practice’: how following the same formula hinders marketers from standing out

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While most of our clients have hit the pause button on advertising with Facebook, it’s a good opportunity to take stock of the creative work we make for it, and how it has evolved to hit the sweet spot of Facebook's all-powerful algorithm. Ie what is 'the best practice'?

Best practice in social advertising is shared with a hallowed reverence, like a Ouija mantra: follow these five simple rules and you too can talk to anyone… you too can control the eyeballs of millions. Don’t follow them and you may just as well flush your money down the toilet.

For some time now, best practice has been on a trajectory of making things shorter and shorter, while landing the brand name earlier and earlier. What was a 30-second ad with the logo in the first three seconds, is now a six-second ad with the logo shown immediately. Yes, these are hard won insights condensed from the billions of marketing dollars spent before yours, and all of that data is now being leveraged to maximise reach and refine the work to a point where it’s as pared back and instantaneous as possible.

But when did we decide to sacrifice interesting for instantaneous? At some point it was decided that our work is an unwelcome interruption and an imposition, so we should just get it over with as quickly as possible. Drop and run. Like it’s a fart in an elevator.

In digital media we fear the skip button and the thumb scroll, but that’s just channel hopping in a different medium. And you don’t see (many) TV ads rushing to holler their brand name at you before you switch away. They have the confidence to draw you in and say: “We’re going to entertain or inform you now. Stick with us. It’ll be worth your while.”

When we assume the work is too sales-y and unentertaining to enjoy, then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one’s going to pay attention, so we might as well make work that no one wants to pay attention to; but make it fast and blunt enough that the audience has consumed it before they realised it. Why offer a challenging plate of sushi when you can just catapult a dumpling into someone’s throat from ten paces?

The idea that we can just use speed get one over on today’s media-savvy audiences holds no water. When we’re not apologising for the work and showing ourselves out, we’re trying to beat them to punch. Can we land our logo before they can tap a thumb? Every ad shouldn’t become a high noon draw for cerebral reflexes.

It’s notable that when Facebook came to do its own advertising, it favoured a 90-second film (about chairs, below) rather than a six-second cutdown that shouts “Log on to Facebook!”. A classic platform do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do philosophy.

On a recent workshare with our partner PR agency, I was struck by their single-minded desire to create talkability in every project. Every idea had to earn its share of people’s attention. Everything they produced was done with the intention of standing out, getting noticed, and generating column inches. This demands the confidence to unabashedly make a song and dance about a brand, and the belief that people will tune in when you do.

But we’ve come to value the exact opposite of what always made advertising great: the surprising, the unknown, the never-been-seen before. A six-second, logo-heavy hit and run ad does the exact opposite. It says: “You probably won’t like this, but it’ll be over quickly and then you can get on with your day.” That’s not seductive marketing, that’s a branded mugging.

This may sound like the whinging of a creative whose canvas is getting smaller, and there’s probably some truth in that. But this is a zero sum game with shorter and shorter ads and more and more blatant branding. They can only get so brief and so blunt before Instagram becomes just a hectic blur of sponsorship logos zipping past. And we already have Formula 1 for that.

Brian Brady is creative director at TMW Unlimited, part of Unlimited