When I got my first job at an agency in 2005, people were still talking about the ‘big idea’. This was a phrase if not actually coined, then at least popularised, by David Ogilvy in the 1960s. “If your campaign doesn’t contain a big idea then it will pass like a ship in the night,” or so he memorably claimed. The persistence of the ‘big idea’ idea wasn’t all that surprising because, to all intents and purposes, advertising hadn’t changed much since Ogilvy was around. It was still working on the ‘interruption model’, the business of ambushing people and delivering a message while it could hold their attention. Over the years this approach had been refined from ‘the big idea’, to ‘just the big idea and nothing else’, which meant lots of award-winning Brazilian press ads that dispensed with words altogether and TV spots reducible to a single unforgettable key frame. Advertising had become the art of making the complex seem simple.
2005 also happened to be the year that three ex-Paypal staffers launched a video sharing site called YouTube. The consensus was that YouTube would spell the end of advertising, and TV advertising in particular. After all, no one would watch adverts when they could get content without adverts via YouTube. The thing that no one seemed to predict was that, in certain cases, the exact opposite would be true. Millions of people would watch and rewatch adverts on the internet, on purpose. Some of the earliest examples of so-called viral videos were just TV ads consumed as content in their own right. The John West Fisherman vs. Bear ad and Sony Balls are two that spring to mind. The other revelation to emerge from YouTube was the range of nonsense that viewers, left to their own devices, were happy to consume. It was understandably shocking to agencies that their expensively executed ideas were much, much less interesting to people than the musings of teenagers with webcams, or kittens with a rare genetic disorder that caused them to faint.
But it was variety and, what you might call, the texture of these videos that was so deeply disturbing to the single-minded orthodoxy. If YouTube had a house style it was heterogeneity. Single-mindedness was actually a disadvantage: once you’d watched your single-minded ad it was spent, there was just no reason to watch it again. That meant fewer views, less chance of getting featured on the front page, and less chance of getting sucked into YouTube’s delicious feedback loop.
The best agencies began to engineer for ‘stickiness’ some time ago. W+K Amsterdam’s spot for Nike, Write the Future, made a virtue of loading three minutes with hundreds of tiny vignettes. The pace of the film seemed to mirror the speed of a global culture connected by broadband, it emphasised the simultaneous participation of millions of viewers. But it also gave it the texture of a fail compilation.
It’s taken till now for the rest of the industry to assimilate the YouTube vernacular. At its worst this made-for-YouTube advertising becomes completely mindless. Witness the thoroughly dire recent Ford Fiesta campaign, 24 Hours With Fiesta, a selection of videos in which minor celebrities are made to spend a day doing their chores in a Ford Fiesta. In a way this is the ad that the client always wanted to make. It’s three minutes long, and there are endless shots of the car. It’s advertising relieved of the need to arrest our attention, it’s all texture and no idea. Produced under the auspices of Vice magazine you get the feeling that it’s not just the hapless Jesse Ware who has been taken for a ride.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Guardian’s We Own the Weekend campaign from BBH. Now, there are plenty of reasons to dislike this advert, not least the fact that there’s something rather distasteful about the Guardian putting on a show of ironic bombast when they should be taking a long solemn look at their business model. But it does speak the language of YouTube fluently. It’s three minutes long, it’s funny and it uses fast cuts and discrete scenes to sustain repeat viewings. At the time of writing 1.5 million people had watched it, and it is this extra figure, the one at the bottom right-hand of the YouTube panel, that is the marketing manager’s new best friend. What you think of this advert, or its tastefulness, doesn’t really matter. In terms of cost per eyeball it’s undoubtedly the most successful ad the paper has run.
Now you might say that these ads still contain a big idea – they both have an end line at least. But the line merely binds together a bundle of content, and its content designed to attract attention to itself rather than the product. It uses complexity to draw in the viewer and make them watch again. It’s doing the opposite of what single-minded, big idea advertising was meant to do. It’s not delivering a message, it is the message. To me, this is worrying. Big idea campaigns were built to shift product. Branded content might be entertaining, and it might earn millions of views, but no one knows if it can really sell.
‘Gordon Comstock’ is an ad creative based in London. He tweets at @notvoodoo