Ben Jones is the global director of Google’s Creative Works, leading efforts to help brands drive better business results with more effective creative.
When it comes to content, the last two years reset all of our typical patterns. It’s not a stretch to say that video was the breakout app of this period. Whether short, long, streamed, or shared, we leaned on video to fill our constrained lives. Our content libraries, self-optimizing and algorithmically tuned to our interests, came to reflect years of unbridled curiosity, skill-building, passion, and interests. Today, they are worlds made of what we love.
What excites us in the moment might be a day or a decade old, rendering the conventional wisdom of the TV-dominated era obsolete. It turns out, for example, that the top TV show among American Gen Zers is “The Office,” even though it ended in 2013. We’re interested not just in what’s new but what captures our imagination, whether that is iconic concert footage — for me, Talking Heads — or old videos that teach you something, like how to compost or use a chainsaw without losing a finger.
I’m fascinated by these moments of tuning in, because they drive sweeping digital transformation across sectors. They represent a call to the industry to design creative that not only reaches people but resonates with them.
As creative teams navigate a landscape transformed by infinite viewer choice, here are three critical things to keep in mind.
Creative is king, regardless of format
Ad creative is now firmly established as the dominant driver of ROI. As increased privacy protections rightly eliminate old data sources and media automation frees up marketing budgets, producing standout creative will only increase in importance as the key driver of strategic differentiation.
The ability to unpack what drives performance within a video and across campaigns is exploding. New data, tools, and methodologies have given us huge and rapid increases in value that are measurable, require no new skill sets, and can scale immediately. And yet, they are underleveraged.
At the macro level, we’ve seen streaming soar. People are watching more lengthy, studio-produced films with high production values on connected TVs. At the same time, they are also watching super-short, creator-produced videos meant for small screens. That two diametrically opposed types of media grew in popularity at the same time tells us that it’s not format or production quality that matters to viewers. It’s quality as measured by relevance, intellectual stimulation, sensorial experience, and emotional resonance.
Today’s average YouTube viewer regularly watches 15 or more content types, according to one 2022 study.1 They have endless choice and unprecedented control of their options. People are not choosing content based on screen size, publisher, production quality, or length. The bottom line is control of their experience and endless depth of content that feels personally relevant. People are building their own media worlds made up of what they love, and billions in studio-produced investment is not enough to keep up with this insatiable demand.
Understanding how strategic tweaks to your creative perform across audiences will soon matter more than simply getting ads on specific screens. Baseball fans might be interested in gardening; young parents might be planning trips abroad. The collaborative vision of an agency and brand will be as resonant whether it plays against product reviews or shows up during a viral comedy sketch; its effectiveness is determined by how it resonates with who’s watching.
When we analyzed YouTube campaigns from the first half of 2021 for a recent study conducted in collaboration with the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), we found that targeting against an exact match of an advertiser’s vertical didn’t result in the best performance. And when we surveyed consumers, only 28% of U.S. adults said they notice or care that an ad is contextually aligned with the content they’re watching.2 By comparison, 80% of viewers say they are more open to advertising or branded content when that content is relevant to them.
Move past the linear TV mindset
We entered the digital age using linear television as a model for success. Media buys reflected a hierarchy whose days turned out to be numbered. Now that digital channels have begun to reach surprising scale, television-dominated narratives are no longer central to our marketing strategies. Brands must pivot to optimizing for each channel and, by extension, its audience and supported format.
Yet our collective attachment to the past is leaving us unprepared for the present. The vaunted 30-second ad is too long for top-of-mind awareness, too short to convince, too complex to be automated, and too simple for this age of infinite information. Six- and 15-second ads have proved to be much more effective and efficient for awareness, while the top-performing length for changing hearts and minds is two to three minutes.3
Advertisers must go short or go long, but stay out of the valley of despair.
A cursory look at Cannes winners from 2020–2021 tells us that over 80% of the ads that won at least a Silver Lion had run times of 60 seconds or more. The trend reflects the truth that only long-form video can accommodate the full creative potential of an idea, or the “big story.” Short-form videos are helpful for staying top of mind or harvesting demand, but their purpose is to connect you to the full story that brands want — and need — to tell.
The long-form ad is one of the most powerful tools we have for captivating audiences, yet it is also the most misunderstood. It is increasingly used by all types of brands to drive consideration and, like movie trailers, to lean into story-first approaches. Brands beyond media and entertainment are creating new genres, with the highest lifts documented for product reviews, product demos, and short narrative pieces. And where there is more time to fill, there are more moments of attention to address. Ads have clear “attention windows”— opportunities where advertisers can either gain or lose audiences’ attention.
With the 30-second ad performing the lowest for ROI by a wide margin, the prognosis is clear. Advertisers must go short or go long, but stay out of the valley of despair.
Learn to play the machine
So how should you think about building a partially automated, video-driven, privacy-safe, data-rich, objective-focused, creative-led growth engine?
The task for agile brands will be to wrestle with the complexity introduced by demands of time, cost, and competing values. Finding audiences, targeting, scaling, and even selecting formats and simple creative optimizations will be increasingly automated, freeing the people behind the work to focus on more complex creative expressions.
Brands should get the most out of every campaign by aligning each configuration of assets with a specific objective.
Creatives will get to produce longer, richer stories that move and persuade. But to get those stories in front of people, brands will need to approach ad campaigns like Formula One drivers, skillfully steering powerful machines. While there will always be a place for emotional storytelling, it will be the ads that get brands to that place. Brands must play the machine.
Doing this well means refining creative techniques. Most brands are well versed in the ABCDs of YouTube, but they could be doing more. Nielsen identified a 30% increase in sales lift associated with following the general ABCDs, but fewer than 30% of assets are aligned with these principles.4 Multiply that by your media spend, and that’s a lot of available value.
Rather than invest in sporadic experimentation that treats the platform as a monolith, brands should get the most out of every campaign by aligning each configuration of assets with a specific objective. More advanced brands rely on structural improvements: scaled monitoring, scaled experimentation, integrated media and creative, and objective-based planning. With every new launch, they optimize and scale according to what they find.
Marketing teams should not fear the complexities of a content landscape reshaped by the interests, questions, aspirations, and whims of millions of people. Those viewers are ready to be reached. Equipped with the knowledge of how best to deliver multiple messages to those most receptive, brands can unite creative and media to unlock the potential of both.