There was only one brief: don’t let him down. So I meticulously prepared and rehearsed my PowerPoint presentation helpfully outlining who does what in an ad agency and how an ad is made.
It didn’t start well. Facing me as I walked into a classroom of 15-year-olds with “Go on, impress me” invisibly tattooed on their foreheads, I frantically searched my kitbag of presentation tricks picked up in over 20 years in the business – but nothing worked. The faces remained impassive, unimpressed, unmoved. Until I fell back on that last resort: a showreel of commercials.
And then everything changed. Stony faces became animated, as the teenagers began talking among themselves and asking questions. The day, and my credibility with my son, was saved.
Driving back to the office, relief was replaced by intrigue. The kids really engaged with those films. Granted they were great films (Renault Clio, Sony Bravia, COI Road Safety, the BBC Radio 2 Elvis spot), but they knew them in detail. They could even recite the dialogue.
What makes that interesting is that these are supposedly the masters of ad avoidance. They are the Web 2.0/MSN/YouTube generation who socialise on the Net and never watch television. And yet they clearly recalled and related to these ads.
Running an ad agency as I do, I felt a little more comfortable about my chances of hitting retirement, but it also made me aware that I had submitted to the chronic loss of confidence in TV, fuelled by media scaremongering around its future and that of so-called “traditional” advertising.
So what is the real picture?According to Thinkbox, we’re all watching ten more minutes of TV a week today than we were five years ago, and nearly 40 minutes more than a decade ago – despite increased competition for our media time.
Commercial impacts are all up – not least among 16to 24-year-olds where they have grown 3.7% year on year. Indeed, they are still watching over two hours of commercial TV a day, three hours in total – and 70% of their viewing is of commercial channels. Commercial TV hits 87% of this group every week – that’s 12 million individuals. And 16to 24-year-olds are 6% more likely to talk about TV programmes than the average individual.
But because we’re talking about teenagers, we aren’t talking about people sitting on the Parker Knoll three-piece watching the Ekco set in the corner. “TV viewing” here is also being delivered through new technologies. That means internet protocol TV (IPTV), broadband TV, mobile TV, downloads, video-on-demand, NVOD (near video-on-demand), DVDs and vodcasts (video podcasts). Put simply, that boils down to instant messaging about the latest Big Brother evictee, downloading episodes of Lost, text voting for the X Factor, watching The Family Guy on a mobile or making Green Wing compilations for YouTube. And 7 million are now watching TV content via mobiles or broadband.
But technological wizardry doesn’t explain why teenagers are still tuning in and turning on to broadcast messages.
Compared with AOL, Yahoo! and Google, broadcast specialists have one important thing going for them. They have mastered investing in and producing premium entertainment. Traditional broadcasters know how to create content. Would someone pay to download a mobisode of Doctor Who without the expensive and socially shared experience of the TV programme being there?In the old days, media schedules relied on the power of repetition, the power of the OTS (“opportunity to see”) to ensure that the advertiser’s message successfully connected. Now we know that young people with hard-wired low-attention spans get bored with repeat viewings – rather than being “ad avoiders”, they’re actually “repetition avoiders”. They decode very quickly and either discard or adopt. If they adopt then it is they who do the multiplying and amplifying – by file-sharing, by “mashing”.
TV advertising has to become even better at its historical strengths – human interaction, visual excitement, story telling, creating shared experiences at a mass level, making emotional connections.
Indeed there’s a strong argument for saying that empathy, inspiration and emotional context have a new value as our analytical skills struggle to cope with the information deluge. This is just as much the case if you are a tech-savvy 15-year-old, wrestling with the hormonal pinball machine of puberty.
What doesn’t change in the new “attention economy” is the need to create great TV commercials. What does change is the means of distribution – and ideas that are sufficiently compelling will become shared experiences because they are disseminated among thousands, maybe millions, via the networking effect of people and technology. The downside? I’ll still have to brave the 15-year-olds at my son’s school careers talk.
• Grant Duncan is chief executive of Publicis