Revealed: the secrets of 2013’s killer YouTube ads

Tapping into consumers’ emotions is the central theme of this year’s most popular YouTube ads, with six creative elements identified as key.

From dancing babies to a levitating magician to a bear and a hare, the hit ads of this year may seem miles apart in content, but they are connected by themes identified in a new report on what makes video advertising successful on YouTube.     

See the full top 10 here

Brands such as Evian, Pepsi Max, John Lewis, Three feature in the top ads of each month and the UK’s Top 10 YouTube ads of the year. 

Scanning the list of big-hitters from 2013 it is clear that emotion is the vital ingredient that appears in all the videos, along with six  elements that make up successful ads, according to the report produced by Millward Brown for YouTube.  

Ben Law, senior product manager at PlayStation, says: “The big one is that emotive element and being able to connect with the audience. That’s what drives engagement, drives people to share the content and talk about it with their friends. If you’re missing that emotive connection there’s no reason to share it or repeat view.”  

The brand topped the most viewed ad listing in October with ‘For The Players Since 1995’, capitalising on the hashtag #PlayStationMemories after it began trending on Twitter in the UK and worldwide when the PS4 product was announced in February.

Inspired by players’ memories of PlayStation products in those tweets, the video the brand created stirred up feelings of nostalgia by featuring consoles from its launch in 1995 to the present day, and included references to past games and popular culture.

“Players remember the noise the PlayStation made when it started up, their first and favourite games, and social occasions where their friends came round,” says Law. “We wanted to create a piece of content that captured that emotion.” 

Brands such as Dominos, Coca-Cola and Lynx provided PlayStation with products so that people watching the advert, PlayStation fans or not, could enjoy it and find cultural references throughout the video.

Evian, whose dancing babies ad tops the 2013 rankings with more than 67 million hits, also taps into the emotions of the consumer, as the video is enjoyable and relevant. This adds to its success.

Sophie Brooks, senior brand manager at Evian, says: “There are lots of ways to measure the success of a video ad, including target audience reach, critical acclaim and impact on sales. If measuring success by virality an ad must be truly entertaining and tap into something that is real and relevant to the consumer on some level. This could be emotional, humorous or even political. If it isn’t relevant in some way, it won’t succeed.”

Being relevant and reaching people in the right environment has helped the Department for Transport anti-drink-driving campaign to achieve almost 10 million views on YouTube, living up to up to its Twitter hashtag #PubLooShocker.

Ad agency Leo Burnett secretly filmed the video in the toilet of a pub. It shows real-life reactions to a mannequin smashing through windshield-shaped fake glass installed in place of the toilet’s mirrors. After showing the shocked responses of three men the creative asks: ”What impact could a drink have on your night out?”

Speaking about why the video achieved so many hits, Claire Farman, head of campaigns and partnerships at the Department for Transport, says: “I think it’s the fact that it makes you jump. People enjoy that sort of content, but also it’s got a resonant message and people feel strongly about it. It’s an issue that’s quite emotive and perhaps one that has some impact as well.”    

Farman also believes there is a fine line between creating something that has a reason to share and making something that’s so shocking you don’t want to share it. 

She adds: “That was always a consideration, but there’s an element of ’test and learn’.” 

Another element to look out for when creating video ads is branding. The report shows the key creative challenge was integrating the brand into the interesting and memorable elements of the ad.  

Of the 70 Leaderboard ads – those that featured in YouTube’s top 10 monthly ads from April to October – 96 per cent had the brand name present, 91 per cent included the brand’s logo and three-quarters had the brand name in the video name. Two-thirds also had a call to action, 63 per cent included a product shot and surprisingly only a third had a dedicated hashtag present.

A video entitled ‘Pepsi Max & Dynamo present: “Bus Levitation” #LiveForNow’ covers almost all these aspects of branding. It is number 8 in YouTube’s Top 10 ads of 2013 and has had almost five million views.

The soft drink brand teamed up with the magician to launch the articulation of Live For Now in the UK and shows Dynamo levitating next to a London bus as it travels through the city, capturing public reaction as he films the crowds. 

While it is important for YouTube videos created by advertisers not to use the hard sell, Pepsi included the hashtag #LiveForNow throughout the video, its branding is on the bus and after Dynamo descends from the bus he is seen opening a can of Pepsi Max as he walks away.

PepsiCo UK & Ireland’s digital marketing manager for beverages, Aman Matharu, says:We don’t have the product all the way through. Certain brands do; for example, in car stunts the car is the prominent feature of the content. I think consumers expect branded content and people shouldn’t be afraid to brand up the content.” 

In PlayStation’s ‘For the players’ ad, there is a lot of ‘hidden’ content as a means to get the brand into the video, aside from the products, but this also serves the nostalgic objective.  For example, the hidden content gives hardcore fans the opportunity to re-watch the video and decipher all the clues that are hidden in the artwork featured on the walls, on the notice boards and on the floor, as well as in what the people were doing.

Matharu adds that it is important to create specific content to run on YouTube rather than simply re-use creative designed as TV advertising.

“Don’t take a 30-second TV ad and put it online – that’s not the right thing to be doing with digital and this kind of platform,” he says. ”With any piece of advertising, creative is always at the heart of it and you have to tell that story, with the call to action at the end of it. Use the fact that you have a longer time period, but at the same time don’t keep it long for the sake of it.”  

Indeed, Millward Brown’s report finds that longer content works well on YouTube. Over two-thirds of the 70 Leaderboard ads are longer than 60 seconds, with 31 per cent at between one and two minutes, 11 per cent at two to three minutes and 10 per cent at three to four  minutes. Surprisingly, 13 per cent last more than five minutes. 

However, the average length is 121 
seconds, which provides brands with an opportunity to produce longer creative rather than be restricted to the confines of the traditional 30-second TV advert. 

Matharu adds: “Key to success in terms of a piece of content for the likes of YouTube is the creative and having a story to tell. One of the things about being online is that you can be longer than a 30-second TV buy, which then allows you to talk more about storytelling and getting your message across.” 

Telling a story – above selling product – features heavily in the Top 10 YouTube ads of the year. “The ads that have been shared most this year have a strong focus on storytelling,” says Alison Lomax, head of creative agency partnerships at Google. We’ve noticed that brands are breaking away from the 30-second commercial and taking advantage of the rich creative playground YouTube offers. Brands can now take as long as they need to tell their story.”

However, content has evolved over the years and brands must be creative to hold the attention of the audience.

Brooks says: “A decade ago nobody was thinking about YouTube virality. While ads needed to make an impact, they were broadcast to a  more captive audience who received media in a more passive way. Today, ads have to compete with all kinds of content – they need to be of a high enough quality that people choose to watch them and want to share them.”

The sixth key to successful YouTube ads is that – there is no single recipe for success, with things you might associate with viral videos such as cats, celebrities and music being no guarantee of popularity.

However, the report does give a clue as to how the brands analysed achieve high visibility, such as a human presence in 86 per cent of the videos and 80 per cent have music.

This might seem like a simple to-do list for brands, but ensuring the content continually resonates with what consumers are interested in is vital.

The Department for Transport’s anti-drink-driving creative uses shock tactics, but Farman says: “There have been a few shocking stunt viral ads since. I wonder if eventually people get tired of it. There’s a constant need to review how you engage people and you need to mix it up to get the cut through as well.”

The six elements of YouTube success

1 Longer content works well on YouTube – 65 per cent of the 70 leaderboard ads analysed are longer than 60 seconds.

2  An emotional response is key, with all of the advertising featuring a strong response on at least one of the following: surprise, inspiration and excitement.

3 YouTube enables a different kind of storytelling, with many of the ads being part of successful long-term campaigns and featuring a strong back story. 


4 Involving, enjoyable and buzzworthy content is key to generating views.

5 Branding is not the enemy of creative success, but integrating the brand into key moments of the video is the creative challenge. 


There is no single recipe: many approaches work, with the top five themes in all the top ads involving a human presence, music, text, a call to action and being international.  

Source: YouTube/Millward Brown research analysing the brands featured in the top ten monthly most viewed ads from April to October 2013. 

The brands that appear in the monthly Top 10 rankings are determined by quantitatively using the number of UK views, view rate – how much of an ad people choose to watch – and percentage of organic vs paid views. 

YouTube Ads Leaderboard 2013: the UK Top 10

baby&me / the new Evian film

Creative Agency: betc paris
Media Agency: Havas

John Lewis Christmas Advert 2013 – The bear & the hare

Creative Agency: Adam & Eve DDB

Three – The Pony #DancePonyDance

Creative Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Media Agency: Mindshare

Dove – Real Beauty Sketches

Creative Agency: Ogilvy Toronto
Media Agency: Mindshare

O2 – Be more dog

Creative Agency: VCCP

Honda – Hands

Creative Agency: W&K
Media Agency: Mindshare/PHD

Exclusive video PlayStation 4 See it First at E3 Teaser

Creative Agency: Sony PlayStation
Media Agency: DNK

Pepsi Max & Dynamo present: “Bus Levitation” #LiveForNow

Creative Agency: Arnold KLP
Media Agency: OMD

FIFA 14 TV Commercial – We Are FIFA 14

Creative Agency: Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam
Media Agency:  Mediacom

10 Xperia™ Z TV Ad – Sound, vision, colour, detail from Sony.

Featuring music from David Bowie

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