Attention’s the problem, creativity’s the answer – as ever

Solving the attention issue in digital advertising is key to improving creative effectiveness. It will take a combination of good old-fashioned creativity and a good new-fashioned understanding of what works on each platform. Simple, but hard.

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You may have seen the talk Les Binet, Dr Grace Kite and I gave recently entitled ‘The 3rd Age of Effectiveness’. I focused on brand-building creativity today. On the fact that the ad platforms are becoming better attuned to brand building, that the rise of video has been central to this, and that the shift from social platforms to creator-driven entertainment platforms is opening up new creative opportunities.

Major issues still exist in digital advertising, including short-termism, a legacy from when its principal or even sole role was the narrow targeting of hot in-market prospects. That meant brands missing out on driving more sustainable long-term growth by reaching new audiences, and left many brands on the performance plateau. It meant too many ads that are ignorable or even irritating to everyone apart from those ready to buy right now.

But reaching people who are not currently in the market requires a totally different creative approach. As they’re mostly not interested in you, you have to try much harder to get their attention and make a lasting impression, so that when the time comes, the little seeds you’ve sown in their synapses have a chance of doing their work.

And this leads us to the biggest issue we face if we’re going to get better at using the platforms to their full potential to help build our brands.

The attention problem

Karen Nelson-Field’s work on attention gave us the alarming headline that 85% of 130,000 digital ad views she researched didn’t achieve the 2.5 seconds or more of active attention necessary to impact brand memories and so help build mental availability.

Impact of attention time on mental availability (MA). Source: Amplified Intelligence

Ads under this threshold can basically only drive a click. Ads over it are able to influence future sales too. This is the essential difference between brand-building ads and direct-response ads. The more seconds of active attention an ad receives, the more days it can stay in the memory, and the longer it can work.

Another important finding from Nelson-Field is that a given platform has a set range or limit on the amount of attention people will pay to ads there – it’s the platform and format, not the creative, that makes the major contribution to the total number of attention seconds it will receive. Optimising your media plan for attention is becoming increasingly common.

The more seconds of active attention an ad receives, the more days it can stay in the memory, and the longer it can work.

But whilst platform and format choice determines the broad range of attention your ads can receive, it’s creativity that helps get you to the top of that range. “Attention elasticity forms the opportunity for ad creative,” says Nelson-Field. So good ads can get you somewhat more attention than bad ads on a given platform, albeit this will likely still be limited.

This is a challenging finding if, like me, you’d love to believe that the sheer force of human creativity can break through any boundaries and get everyone to watch every last second of everything you and the team have laboured over. The idealist in me still believes the finding must be wrong and wants every campaign to be an outlier; the realist in me has to admit this is extremely unlikely.


Whilst getting enough attention is a major challenge in digital advertising, it’s not a new one.

Ads of all kinds have always had surprisingly large drop-offs in attention. Data from measurement companies such as Lumen shows, for example, that magazine ads can have attention curves close to a YouTube non-skippable ad, and newspaper ads can have a steep retention curve akin to an in-feed Facebook ad. The difference is that we now have the data and are more aware of the drop-offs in digital ads than we’ve ever been before.

And it’s not a new issue for creative people to be wrestling with either. You can see it in the famous quotes of many of the ad legends of the 60s:

  • Bill Bernbach: “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.”
  • Mary Wells Lawrence: “People are very sophisticated about advertising now. You have to entertain them. You have to present a product honestly and with a tremendous amount of pizazz and flair. But you can’t run the same ad over and over again. You have to change your approach constantly to keep on getting their attention.”
  • John O’Toole: “[We’re] an uninvited guest in the living room of a prospect with the magical power to make you disappear instantly.”

O’Toole was talking about people flipping TV channels here, but could just as easily have been talking about ad skippability or scrollability today.

The issue of how to get and keep attention is one ad creators have always had. It’s not caused by ‘digital’ or by specific platforms, it’s caused by people not being as interested in ads as the stuff they’re actually there to see. And the solution is both simple and hard: creativity.

Platform best practices

But before applying that creativity you need to understand the dynamics of the platform you’re creating for. Why people are there, what they’re there to see, the ‘grammar’ of the stuff they like there. Only really knowing how things work on a platform, and knowing what the algorithms favour, can help you get more attention there and help you flatten the curve.

Adopting platform best practices prevents attention dropping off

And this takes time to learn. We’ve had 70 years to learn how to make TV ads, but only three years to make TikToks. Of course we’ve not perfected this yet and of course we’re only going to get better at it.

All the research evidence says you need to learn the ‘rules’ of each platform and create bespoke ads for them to be able to maximise attention on them. Kantar found that campaigns with ads tailored to specific digital channels have 13% greater impact on brand equity overall versus using the same ads on each platform.


Similarly, Ipsos found that the same creative often doesn’t perform well across formats. In their research, strong performing TV commercials didn’t translate well into skippable and in-feed environments, and ads developed for skippable formats performed pretty well in-feed but badly in TV.

A common finding from these studies is that you have to apply a platform’s ‘best practice’. This often includes the story structures that work best to get and keep attention. YouTube’s advice is to use ‘emerging story arcs’ not ‘traditional story arcs’. YouTube ads using new story arcs get four times the average watch time before being skipped – 20 seconds compared to five – and ads with traditional arcs are twice as likely to be bottom performers. This is similar to TikTok’s advice, which says you should start with a bang to hook people’s attention, not the ‘slow build’ of a TV commercial.

In an analysis by Kantar of 11,000 ads, applying YouTube’s best practice principles (attention, branding, connection, direction) was found to contribute +17% in long-term brand contribution. Similarly, bespoke Snap ads get 1.4 times the attention of ads repurposed from other platforms and bespoke TikTok ads get three seconds more watch time and 25% more completed views.

So definitely don’t just put your TV ad on the platforms. And don’t put your Facebook or YouTube ads on TV. But also, you can’t just put ads for one digital platform onto another one, and expect them to work as well as something bespoke.

One of my favourite findings comes from Ipsos: “Challenge category conventions. Taking an unconventional creative approach produces 40% longer viewing time on average for skippable ads.”

It’s exactly the same principle they’ve been teaching from day one at creative agencies for decades: it’s pure ‘when the world zigs, zag’.

Emotional impact

Another principle that’s coming out of recent studies, but isn’t always mentioned in the basic platform best practice, is the importance of emotion in driving brand impact.

System1’s studies of ads on Meta and Pinterest show ads that create a strong emotional response are much more likely to also drive brand awareness or brand lift. High-emotion ads on Pinterest drove six times as much brand lift as low-emotion ads for example.

When you look across these principles, they’re actually principles that Bernbach, Ogilvy and Wells Lawrence would recognise.

You need to know what works on a given platform, make ads bespoke for them following their technical advice, and ensure they deliver the holy trinity of attention, branding and communication. But as well as A, B and C, you also need D and E: difference and Emotion. So:

  1. Get attention fast
  2. Integrate brand/product
  3. Use stories to communicate (and use new arcs)
  4. Difference works best
  5. Evoke intense emotion

None of these principles is ground-breaking, in fact they should be meat and drink to all creative people.

And brands are learning. We’ve had years of people in the industry complaining that digital ads aren’t different, funny or surprising, but I’m seeing more evidence in my feeds of agencies and brands getting it right.

Tesco are clearly having fun and some success experimenting with TikTok, including with their #VoiceOfTheCheckout campaign.

Screenshot: Tesco’s #Voicofthecheckout TikTok campaign

Hilton Hotels’ 10-minute TikTok was genuinely great craft: a funny script that played with the grammar of the platform and a great performance from Paris. I doubt many people watched all 10 minutes, but then that’s not necessary for it to do its job.

Screenshot: Hilton’s 10-minute TikTok ad

And on top of this advice for paid ads, we now also have another really useful tactic. There’s a huge and growing army of creators who live or die by knowing what works best for their channels and their personal brands to retain viewer attention. And creator-led advertising is growing fast, reaching around $16bn in value globally last year.

Creators earn more attention

The best creators know how to make attention-grabbing thumbnails and opening shots; to deliver the promise of a video straight away; that music creates a feeling; that you need repeated emotional highs to keep people watching.

And when applied to brand creativity, their work can sometimes work even better than the professionals’. Platform-native creative made by creators on TikTok consistently outperforms repurposed or adapted ads in driving brand recall there, according to TikTok’s marketing science team. Influencer marketing can be easy to dismiss as hot people holding things. But when it’s creative people making things it becomes an entirely different proposition and much harder to dismiss.

Maybelline’s mascara TikTok was a joyfully silly PR stunt, with the quirky ‘is it real or fake’ intrigue of the Jacquemus handbags video from earlier in the year. You can argue about what it’s actually ‘saying’ about Maybelline. But if its job was to get attention for the brand in a distinctive way, it looks like a big success.

Screenshot: Maybelline’s computer-generated mascara video on TikTok

So this is the second creative opportunity: to break the attention curve and not just flatten it, with native content made by creators that can earn even more attention.

Which gives us two tactics: paid ads that are highly tailored to the platforms, and creator-made videos that are totally native to them.

All this has implications for budgets and consistency. You don’t want to stretch your communication too thinly across too many platforms, or end up doing one-off campaigns that don’t add up to a greater whole. You need to be as focused in your brand strategy as ever. You may have to use fewer platforms, but select them more deliberately. Some of these are media strategy questions, but plainly have an implication for creative: another argument for planning media and creative more closely together than has become the norm.

And once we’ve mastered the current crop of platforms, new ones will of course come along for us to get to grips with. And so the cycle continues.