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The war of entertainment and the opportunity for advertisers

For the next three-four minutes, can I keep your attention? Can I stop you from going to make a cup of tea?

It’s a question I am asking myself, but it’s also the primary challenge that advertisers have faced for many years. Without the ability to block or fast forward adverts, how could interruptions be as engaging as possible and hook people enough to stop them physically stepping away?

As viewers, we demanded ads that made us laugh, provoked thoughts, pulled at the heart strings and stood out from the crowd. The best of that era delivered on this and created compelling interruptions that we let in.

How times have changed. The pressure on our time and the expectations of what we are willing to give it to have shifted. It’s no longer only in the cinema we expect to see first class entertainment and escapism; great content has flooded culture and permeated every part of our waking day. There's no doubt that we are loving it, with podcast listeners doubling in the last five years, and the SVOD market increasing 23% year-on-year. 

However, choice means that there’s something for everyone at every moment: new podcast everyone’s raving about, bite-size, free, award-winning journalism, edgy ‘mid-form’ docs packaged perfectly for a working lunch break and must-see series to binge watch on the sofa.   

With Netflix projected to spend a staggering $15bn on new content in 2019, what’s the ad industry’s response been to this assault from a new breed of attention competitors? Pray to Pavlov and hit people over the head with the same old advert, stretched across every conceivable channel we can think of.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when we’re all complicit in a world where when we search for something online that we ​might have a kindling interest in, we are going to be followed for weeks by a subtle variation of the same dross. It’s something that Kantar’s recent Dimension study outlines, finding that the majority of consumers object to targeted ads, yet overwhelmingly (73% of those asked) report being shown the same ads ‘over and over again’. 

To help make this happen, each year there’s a new “innovative” format that’s being flogged as a new home for struggling ads. Not getting the desired view through on a 10” ad? Why not try a 6”? After all, our attention spans are getting shorter, right? 

Wrong. Of course, they’re fucking not. As standards have been driven up by high-quality entertainment on demand, people have got a lot more discerning about what they give their time to. As adverts weren’t designed to compete with entertainment, people are simply not watching them.

This isn’t a passing storm the ad industry needs to ride out either. It’s a fundamental shift that’s coming from all angles, with a variety of business plans being backed by investors. Disney saw its stock jump double digits when it revealed how it plans to challenge Netflix. New players like Quibi are utilising 5G to deliver mobile specific experience, and platforms like Otro promise to bring football fans closer to global superstars.

If we genuinely want to make the brands we work with culturally relevant in a sustainable way, it’s about time we pull our heads out of the sand and learn some lessons from the broadcasters, publications and content platforms that are winning.

People take the time to seek out and watch new, entertaining content, and as the lines between publishers, brands, influencers, and every bedroom blogger in between continue to blur, as long as it’s valuable and relevant - they don’t care where it comes from. 

The door is open for brands to use entertainment to build relevant relationships with their audiences, but it’s important to be clear on two things - how and why. 

How? It’s got to start with a mental shift. To compete with entertainers and reap the potential rewards, brands need to adopt a different strategic model and move from a mindset of interruption to one of earning attention.

It’s not about giving up your brand to Hollywood, but if the people directing brand strategy and communications have grown up crafting interruptions, they must adapt or make way for those who understand how to engage audiences and build brands by creating things that people value and want to spend time with.

Our recent responsible drinking work with Diageo used an entertainment strategy to engage a Gen Z audience in an authentic manner. Rather than talking at them, we gave the audience something they wanted to watch - a 3-part series in partnership with MTV, broadcast on TV and online, and advertised across the network’s channels, where the message was built in, but it was entertainment first.

Why? It’s too easy for branded entertainment to be brushed off as a marketing indulgence and a costly 'nice-to-have' that doesn’t provide the kind of ROI you get from a traditional ad campaign. 

Yet, the tide has turned, and the age of interruption is over. As it becomes increasingly hard to keep swimming against the tide, brands need agency partners who can challenge them to understand how to craft great, branded entertainment and help articulate the strategic role and effectiveness to the board room. 

Whether it’s shifting negative perceptions, combating a lack of relevance, or opening up a new market - entertainment has the power to help brands build themselves in a way that’s sustainable, in step with modern culture and aligned with audience expectations.

Simon Bell is the general manager of JustSo.

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