Think like a thumbnail
by Deacon Webster, CCO Walrus
Advertisers can learn a lot from the lowly thumbnail image. Small but mighty, thumbnails rule consumption and they’re everywhere. Whether we’re on Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, or in a local bookstore, our environments are throwing thousands of these little billboards in our direction in hopes of piquing our interest enough to warrant a deeper look. All day, every day thumbnails are busy tipping the scales in the favor of those who are smart enough to take them seriously.
Mr. Beast, YouTube’s most followed streamer with 172 million followers cites thumbnail improvement as one of his keys to growth. He arrived at his formula after years of trial and error and now employs a thumbnail team of six that have helped shape his look and feel based on their learnings which include upping the production value and making the image more conceptual. They test over 20 thumbnails per video and they make them prior to even shooting the video.
Netflix also understands the power of a good thumbnail and serves alternative versions of program art of the same show to different viewers in hopes of attracting the widest possible audience.
Not everyone has figured it out. If you look at a category like books (because what is a book cover if not a big thumbnail) you find that there is an institutional need to blend in. Instead vying for attention book covers seem to strive for genre compliance. Biographies look like biographies, cookbooks look like cookbooks, and summer fiction looks like summer fiction. It’s impossible to judge these books by their covers.
Which brings us to advertising. As we have said, if an ad doesn’t hold attention for at least 2.5 seconds, the message will have no impact. It’s completely forgotten. The first frame of a video ad is essentially the thumbnail. It needs to pop, it needs to be visually iconic, and it immediately needs to pull you in. We need to give that frame the attention that Mr. Beast gives his thumbnails. It should go without saying that our thumbnails deserve this level of scrutiny. There are wider applications for this thinking.
Nils Leonard from Uncommon, talks about the importance of iconography across their campaigns. They look for a visual shorthand for the idea that’s easily cut, pasted, and shared. Often when we do experiential stunts we’ll make an announcement in the newspaper. We do this not because we think that our audience still reads the physical paper, but because we want the media to have something to share. It’s important to have some sort of graphic element that can be easily photographed and dropped into a story or an Instagram post. A thumbnail, if you will.
Above – CNBC story about the Steak for Stock exchange at Smith & Wollensky. Image taken from our newspaper announcement.
As attention continues to be in shorter supply, we’d all do well to think about our campaigns with a thumbnail creator’s mindset. What’s the thing that’s going to stand out and grab someone? What is the icon for this idea? What is the easy simplified graphic thing that anyone can easily share? It’s not enough to have a great idea anymore, if you want people to engage with it, you need an amazing tiny rectangle.
If you build an ad and nobody remembers it, did it run at all?
By Deacon Webster, Walrus CCO
Somebody has actually taken the time to figure out how long it takes for something to enter your memory. It’s called the “attention-memory threshold” and for advertising that point occurs after 2.5 seconds of active attention. Anything under 2.5 seconds, it’s as if it never happened. Unfortunately, that threshold is being crossed less frequently, according to this chart from Les Binet, Tom Roach, and Dr. Grace Kite’s fantastic talk in Cannes last week.
It’s not hard to figure out why. Advertisers are not actually trying to stand out. I can’t think of the last category review we did that didn’t include a huge “It’s a sea of sameness” collage. The rise of the “bland” has made it de rigueur to sit back and blend in; category “best practices” make it a business imperative to look and behave like the competition in order to appear as if you belong in the category; and of course, there’s the ever looming threat of social media backlash, making it scary to do anything too noticeable. Programmatic targeting has made it easy for advertisers to convince themselves that they’re doing the right thing because their ads are so precisely targeted that they should deliver sales regardless of how unique the messaging is. The actual numbers bear little of this out. DTC brands are running up against a performance plateau. Marketers like Adidas and AirBnB have realized that the response-heavy ad buys don’t perform over the long term and have seen tremendous success upon turning back to brand work.
Brand building remains the best way to ensure long term growth, and a strong brand is a memorable one. From the chart above, we know that in order to even have a chance at being committed to memory, an ad needs to capture attention and hold it for at least 2.5 seconds. This is an extremely important piece of data that lets us know whether or not an ad is going to even have a shot at performing, yet memorability metrics are far down the ad performance KPI list if they’re on there at all. What if memorability was a primary goal? Like in the top three. What if all advertising started with the mission of capturing attention right out of the gate and holding it – how different would advertising look? Would advertisers still strive to blend in? How much slice-of-life advertising would we still see? How many ads would continue to be set in a kitchen, or at a backyard barbecue, or in a car? Under this lens, the most important frame of an ad is the first one, and from there you need to hold on for dear life or else you’ve wasted your money. Think about your favorite ads of all time – how quickly did they pull you in? Here’s a telling exercise for marketers and agencies: Take a screenshot of the first frame of every one of your videos and go through them one by one asking yourself the same simple question: Does this frame make me want to stick around to see the next one?
(Above: Frame one of Tiny Toast Horse by Walrus)
Why AI can’t make a tusk or a unique playlist.
In a recent New York Magazine article, the author comes to the realization that Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists are not, in fact, particularly unique to the listener after hearing a good portion of their “personalized” songs played in a local bar. Discover weekly seemed like a service that could magically take ALL the music a listener had ever played, dump it into a black box, and spit out a one-of-a-kind list of new music, perfectly matched their unique listening DNA. In fact this is not how Spotify Discover weekly, or any of the other algorithm-driven applications actually work. They work by taking massive amounts of data and averaging it in order to provide the “best” results. The problem is that averages are weighted against novelty.
Discover Weekly is unlikely to ever recommend a brand new song by a brand new artist, even if it’s something that a certain listener would 100% love, because Spotify has no data to back up that decision. Their recommendations are not based on the contents of the songs, they’re based who else likes the songs, and those numbers are always going to veer towards mass because mass equals consensus in the eyes of a bot. Users are finding similar issues when they query Chat GPT whose responses are simply an average of whatever is in its database, regardless of veracity. If there are enough blog posts in that database questioning whether the moon landing happened, Chat GPT will also question whether the moon landing happened. Something to keep in mind when using Chat GPT to write your term paper on the Apollo missions. The same issues apply to AI image generators like Mid-journey. They’re great at creating images that look like other things we’ve all seen, but they’re terrible at originating more novel images. Walrus tusks, for example, are very difficult for Mid-journey to draw. I know this for obvious reasons. Mid-journey has no clue that there are lots of walruses in captivity who have had their tusks removed and that they are not the platonic ideal of the way a walrus should look. It just knows it has x number of walrus pictures and some have white things on their faces and some don’t. As a result, it kind of splits the difference. All of these algorithms can be tweaked, and weighted to make them more efficient, but fundamentally they exist to provide consensus answers, not novelty and that is why they will never be a substitute for human creativity.
Human creative choices and tastes are hard to replicate because they are so individual and unique. For years at the agency we’ve run into a similar issue whenever we need to use stock photos to generate comps for ads. The images available in stock libraries are generic and not up to the task. It’s often impossible to pull together a decent representation of what we’re envisioning in Photoshop because the visual is something entirely new. For a photograph to make it into a stock library, it has to be useful across lots of applications so the stock library can make money off of it. This makes most of those images useless to someone with a new idea. We end up using a drawing instead, because it’s much easier than cobbling something together from disparate existing photographs. In fact, we’ve found that this is a good check on the freshness of an idea: if you can find really good reference for it, it’s probably not a very original thought. Initially we had thought that Ai would be a boon to this type of photo comping because we could finally generate quality representations of visually unique ideas. Sadly it’s not the case – no matter how hard you try and manipulate the query, it’s impossible to generate a good image of, say, a 900 foot walrus rampaging through Union Square like we have on our holiday t-shirt. Ultimately, AI is extremely useful in surfacing the aggregate of what’s already been thought, photographed, drawn, discovered, but if you’re looking for the NEXT thing, you’re better off talking to a human.
Oscar Mayer Gives the Finger to Hot Dog Hands
And this isn’t the first time they’ve held onto their wieners…
By Deacon Webster
Everything Everywhere All at Once, the A24-produced movie, received 11 Oscar nominations, making it the most nominated movie of the season. The film already won big at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, which is fantastic news for everyone except possibly the Oscar Mayer corporation, which turned down a seeming once in a lifetime opportunity to play a major role in the plot of an award-winning film.
The film centers on the idea of the multiverse—the concept that our universe is but one of an infinite number of parallel universes in which things are the same but different, sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in ways that are much bigger. The film prominently features one such parallel universe where everyone, including stars Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis, have hot dogs instead of fingers.
Seeing an obvious sponsorship opportunity, the producers at A24 reached out to Oscar Mayer but the entreaty garnered no response, so the movie went on with no tube steak sponsor. A24 revealed the ghosting in a tweet.
To some this may seem like a major missed opportunity for Oscar Mayer—but this is not the first time the processed meats purveyor has shunned Hollywood. Oscar Mayer holds their brand in high regard and, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, feel that the use of their works in commercial ventures would devalue their product. You may be surprised to know that over the past 50 years, Oscar Mayer has turned down countless opportunities to be featured in many of the most iconic movies and TV shows. To them, the chance of being the poster-child for the next Flubber is too much of a risk.
Here are a just a few of the films that Oscar Mayer has rebuffed over the years:
What eventually became a Big Kahuna Burger was originally supposed to be an Oscar Mayer wiener in this iconic intimidation scene from Sam Jackson.
“Do you know what they call a foot-long hot dog in France, Brett?”
True fact: The Jedi Master in the original George Lucas script was actually a 1,000-year-old cocktail wiener.
Rumor has it that Patrick Swayze specifically requested a Chicago-style dog as his castmate in this summer classic. The deal fell through.
Producers from The Ring saw the obvious branding synergies between frankfurters and a creature that emerges from dark murky water.
The English Patient
According to people with knowledge, the on-set chemistry between Juliette Binoche and her would-be co-star was palpable during screen tests.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
“Master has given Dobby a chili dog. Master has freed Dobby.”
If viewers of this ’80s TV classic ever wondered how the secretive squad of hitmen blended-in to Los Angeles traffic with their black and red striped van, the original plan for the vehicle would’ve raised even more questions.
Little known fact—Kate Winslet only got the role in Titanic AFTER a James Cameron rebuke from the Oscar Mayer Company.
Sand worms—scary. All-beef sand-frank—terrifying.
High School Musical
This one actually happened. Really.
How much more harrowing would the first Squid Game challenge have been if their original concept had come to fruition? We’ll never know.
In the end it’s clear that Oscar Mayer has missed out on the type of publicity that most brands can only dream of. Will they change their ways if Everything Everywhere All at Once wins it all at the Academy Awards in March? Only time will tell.
(Originally appeared in Muse by Clio)
Advertising doesn’t have to ruin Netflix.
The day that pandemic TV bingers have been dreading is finally upon us: Netflix will no longer be an ad-free platform.
When word emerged that Netflix was in talks with Google to build out an ad-supported option, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would go the easy route of slotting in a few ad breaks during each show a la Hulu, or seize the opportunity to re-imagine what a modern advertising platform could be?
We should all hope for the latter.
After all, no one is forcing Netflix to adhere to the rules set by 20th century linear television. At the very least, it should aim to make the advertising bearable for an audience accustomed to blissfully plowing through full seasons of “Emily in Paris” sans interruption.
As someone who has spent time both being tortured by ads on streaming platforms and creating ads that have quite possibly tortured others on streaming platforms, I feel uniquely positioned to offer up some thoughts on how to make the experience a good one for advertisers AND viewers.
Put data sharing in the users’ hands
Rather than miring itself sticky with privacy/walled garden decisions, perhaps Netflix could let its users decide how much data gets shared and with whom.
What if monthly fees were linked to users’ willingness to share data? Willing to share your age, ZIP code and family status? That’s one fee. Throw in your household income and how many cars you have and that’s cheaper. Willing to also take two surveys a year? That might even be free. A user could opt out of sharing any data and that would be fine, too, but more expensive.
Say no to ad repetition
Anyone who watches ad-supported Hulu knows all about ad repetition. It’s not uncommon to see the same spot in every single commercial pod of a show. It’s highly annoying. Hulu claims to have frequency caps and other software that prevent repetition, but these only apply to ad buyers who purchase through the platform. Anyone buying programmatically has zero control over the order of spots within an episode or fine control of frequency.
Netflix should work with a DSP like the Trade Desk to solve this. Being able to control ad frequency would open up lots of creative possibilities for advertisers.
Hold back inventory for big events
Imagine if the Squid Game season two premiere were only available through direct purchase at a premium price. Advertisers gain a degree of prestige for being there and might even feel inclined to create something custom for the event.
Reward un-skipped ads
While Netflix probably won’t have a skip button, why not let advertisers take a gamble and include one? And if that ad gets viewed to completion frequently, Netflix could reward them with free or cheaper placements for doing viewers the invaluable service of not being horribly disruptive.
Netflix could make shows shoppable
Like that Pogue’s bikini top on “Outer Banks”? Add it to your cart.
Develop proprietary ad units
Netflix could take the experience out of advertisers’ hands by doing recurring “ads” that act more like content. During Stranger Things, for example, imagine a Demogorgon doing “product reviews” during ad breaks, sampling (and ultimately destroying) products that advertisers pay to have included. I’d watch it.
Gamify the viewing experience
Netflix is an interactive platform. It should embrace that more. Binge all six seasons of Peaky Blinders in a week? You get a free bottle of Bushmills. Think you’d be better at laundering money than Marty Byrde? Play the Ozark Tax Simulator by TurboTax and find out.
Allow for deeper exploration of relevant content
If someone watched the Scorsese documentary on the Rolling Stones, they could be served a Spotify link to three albums from that same era along with the audiobook of the Keith Richards autobiography. The possibilities are endless.
With a little creativity, Netflix has the opportunity to re-imagine the way online advertising looks and behaves. Let’s hope it does. It would be exciting for advertisers–and possibly even tolerable for viewers.
Haley Joel Osment Saw Dead People. I See Annoying User Experiences, and They’re Everywhere
Frustration is the mother of entrepreneurialism. Many of humanity’s best ideas, from the windshield wiper to the Cuisinart to the iPhone, started with a person throwing up their hands and saying, “Screw it, I’m fixing this myself.” Without problems, there are no solutions.
These days, “creativity” comes in many forms, and an ability to recognize points of friction in user experiences—and ultimately eliminate them—can be an extremely valuable way to apply the craft. You just have to know where to look. If you would like to learn how to better tune your radar to the ultra-high frequencies of minor human discomfort, there is no better way to start than by channeling me, the most neurotic man in the world.
Most Saturday mornings for the past 12 years I have stood wedged between two beverage coolers in my local bagel shop drafting a letter in my head titled, “The La Bagel Delight Bagel Ordering and Payment Process: An Optimization Plan.” La Bagel Delight is a free-for-all when it comes to the mechanisms of bagel commerce. Walk in there, and you’re walking into the International Waters of breakfast food acquisition. Customers order, wait for, and pick up their bagels from the same 100 square feet of space at the back of the store—a setup that turns even the most well-adjusted human into a hunched, groveling Breakfast Gollum slithering through the masses to retrieve the goods.
It’s a process that could easily be made 10 times more pleasant and efficient by simply reconfiguring the shop and designating lines for ordering and pickup. The fact that the ownership hasn’t realized this drives me insane. I find myself almost uncontrollably compelled to inform them that this is a problem.
I talk about things like this constantly. My family does not derive joy from these musings. Maybe you will.
Here are some things that I noticed this past Monday:
• The vertical poles on older N-line New York City subway cars are positioned in such a manner that people by the doors have nowhere to hold on when the car is full.
• My breakfast spot sells only green bananas. I can only assume this is to accommodate people who are buying an egg and cheese for today, and fruit for next Tuesday.
• At lunch, Pret A Manger gives me a bag that’s too short for my sandwich, which ends up sticking out of the top, past the handles, so you have to squeeze the bag closed around the sandwich. I feel strongly that Pret should have measured its sandwiches before landing on a universal bag size.
• Throughout the day I take approximately seven inadvertent screenshots on my new iPhone because the volume and power buttons sit on opposing sides of the device and depressing these buttons simultaneously (some might simply refer to this as squeezing the phone) creates a screenshot.
• I play Stevie Wonder through my car’s audio system. This is the default album image:
• I am forced to watch a 30-second ad before I can see a 7-second ESPN clip.
• I listen to Sonos in my house. Sonos has taken everything that’s fun and easy about playing digital music and summarily discarded it. Sonos is exactly what music listening software would be like if it were designed by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
• At night I use my television. SOURCE: HDMI1, HDMI2, CABLE IN, PC IN. I am the only one in my house who is willing navigate the backwaters of this interface.
• CBS is on channel 2, AMC on channel 54, and HBO on channel 400. I manually toggle between the three using the channel guide and the up/down arrows (which, incidentally, move the screen in the opposite direction from the page up and page down arrows).
• Later I spend 15 minutes trying to find National Lampoon’s Vacation, searching Netflix, HBO, Showtime, Hulu and Amazon Prime to see if I’ve already got it for free before giving up and paying for it on-demand.
Yes, that’s what I thought about on Monday.
My fixation on these issues is not normal, but usability frustration is common. The ways in which we move through our environments, the paths we take through interfaces, and the order in which information is served to us have all been pre-determined by groups with ranging objectives, many of which have nothing to do with providing a good end-user experience. It’s not in Spectrum cable’s business interests to allow me to move HBO next to AMC in my channel guide, but its unwillingness to provide the best user-centric solution opens the door to someone else who can.
Frustration points translate into opportunity. In a recent New Yorker profile on Rent the Runway, CEO Jennifer Hymen cites the notion that “every woman has the feeling of opening up her closet and seeing the dozens of dead dresses that she’s worn only once,” as their catalyst for starting her clothing rental company.
There isn’t a multimillion-dollar solution for every pain point, but you’ll rarely go wrong if your mission is to fix things for people. The ability to use creativity to alleviate people’s frustrations is a superpower. If you can harness it, you will be a hero.
By: Deacon Webster (originally appeared in Muse by Clio)
Top photo: Katerina Kamprani / The Uncomfortable
Why CMOs shouldn’t hate agencies that are Lions obsessed.
In John Immesoete’s recent Ad Age op-ed, “Here’s Why CMOs Hate Agencies That Are Lion-Obsessed,” he describes a chief marketing officer who came to his agency and told him what he thinks about agencies that win awards. It’s not pretty:
“I’m a CMO of a company that is losing sales, bleeding to death slowly. I need solutions for growth. You know why? Because we have an accountability to our investors, shareholders and board to grow. I need people who can help me achieve this, not win Cannes Lions. And this is why we hate you.”
Some may read this as a rally cry to get back to more response-oriented advertising. I read this as a classic example of a misguided client.
To be clear, I completely understand why a CMO couldn’t care less about whether or not an agency has won awards, and I think it’s fruitless to bring them up at all in new business meetings. However, the prevalent notion that the work that wins in places like Cannes is different from advertising that actually drives sales could not be further from the truth.
From this CMO’s perspective, the hype around “creativity” is just a big masturbatory exercise for stunted artists who are getting their kicks off his brand’s dime. This line of thinking makes sense if you’re worried solely about the interests of shareholders, investors and bosses. But there’s another party in this equation that needs to be accounted for: the audience.
The poor people who are going to be subjected to whatever content the brand puts out in the world, interrupting binge watching and web browsing loudly and rudely, should be the CMO’s top priority because they are his actual customers. Luckily, these are the exact people that his agency creative departments are trying to win over on the brand’s behalf. Creatives know that to the average human being, a half-amusing Geico ad is a welcome respite from the monotonous onslaught of testimonials and generic aspirational lifestyle imagery thrown at them for 14 minutes of every hour on TV.
The aforementioned CMO claims that he is losing sales and bleeding to death slowly. Sounds to me like a highly creative campaign is exactly what he needs, not a harder working FSI program. It certainly worked for Old Spice, which saw sales increase 107% after hiring Wieden & Kennedy and winning the Cannes Lions Film Grand Prix in 2010. The Domino’s Mea Culpa campaign by Crispin turned the brand completely around (and won a few Lions in the process). Shareholders were surely happy seeing the stock go from $8.76 to $106.
Are we actually to believe that our CMO would be pounding the pavement right now had he greenlighted this year’s triple-Grand Prix winning Fearless Girl — a single bronze statue that managed to be covered by every single national news outlet, sometimes over the course of multiple days, after its installation? The ROI on that statue is probably pretty decent. What about campaigns like Always’ “Like a Girl”? Awards show fluff? Examples of the power of creative advertising are everywhere, and it’s no coincidence the things our angry CMO is worried about — shareholder value and sales — are exactly the things that great creative ads are ultimately geared to drive. Don’t believe me? Ask Dollar Shave Club, which was just purchased by Unilever for $1 billion in a sale that would unquestionably never have happened were it not for a single piece of amazing creative advertising.
This CMO claims that our “industry is in huge trouble” because there’s too much drive to create type of work that’s winning at Cannes. I’d argue that the trouble comes from there not being enough of it.
Effectiveness is the new black
I had the honor of taking part in the final round judging of the Effies last week, and one thing that struck me was the number of senior people that made up the judging panel. I saw agency heads, I saw CMO’s, I saw Chief Strategy Officers, I saw top people from industry trade organizations. All these heavy hitters taking time off from their busy schedule to make sure that the right work received the awards. As my judging group hashed the winners out, it was heartening to see how much immediate consensus there was on what constituted a good case and what was suspect. Vague results were met with skepticism. Causation was constantly brought into question. Whether or not a campaign even belonged in a particular category led to more than one extensive discussion. If my group was any indicator of the quality of discourse across the judging, this year’s winners will truly represent the best cases as judged by a panel of experts.
The fact that we were all willingly there to take part in effectiveness judging speaks volumes about the importance of results (and ROI) to both agencies and marketers today. This didn’t always appear to be the case. Back when I started in the business, the awards shows that agencies cared about were the One Show and the D&AD, which are amazing showcases for creativity, but are not judged on their effectiveness. Some time after, Cannes became something worth entering (very possibly because it was so worth attending), but things like the Effies and the Clios always lurked in the periphery as second tier awards (at least in the minds of agency folk).
While creative awards were and are coveted by agencies, I’ve seen countless clients glaze over whenever they are presented with an awards tally during a credentials meeting. You get the sense that they see awards as an indicator that the agency doesn’t care about results or when it comes time to work with them, they’re going to be artsy prima-donnas. The Effies, on the other hand, hold a unique place in the awards eco-system — they straddle the worlds of creativity and results, which makes them much more tangible to clients. They want to win them too; and that is why the Effies have become the award to win. It’s a true benchmark of success for the entire industry. Given all of this, one might expect that the big winners at the Effies would differ greatly from the big winners at the other non-results driven shows. Guess what — they don’t. — a quick scan of the Effie winners list from the past few years features many of the exact same campaigns that won big in all the other shows. Maybe better ideas DO drive better results, agencies just needed the Effies to prove it.