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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)

If you build an ad and nobody remembers it, did it run at all?