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May 24, 2019

A Formula for Non-Formulaic Video Advertising


No one comes to an agency asking for a formulaic ad. No one asks for safe, unmemorable creative, or a spot that will fail to break through the noise. And yet, formulaic ads happen all the time, despite brands’ best intentions (and in some cases, as a direct result of them). As creatives, we’re always striving to protect concepts from the natural tendency to become safer, more familiar, and more generic. Here are a few common traps to avoid during creative development to ensure you’re breaking out of the box.


ONE – Overcorrecting from previous learnings.

Modern data has been a blessing to advertisers, allowing us to test variants and gauge performance with pinpoint accuracy. That said, data can often lead teams to glom onto the most literal possible interpretation. “Oh, the spot with the red car performed the best. Let’s open every spot with a red car and show more of it.” This can lead to incredibly orthodox notes that shoehorn elements into a spot that might not be able to effectively support them. Usually, there’s a deeper insight into the data that such surface reads tend to miss, and even if the read is correct, an over use of red cars in creatives can quickly dull the images effectiveness.


TWO – Conflating structure with storytelling.

Humans, the species that arguably make up the vast majority of the viewing audience, are the beneficiaries of millennia of storytelling. As such, some tropes are baked in; without them, stories will fail to be recognized as stories at all. In direct response advertising, the current structure goes something like 1) Eye-catching image 2) Statement of a common problem 3) Introduction of product/brand as a heroic savior and 4) Call to action. There’s nothing wrong with these steps, and there are some amazing and effective spots that use this template memorably and well. The problem is when people lean into the structure too heavily and fail to add anything creative, original, or interesting to the mix. If a spot is just structure, it’s missing the voice, soul, and engagement that will make it effective.


THREE – Front-loading the product at the cost of pacing and impact.

Brands get increasingly nervous with every second that passes in a commercial without showing the product on-screen.. This leads to mandatories like “all concepts must open with a shot of the product” or every creative’s nightmare:  opening up a spot with a title card that reads “BRAND PRESENTS: TITLE OF SPOT.” This instinct comes from a relatively true observation that spots that front-load products tend to perform slightly better, but it misses the larger context that spots that front-load the product need concepts that justify the front-loading. If mere front-loading was all it took to make a successful spot, literally every commercial would open that way. They don’t because commercials need a moment of impact, be it relatability, evocative imagery, or intrigue, and if showing the product at the beginning detracts from these things, it tends to hurt the spot.


FOUR – Using an insight that’s too shallow.

A dog is a person’s best friend! Millennial men like products that work as hard as they do! These “insights” tend to create slightly familiar ads, because they’re loose enough to apply to a broad swath of companies and product categories. They’re actually less insights and more homilies or truisms. A solid insight is unexpected and novel, and leads too specific, focused creative (classic example: the Old Spice guy was born of the insight that most men’s deodorant is purchased by the wife or girlfriend of the user). Shallower insights can force creative to dip into the shallow pools of stereotype, assumptions, or, the worst case scenario, a somber narrator intoning the “insight” verbatim.