Jason Chaney on innovating ad formats

The CCO at Koho implores the industry to think beyond standard ad units to create longer formats that fit with consumers' appetite for content.


As 2019 gets underway, and the industry trickles back to work, Media in Canada is inviting media and marketing execs to share their New Year’s Resolutions around areas of improvement. Check back each day for more good-for-the-industry goals as we kick-off the final year of the twenty-tens.

By Jason Chaney

I’d like to have a conversation about a lie we keep telling each other and how it’s impeding our industry’s growth: attention spans are not shrinking.

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of watching my nieces and nephews watch their phones incessantly. Aimlessly bouncing from one YouTube “star” to another, they were transfixed. Naturally their parents made, and abandoned just as quickly, every effort to break their fixation.

As marketers and advertisers, we have only one job and that is to change the behaviour of current and potential customers. But how can we affect that behaviour if we all believe in a lie that collectively makes us focus on a wrong or unfounded behaviour?

Unless you’ve been on vacation for the past several years, you may have heard that the advertising sky (along with consumer attention) is falling, rapidly. Endless articles theorise the new six-second spot. Research – conspicuously commissioned from those who benefit the most – circulate on LinkedIn, get inserted into decks without missing a beat, and then drilled into the brains of clients and agencies alike. Digital media companies respond with shorter ad formats. But the content doesn’t change. It’s just bad ads shortened to be incomprehensible, all the while eroding value.

On the other end of the spectrum, broadcasters simultaneously become defensive about their “traditional” status – and they reaffirm that status through a lack of innovation around ad formats. Television, perhaps one of the most emotionally connective advertising platforms, continue to offer 30-second ads, 15-seconds and now the ever-so-powerful 7.5-seconds. But did consumers really ask for six-second or 7.5-second ads? No, shorter form content did not come from consumer demand. Rather, it was the result of technological limitations and cost considerations, which shaped the market. And, yes, customers did like it, but not for the format, but rather the opportunity to express themselves.

What we are seeing today (thanks to Netflix) is that people have an insatiable appetite for great content and they are willing to pay, willing to binge and willing to give up nights/weekends of attention to get the satisfaction of seeing how it all ends. According to reports, over one billion hours of programming was watched on Netflix last year. YouTube had the same results and it’s now getting heavily into the long-form content game. So maybe, just maybe, attention spans are not shrinking.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. That’s entertainment, not advertising. And, I could write an entire thesis on this, but instead I will ask one question: what is a Star Wars movie other than a two hour advertisement to drive merchandise sales?

I was once asked what is the ideal length of online content. I responded by saying “Infinite, but only if it’s compelling and fantastic.” The real question that person was asking me was “How long can you get away with talking to someone about something they’re not interested in hearing?” Not very long. This is true of advertising. If your ad is great, people will pay attention. But, like all great things, function shouldn’t drive form. But that’s what we’ve reduced ourselves to, the confines of seconds based on industry standardization, which is also being informed by a lie, or, at minimum, a lack of true consumer understanding. Do consumers hate advertising or do they just hate things that offer zero value by way of entertainment or experience?

And so my New Year’s Resolution is to push myself, my team and all media partners to consider innovation as an opportunity to re-evaluate all aspects of business, not simply advancements in technology. Change the way we tell stories, the format, the length, the place, the style, all are forms of innovation. Which means we should all question everything, right down to the 30-second spot and the belief that shorter equals better.

When we break function and focus on creating the best form we will get the best results. Those results will beget a much healthier industry, will renew faith, and, most importantly, will garner the attention and imagination and emotional involvement of the customers we are trying to affect. Everyone wins.

Jay ChaneyJason Chaney is CCO at Koho