When Charlie McKittrick, Chief Strategy Officer for creative agency Mother New York, heard that the new format for pre-roll ads that Google was pushing were going to be six-second spots, it'd be fair to say that he wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of it. "When I first heard about it, I had this 'Oh, fuck' feeling," he says. "'We're just getting locked into smaller and smaller spaces!'" But when he began talking about it with members of his creative team, he was surprised to find that they didn't feel the same. "You could see their eyes light up, like what a fantastic challenge that was. It was a glint of, like, 'That's super interesting.'" And when Google announced that they'd be holding a challenge for agencies to show off what they could do within the format—with the brief "Amazing Things Can Happen In Six Seconds"—McKittrick says that the way people in his industry reacted showed just how brilliant Google was in setting it up.
"It's almost like preemptive Stockholm Syndrome," he laughs. "They're gonna lock us in this tiny, six-second box, which you normally would rebel against—but they created this challenge that made us fall in love with our captors while we're getting stuck. I've gone from cynical derision to excitement."
The way Google got him there was by announcing an activation at Sundance, which launches today both in Park City and on YouTube. Along with TBWA, Leo Burnett, Droga5, and BBDO, McKittrick was invited to make a 6-second film that showed off the capabilities of the form. Those entries, which range from Vine-like comedy quick hits to attempts at serialization to visually captivating single statements, offer a glimpse at what the form can offer.
The push toward six-second video doesn’t come out of nowhere. Pre-roll ads are a big part of advertising on Google, but they present a challenge when it comes to capturing the viewer’s attention: If you’ve come to Google to watch something else, then an ad that runs 15, 30, or even 60 seconds can feel like an eternity. To make up for it, Google allows viewers to skip the longer-form ads after the first five seconds. Which, naturally, led to the question of: How would you reach people if that’s all you got?
Sadie Thoma, Google’s Head of Creative Agency Partnerships, likes to think of the way YouTube presents advertising opportunities as a "bite, snack, or meal," each of which offers creatives the ability to tell different types of stories based on the format. A two-minute skippable ad might be the meal, while the six-second spots are the bite. That’s fairly intuitive, but it also requires a change in perspective. It’s not too difficult to chop a 60-second ad down to thirty seconds, but you can’t tell even an approximation of the same story in just six. But these spots aren’t intended to just be a flash of the logo or a voiceover urging you to buy—storytelling is at the heart of what Google hopes to create here, which is why they chose to premiere at Sundance.
"Sundance is interesting, because it’s one of the most iconic festivals for independent storytelling, and it attracts a really creative community," Thoma says. "As we see different ways that filmmakers are telling stories, we feel like we’re doing that alongside them—whether it’s six-second ads, virtual reality, or something else. You’ve got a backdrop of iconic storytelling in films, so that’s a good reason for us to be there."
What they’re presenting should be appealing to a Sundance crowd that’s interested in ways that people are innovating in a visual narrative form. It’s also appealing to the creatives working with them as a way to get to the essence of advertising, as well as to avoid the pitfalls that can come up with pre-roll ads.
"The beauty of the bumper format is that it’s so fast-paced that it’s not very intrusive," explains Britt Nolan, Chief Creative Officer at Leo Burnett. "You don’t really have time to become bothered by it. We have to engage somebody so quickly that we know that we’re leaving them with something by the time it’s over. Images are incredibly powerful—your eye can process images much more quickly than words. So in six seconds, if you construct something with very powerful imagery and a fast-paced edit, you can fit a lot in there, and it can be a super powerful medium."
The idea that you can get a lot done in six seconds, and that there are creative opportunities in that limitation, isn’t new to anyone who watched what a bunch of teenagers did for fun over four years on Vine. And while that was an inspiration for some of what the agencies involved in Google’s challenge did, they were also looking to see if there was a wheel there that actually did need to be reinvented.
McKittrick looked at a number of things that happen in the real world in six seconds, and he was surprised about what he found: There are kids who can do a Rubik’s Cube in that amount of time; it’s about how long a recruiter looks at your resume; people will wait roughly that long for a website to load before giving up; the universe expands 48 miles every five seconds; etc. If people are used to making important (and less important) decisions in that amount of time, then the potential of six seconds as advertising space starts to become clear.
McKittrick cautions that there’s a difference between using the format for advertising and just using it for storytelling. That’s not a bad thing, though—rather, it drills down to the essence of advertising in a way
that he’s extremely interested in.
"From a storytelling perspective, it has to be not only reductive, but it’s about what you’re not saying. It’s like, you can hear the footsteps coming down the hallway, or you hear about the restraining order, but nobody tells you what it’s for—the beauty of it is the viewer’s ability to figure out what’s missing a piece together a story on their own," he says. "In advertising, that’s going to reduce it back down to what’s most forceful in the first place: It’s associating a feeling with a brand. They say our attention spans have been reduced from twelve seconds to eight. I don’t know how much time we spend figuring out what yogurt to buy, but brands associate a feeling with a mood or tone so your brain makes a decision quickly and efficiently. With these, complex messaging, and the battle between rational messages and emotional connection, that all goes away—you really only have the chance to create an immediate impression and a feeling. That’s what great advertising does at its best. It’s a weird irony that by creating a little cell for us to work in, we’re going back to that."
Creative constraints have led to creative rewards for as long as people have been making things, of course. McKittrick thinks of the six-second ad format as akin to, say, a haiku. And the key to that isn’t just in making a 17-syllable poem, it’s in using that form to convey something that can’t be better told in another medium.
"A purist will tell you that a haiku has to make a surprising connection, or bring two things together in an unusual way, that there’s a seasonal connection, and that it’s usually about the natural world. You can focus on the 17 syllables, or what you have to do in those 17 syllables," he says. "In advertising, when was the last time we thought about what the actual dynamics of what a media channel were? This is what’s good about Google having done this—we’ve had Banner ads, and Snapchat vertical ads and all of these new formats appear every year, and we cut down our shit, or resize it to fit. But having a new format, and thinking about the dynamics and potential—that’s the way we should always be doing it."