A few weeks ago, a much-discussed COVID ad reel reminded our industry that "all ads look the same." (And if you haven’t noticed, nothing much has changed since then.) It's a fair point, but given the circumstances, I think brands can be forgiven – after all, the world has never looked so similar to so many.
Production parameters while we’re all working from home and social distancing have greatly restricted brands’ abilities to differentiate themselves. Plus, powerful statements of intent and support evoke a united front, which is hard to argue with during "unprecedented times" like these.
However, the discussion does beg the question: How do we help brands cut through the noise of a fragmented marketplace and how do we help them move forward? Standing out in this environment requires brands to establish a unique role in their space. Brands should identify zigs in culture, zigs in competition and zigs in consumer trends and take a different approach; find a clear point of difference: a zag. For most brands, this manifests in new content.
But, how do we disrupt context not just content? How can we apply the same level of experimentation and creativity across content and the context in which it appears? After all, it's people's everyday context that has changed.
Consider programmatic media: It's a sure bet right now because it almost certainly guarantees a clear ROI. And whether that’s a good or bad thing, the reality is that it's one of the easiest buys for clients who need to demonstrate an immediate ROI.
But isn't now the time to challenge the model?
One school of thought has brands using their remaining – and now heavily reduced – media dollars to invest in safer bets, via the likes of programmatic. And, if you need a plug, our cousins over at Epsilon are offering guaranteed outcomes for mid-sized businesses investing in digital marketing. The other option, however, is to make a bet, experiment and use this time to innovate and differentiate. Look at the brands that are investing in new platforms and virtual worlds or even those buying discounted OOH right now, despite the fact that the vast majority of people are stuck at home. These brands are experimenting during this time, and treating all buys as social currency – the thing that instigates conversation. Better still, blend the two.
It's easy to say all COVID ads look the same (and it’s easy to understand why they do), but the way we serve those ads doesn't have to be quite so homogenous. As we emerge from this crisis, it will once more be on us as an industry to help our clients differentiate, stand out from their competitors and break into the conversation through content and context.
What may be a guarantee now may not be a guarantee in three months or in one year. So, let’s make the most of this period of experimentation. Let's innovate in this downtime and learn and adapt so we can get ahead. Let's blend what we know works with a bit of what we don't. Let's balance the safety of programmatic with a little more rogue-a-matic.
What have we got to lose at a time when we’ve already written off so much?
Tim Harvey is the chief growth officer and partner of BBH.