Ads Can Be Content, But to Whom?

Considering the time, energy, and investment that go into ads, we marketers like to think they’re more than just animated brochures. And we aren’t wrong; ads are one of the largest content categories on video sites like YouTube, primarily uploaded by consumers who have a special place in their hearts for well-executed promotional creative (or embarrassingly amateur messaging that’s good for a laugh).

During and after the Super Bowl, consumers flock to the Web to replay their favorite spots. Canadians go to see them for the first time (as woefully expressed by my parents, the commercials are habitually replaced with Canadian content during the big game). The entire concept of viral messaging was sprung from advertising; branded videos, microsites, and games make the rounds of the Internet as far and fast as any digital chain letter I’ve seen.

Why, then, is Firebrand closing up shop after just six months?

The site and TV program, which aired on the Ion Network, made commercials the star of the show, running some of the greatest and funniest spots created by marketers to date. The site allowed users to search by genre, and the TV program offered such special features as a collection of ads starring Oscar-nominated actors and directors.

When Firebrand announced that it would be no more, due to a lack of additional funding from investors (reports indicate its audience was also smaller than anticipated), cofounder and chief creative officer Roman Vinoly expressed surprise. “Is it that difficult to conceive that great creative created by great artists with all the money in the world could be compelling to consumers, even though it’s trying to sell a product?” he asked.

If you’re in interactive marketing, then, yes, it is. As marketers, our energy is dedicated to two primary tasks: creating effective ads and distributing them. These days, the latter is far more challenging. We face barriers and resistance at every turn from consumers who feel accosted and intruded upon by our work, however spectacular it may be. From where we’re sitting, it’s frequently difficult to imagine a consumer will endure an entire :15 video spot online, let alone consider it compelling.

As a form of self-preservation, then, our efforts must be spent on strategic media planning and buying. Because without the right consumers to watch them, the most appropriate platform through which to deliver them, and the most relevant content surrounding them, our ads are really rather useless, aren’t they?

Meanwhile there are our customers, who’ve proven beyond a doubt that they’ll support ads from the brands they feel an affinity toward. They’ll even create our ads for us; that’s how much they believe in us and want to help us sell our products.

Of course, this customer subset is exclusive and generally small. The vast majority of consumers would no sooner think to shoot their own Doritos ad than develop a new flavor of corn chip in their kitchens. Most consumers don’t worship marketing nearly enough to watch an hour-long collection of stellar ads. That’s where the vision for Firebrand failed. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough consumers who care to sustain a content-as-advertising model like this one.

But Vinoly and the folks behind Firebrand did get something very right: the notion that consumers can care about ads. Whether they do or not doesn’t depend so much on the quality of the ad as on how and where it’s presented to them. It all comes back to media buying and, more specifically, contextual placement. Find the consumer who’s most likely to take an interest in your product, and show her your ad while she’s thinking about and actively searching for something just like it. That’s when advertising as content can really work.

We’d do well to support the emergence of more ads-as-content models built on the concept of on-demand media. Video buying guides on brand sites like Fisher-Price are in essence commercials turned integrated content. TiVo’s Showcases feature puts a selection of advertising content next to saved televised programming and calls it entertainment.

Had Firebrand adopted a Web-only model, where consumers could search a vast database of commercials to handpick their favorites, it might have made it. Ads can be content. They just work better when both consumer and marketer buy into them in the right place.

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