‘I’mma let you finish’: moving on from a strategy of interruptions

As I sat watching the crazy spectacle that was this year’s MTV VMA’s and Kanye got up to not only accept the Video Vanguard Award, but also declare a bid for the 2020 Presidential race, I was reminded of his actions in 2009 that inked his name in VMA’s history forever. 

Those of you familiar with this classic Kanye West 2009 VMA’s moment will understand and appreciate the annoyingly powerful force of interruption.

It works.  And six years on is still as memorable, and obnoxious, as the day it happened. Yet, despite Kanye being pretty much universally derided for the act, you can’t argue that he didn’t get his message noticed. For those of you who missed the link’s below. Apparently Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.

But what role does, and should, interruption play in marketing communications today? Interruptive advertising has been the mainstay of our industry since its inception. Ad ‘breaks’ across almost all media were by their very nature a break in the content you were interested in, to bring you a message we the advertiser are interested in you hearing. 

But like Kanye, just delivering your message is no longer enough. In fact, it often elicits a pretty wide spectrum of responses from apathy, to annoyance, to mild amusement, to a complete absence of response because the audience has left the room, pushed mute, adskipped, or changed the station/channel/page. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom because in many cases content is being created for brands that is so entertaining, informative, and compelling that it demands engagement from the audience and effectively communicates a brand message with resonance.

We know the proven power of mainstream media, with interruptive advertising, to create results for our clients. It has done it time and time again with every type of message from retail to brand, and in almost every category. It has worked.

But there is a wave of change upon us and it’s gathering momentum. Not only is the impact of interruption diminishing, the very opportunity for us to find an interruptive moment is also reducing.

Take video content as an example. Rewind ten years and the only way you could watch the content you wanted was via broadcast TV. Now you have a multitude of options to access this content, just without the advertising. Lightbox, Netflix, Neon, QuickFlix, not to mention illegal streaming, have all arrived on the scene and are disrupting our content consumption behaviour.

The same is true of audio where free-to-air, ad-supported stations are facing increasing competition from premium formats such as Spotify, Pandora, Beats One, etc.

Not to mention Ad-blocking. In May 2015, Adblock Plus, one of the leading Ad-blocking software providers reported they had 200,000 users in New Zealand and a recent Adobe report found that usage of ad-blocking software globally grew 41 percent year on year resulting in lost revenue of $21.82bn. These numbers, all before Apple announced plans to support ad-blocking extensions within Safari on iOS9, make for pretty scary reading.

I’m not for a second suggesting that audiences are disappearing. They aren’t, and in many cases the consumption of content is increasing and more valued by consumers, but the platforms for interruptive style advertising are. For every hour of TV someone is now watching in an online environment we have lost approximately 12-14 minutes of commercial opportunity. They are still watching, we just need to find a new way to reach them.

My belief is that while this is an incredibly disruptive time, we need to view it as a great opportunity. Those of us working in agencies, media owners, and marketing teams have the responsibility of overseeing the greatest paradigm shift in the relationship between brands and their consumers in the history of our industry. 

And while the tactics to navigate this new world are increasingly complex, the overriding way through is pretty simple. To quote a former colleague, Craig Davis, we need to “stop interrupting what people are interested in, and become what people are interested in”. I believe Craig said this about ten years ago (as chief creative officer at JWT) so while he wouldn’t have foreseen the magnitude of the technological revolution upon us, the value of creating great brand stories that are compelling in their own right was a message that has never been more current. 

It may be simple, but it’s certainly not easy. We need to think about every piece of communication we create through a filter of ‘would my audience be interested and engaged in this if I wasn’t interrupting them to deliver it?’ If the answer to the question is yes then it’s likely to be successful in any environment, interruptive or not. If your honest answer is that without interruption people are unlikely to hear your message, then you need to ask the hard question as to whether that’s a sustainable approach for your brand.  

I’m not suggesting that the new world is all about ‘native advertising’ and brand content. These are important components but as we all know a brand story consists of the sum of everything a brand says and does. Actions speak louder than words and the way a brand behaves, innovates, connects with it’s community, and embraces important issues that people care about is what makes a brand interesting and engaging. 

You don’t get a more iconic example of this approach than Red Bull’s 2012 Stratos event. Red Bull insists it wasn’t an advertising campaign, which is exactly why it’s a brilliant example to reinforce my point. The ‘event’ generated unprecedented global media attention and cemented Red Bull’s position as a brand that lives through its actions. But don’t despair, you don’t always need the budget to send someone to space and I thought a similar campaign for Steinlager Pure, Deep Dive, was also a pretty good example on a smaller scale.

Some other great local examples include the likes of Tui Catch a Million where a brilliantly simple participatory idea captured the imagination of cricket fans around the country, or Pizza Roulette for Hell Pizza that turned the moment of consumption into a brand experience you could share with your mates, and more recently the launch of Clever Kash from ASB which delivers innovation to solve a real problem and create a moment of engagement between a parent and child that has often been lost in a cashless society. 

You also can’t go past the appropriately celebrated Lewis Road Creamery story, a brand with a beautifully simple purpose to ‘make things better’. This commitment to quality and craft has seen the business experience phenomenal acclaim and success, all done by being true to the principles of their brand and a dedication to collaboration and innovation. I’m only a sample of one, but I am yet to see a single piece of ‘interruptive’ communications from them, yet they have become one of the most talked about New Zealand brands in recent memory. 

These are just a few examples, but one thing all of these brands and campaigns share in common is they became the things people were interested in, rather than something that interrupted them.

So as we near the end of the interruption age, think about how your brand would survive in a world where you need to create a conversation, not interrupt one. It may be five to ten years or more but you need to be thinking about it today. Remember interruption may be a quick and immediate way to achieve a goal in yesterday’s world, but earning the right to have a conversation takes time.

  • Robert Harvey is chief executive of the Dentsu Aegis Network New Zealand.

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