As media continues to evolve, grow and fragment, our attention has become more discerning and harder to hold. Advertising, however, continues to behave as if reach alone equals influence, and in doing so is in danger of being tuned out entirely, writes Hamish Cameron, Strategy Director at BBH LA. 

Early on in my career I was told a story by a creative director that has stuck with me ever since.

It’s a Thursday night in London and an excited group of ad guys and girls are dressed up in their finest for an awards show. They hail a black cab and all pile in. After a few minutes the driver comments on how well dressed they all are, and wonders where they are off to.

“An awards show.” one of the group replies.

“Oh really, what kind of awards show?”


There’s a pause before the cabbie erupts into uncontrollable laughter.

“An advertising awards show?! Whatever will they think of next?” he guffaws.

I was reminded of this anecdote when I last watched cable TV. It’s been a while since I watched regular TV and the experience came as a bit of a shock. The tremendous amount of boring and annoying ads that I was exposed to ruined every show I tried to watch. They came on every 10/15 minutes and ran for at least 3 minutes, and totally ruined the viewing experience of every show i wanted to watch.

The experience was so interruptive that I ended up watching 3 shows at the same time, switching between them when the ad breaks came on. It’s not hard to see how this experience has fuelled the on demand revolution; coming back to Netflix and HBO Go after weekend of channel flicking was a joy. The advertising industry is fueling innovation, innovation that aims to remove ads from TV all together, and it’s not hard to see why.

TV is an obvious offender but things don’t get much better when you open your browser. I’ve been finding my experience of the web deteriorating daily. Autoplay videos with sound are starting to become more commonplace, totally ruining your experience of a website. You open a web page and suddenly an ad starts blasting through your headphones. Usually you have no idea where it’s coming from, and have to then spend the next 5 mins trying to find the offending video and mute it. This is not a good way to communicate to people, all it does is piss someone off.

It seems that advertising has forgotten that the most valuable commodity in marketing isn’t reach or media spend, it’s attention. As media has fragmented and grown in volume our audience’s attention has become more scarce and scattered but our attitude to towards it hasn’t changed. Brands seem to take for granted that you will listen to their messages, that their media spend guarantees them an audience.

Between 1994 and 2014, the cost of buying attention has increased between seven and nine fold, even after accounting for currency depreciation. Over the same period of time, the percentage of ads considered viewed fully and getting high attention has decreased from 97% to less than 20%. Between 2009 and 2014 in the UK, the average branded TV ad recognition at 1,000 TRPs (TV rating points) lost 13% pts.

Our loss of influence has been coupled with a rejection from our audiences who have sought new ways to avoid it. Global monthly active ad blocking software users has grown from 21m in Jan 2010, to 181m in Jan 2015. In 2015 alone, it is estimated that the number of users of ad blockers worldwide grew by 41%. 16% of the US online population now uses ad blocking technology. In 2017, 800m iOS devices will be immune to advertising.

These stats shouldn’t be news to anyone who works in advertising, and a lot has already been written by smarter people than me. Faris Yakob in particular has been banging the attention drum for a while now but nothing has changed.

Brands need to wake up and realise that the competition they are facing isn’t other brands, but every single thing that demands our attention every single day, and the competition is fierce.

There’s a quote from Reed Hastings that has stuck with me:

“Because the market is just so vast. You know, think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night — we’re competing with sleep, on the margin.”

I love the idea of competing with sleep, that Netflix shows have got to be so good that people want to stay up watching them. Advertising needs to get to that mindset, we need to understand that reach and media spend are important but unless we’re creating work that competes for attention in a meaningful way, then that work will just be tuned out.

We need to look at the intended audiences through the prism of attention, where and with what they spend time with. Then, instead of trying to interrupt it, we need to contribute to it, to be part of it in a meaningful way. Brands need to think about every touchpoint in the media plan as a potential moment of attention and to treat it with the respect it deserves. We should use those touchpoints to entertain, to delight, to inspire, to provoke and to surprise, otherwise we are wasting our time. The fight for attention is at it’s most intense and if we don’t stop taking it for granted, we will find ourselves shouting into an empty abyss.