The fact that a T-Mobile ad has attracted more views on YouTube than Barack Obama's historic inauguration speech may be viewed by some as a dispiriting sign of the times.
The clip of commuters breaking into a dance routine at London's Liverpool Street station is, at the time of writing, the 57th most-viewed YouTube clip of all time. Its popularity is partly down to a fascination with 'flashmobbing', but also points to the online power of creative advertising.
A growing number of marketers are looking at how they can exploit their creative across multiple platforms, whether through virals of TV spots, behind-the-scenes footage or branded content.
The aim is to devise a creative campaign that both delivers a return on investment and makes the execution pay for its own media space. Such work can take on a viral life of its own or involve branded content that can be repeated across various channels. Either way, making content work harder has become vital as the downturn continues to bite.
Adrian Swift, director of television at etv media group, says there are many previous instances where the life of creative content has been extended. 'One of the greatest examples of recycling content is the plus-one television channels, while clip shows have been doing this for decades,' he says.
This is not to say that marketers should simply re-run old ad campaigns but the time has come to get creative about how and where content can be used.
Etv's work with Thomas Cook is a case in point; any creative idea for the brand has to resonate online, in-store, on mobiles, and in podcasts, magazines and catalogues. 'We have created a huge library of digital content for Thomas Cook that we can pull together for tailored campaigns and shows,' says Swift.
Matthew Wigham, executive director of broadcast at Manning Gottlieb OMD, believes the growth in online video has spawned an enormous opportunity for brands. 'A number of clients are now thinking differently about how they can extend their brands into YouTube, from investing in more long-form content, to simply embedding their TV spots online,' he says.
Crucially, online activity, and viral campaigns in particular, are seen by many as a way to plug the gap for brands struggling with dwindling marketing budgets. 'We are absolutely seeing a move away from TV,' says Saatchi & Saatchi head of strategy Richard Huntingdon. 'Brands can rely more on online, especially when you think that Google, the most valuable brand on Earth, doesn't advertise on TV at all.'
This development raises a number of questions. Are advertisers getting carried away with reach? Are agencies that actively plant ads on YouTube with tags such as 'annoying oven ad' really doing anything positive for brands? Most importantly, will those consumers actively seeking out irritating ads then go on to buy these products?
As one senior marketer puts it: 'Agencies seem to measure the success of these campaigns simply by reach. They need to be more rigorous in proving that these campaigns have a positive impact on sales.'
TV ads may help drive consumers toward virals, websites and extended online content but the 30-second spot is becoming less central to campaigns. As Chantal Rutherford Browne, head of programming at Mediaedge:cia, points out: 'We can now generate branded content for less than a traditional spot.'
However, Lisa Chapman, managing director of Whizz Kids Entertainment, warns that even if a brand has great online video content it needs to find a platform to reach its target audience - and, inevitably, this costs money. 'You need a Yahoo! or a Bebo or an MSN to put your content in front of an audience, and the days when these services would pay for content are long gone,' she says. In short, online video is not tantamount to a free lunch for a brand working with a limited budget.
Most brands looking to extend their message across multiple platforms want to do more than simply replay their TV ad on YouTube. Broadcasters feeling the squeeze themselves are increasingly receptive to cross-platform branded content, and agencies are getting more hard-nosed over scheduling and rights.
'The days where brands invested 100% in a show, only to have the broadcaster own all the rights and then schedule it at 1am on a Sunday night, are well and truly over,' says one agency source. This does not mean that brands will no longer find themselves at the tail-end of schedules. However, there is a greater likelihood that they will own the rights to co-produced content and can stream it in-store and on their websites.
Mediaedge:cia's Rutherford Browne says that channels are increasingly willing to meet brands half-way and look at part-funding models. In addition, the type of slot that brands are being offered has changed 'quite dramatically' over the past two years. 'Broadcasters need to find other ways of tapping into brand budgets and this has opened up opportunities,' she adds.
However, Jack Horner, creative director of Fruckt, argues that measurement of this content remains an issue. 'One of the challenges the industry needs to overcome is the issue of accountability and finding a robust way of measuring activity outside the traditional campaign space,' he says.
Ultimately, as the benefits of online video become more evident, even cautious marketers will want to give their campaigns life outside the box. Moreover, as consumers are willing to share more information about their lives and innermost thoughts on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, so brands would be well-advised to follow suit.
The unpredictable economic climate is creating an unprecedented opportunity, and those brands that are confident will gain traction with consumers.
Case Study: T-Mobile
T-Mobile arguably holds the crown for the most effective use of online video to date after its 'Life's for sharing' ad racked up millions of views online. It gained such a following that in February the railway station was forced to close after 13,000 people turned up there for a silent disco.
According to Richard Huntington, head of strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi - the agency behind the ad - its success proves that brands need to lighten up and give consumers control if they want to thrive in the viral and online arena. 'Fundamentally, you need to start with a good strategy and have a solid point of view,' he adds. 'We had that with "Life is better when you share it".'
Huntington says the strategy was to create a shared experience and this is what made the ad work across different platforms. It was broadcast on TV but was intended to ignite consumers' conversations in other areas.
The campaign was planned across multiple platforms from the beginning. The agency shot 11 takes with 12 different hidden cameras to create a body of content for TV, cinema, radio and online. 'It's a new discipline for creatives but the key is to be prepared,' says Huntingdon.
Despite this ad's success, targeting viral campaigns remains difficult. 'It does seem the industry has got carried away with metrics,' adds Huntingdon. 'You may get people to view a clip in great numbers but its not helpful if all those people are in Bogat‡.'
Case Study: Comparethemarket.com
One criticism often levelled at virals by the marketing community is that they may be able to make consumers smile, but they cannot convey complex marketing messages. With price-comparison site Comparethemarket.com, VCCP had a clear brief - the brand name, which was similar to those of its rivals in a crowded market, needed to achieve cut-through with consumers.
Enter Aleksandr the Meerkat, complete with his own website, Facebook page, viral video bloopers and, uniquely, a branded Twitter feed that actually manages to be quite amusing.
According to George Everett, the planner at VCCP behind the campaign,the viral element has made the TV campaign more effective. 'Facebook and Twitter are fantastic media for us as they allow us to build a conversation with consumers,' he says. 'People only insure their cars once a year but we will be at the front of mind.'
For Everett the key to the campaign's success was ensuring brand recall. 'The fact is that consumers aren't always interested in your products, but you need people to remember your brand,' he says.