A view from Stu Outhwaite

Thirty seconds to save advertising

As an industry, we have forgotten how brilliant shorter ads can be.

When was the last time you tried to persuade one of your clients to run a longer cut? Tiring, isn’t it. "But the story will work better in a 60’!", "It’ll stand more chance of winning an award if we make it a 90’!", "Dougal might do it!". We barter with them, promising longer pack shots, offering them more cut-downs, pleading with them to just run it a couple of times. Or we apply stealth tactics – don’t mention it and do a big reveal when the 30’ is signed off, telling them the director and editor have bashed something out in their "spare time". 

Of course we should continue to push for our work to be given the best stage it deserves. But is that really where our energies should lie? And have we accidentally stopped caring about the version of the ad that most real people are actually going to see? 

Before I start, let me state that this is not an attack on the 60’/90’/347’ (?). Les Binet tells us that longer ads have more impact, may be more distinctive and are more likely to create fame. Stu Outhwaite says they make you feel a bit more like Spielberg. But what does seem crazy is the lack of attention we pay to the format that pays most of our wages.


In 2005, 75% of ads on the telly were 30 seconds or shorter. Over the past decade, that figure has risen to 84% (thank you, Thinkbox). Now, all of this would be fine if the standard and quality of 30-second spots were going up too – but if awards shows and Campaign Picks of the Week are anything to go by, then sadly that’s not the case.

More facts!

In the past three years, only 3% of gold and silver Cannes Film Lions and 6% of gold and silver British Arrows were 30 seconds or shorter. Perhaps even more surprisingly, only 9% of Picks were 30-second spots (thank you, Lil and Lockey).

Think back to when the last truly great 30’ was produced. Yep, that topless, sweet-smelling bloke in the shower and on a boat and on a horse. That was six years ago [below]. What has happened since and why? Well, like any great hands-off creative director, here are some half-arsed thought-starters. 

As an industry, we don’t give 30’ ads the respect they deserve. Sure, the British Arrows have The John Webster Award, but there’s a sad reality that awards, and kudos in magazines like this, are rarely directed at anything under 60 seconds. Naturally, the ego-driven, gong-hungry creative industry is less inclined to "smash a 30-seconder", no matter how entertaining it might be.

Because 30’ can be entertaining. But isn’t "entertaining" just the nice-to-have when pawing through pages of link test results? No! When did storytelling and messaging suddenly become mutually exclusive? The number of bloody times I’ve been told that the story is getting in the way of the message, as if the story is just the fluffer preparing the pack for the money shot. Mark Waites at Mother used to describe 30’ as messaging disguised as entertainment. Effective and entertaining? Why the hell not?

Perhaps we can’t be arsed. Perhaps we’ve got lazy. Keeping a script to one page and dialogue to six utterances is bloody hard. In a more fashionable, media-neutral, rich/big/long idea world, I suspect there are fewer people who are interested in the craft of writing and structuring concise narrative and efficient storytelling. Why bother when you can get Spike Jonze to direct some numpty going batshit in a conference centre [below]? Maybe we’ve got comfortable hiding behind high concept, letting post houses and sexy directors do all the work.

More than anything else, I think we’ve forgotten how brilliant the medium can be. Look again at Nextel "Office dance", John West "Salmon", Super Noodles "Selfish", John Smith’s "Snooker table" and "’ave it", Volkswagen "Singing dog", Vim Cream "Glass", pretty much any Kayak ad and – oh, go on then – that John Webster stuff too. Each will literally just take up 30 seconds of your time but, I promise you, it’ll be time well-spent.

I’ll leave you with one potentially ridiculous thought. What if someone were to set up a 30-second short-film competition, inviting people across the ad and production industries to submit joyous little condensed stories in any medium? Maybe that would help us all remember the potential of this undervalued format and open our eyes to the kinds of stories we could tell, sketches we could write and emotions we could tinker with. Young directors would be able to showcase their suitability to ad briefs, ad folk would be able to hone their skills and maybe, just maybe, the 84% of ads on the telly that we put real people through on a daily basis would get better for it. Thirty seconds to save advertising: who’s in?

Stu Outhwaite is creative partner at Creature of London