Crisis of attention? What crisis of attention?
A view from Michael Karg

Crisis of attention? What crisis of attention?

Great content and advertising can capture and hold attention like never before.

At the 2006 Cannes Festival of Media, Lord (Maurice) Saatchi coined a new term.

"How can a teenager," he asked, "in the 30 seconds of a TV commercial, take a call, send a text, receive a photo, play a game, download a track, read a magazine and watch commercials at 6x speed?

"They call it CPA: continuous partial attention."

In 2006, Facebook was just two years old and Twitter had only just been born.

Surely, media proliferation and channel clutter have fractured our attentional capacity since then?

The evidence suggests that CPA wasn’t the media killer that commentators imagined in a bleak future. The latest data from Warc shows that total global media consumption is holding steady at a little more than 11 hours a day.

And while it’s true that the devices and platforms consumers use to access content have changed – with "online" now accounting for more than half of all time spent consuming media, three times more than linear TV – the appetite for content appears to be undimmed and, indeed, still growing.

Content – quality content – is king, queen and jack

In fact, we are living in a golden age of content. Things have changed thanks to digital – of course they have – but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the fundamentally human capacity of directing focused attention towards things we’re interested in.

Let’s take TV. Conversations about TV these days often start and end with Netflix, maybe also embracing Amazon Prime and sometimes Hulu.

And it’s true that Netflix is a major driver of the binge-watching phenomenon, releasing complete box sets and allowing users to watch them at their own, often accelerated, pace. Stranger Things, Orange in the New Black, House of Cards, Ozark and The Crown have all followed this highly successful path. Quality will out.

But not all Netflix series are released as box sets. The hugely popular comedy The Good Place – with a career-reviving performance by Ted Danson as a devil trying to do something good for once – releases its episodes once a week, like linear TV always has.

The show's reputation and audience grow, episode by episode, series by series. Quality will out.

What’s more, destination linear TV is undergoing something of a renaissance while Netflix grows subscriptions and audience share.

Bodyguard on BBC One commanded a live audience of 10.4 million at its peak for the final episode (and 17.1 million over 28 days).

The finale of Love Island 2018 – in previous seasons a relatively fringe ITV production – boasted more than four million viewers, including 56% of the elusive 16-34 age group.

This is the very demographic that many claim have abandoned live, linear TV, but Love Island provided sizeable, captive audiences for advertisers and sponsors alike throughout its eight-week run.

And the BBC chose both to release the whole series of Killing Eve on iPlayer and transmit it weekly. In the process, it boosted live, recorded and streamed audiences. Quality will out.

Longer and better trump shorter and quicker

What’s changed is the locus of control. Today, it's consumers who choose what to watch, when, where and on what device. This enables our attentional faculties to function very well indeed.

Ben Jones, global creative director at Google, shows that consumers are prepared to spend time with content they love in his powerful talk, "The Unskippale Future of Video". Success – in editorial and advertising – is not about shorter and faster.

Consumers are not awash in a sea of clutter or information overload, he argues. They are increasingly in control of content and will happily focus their attention on great content.

This is why movies are getting longer. Jones has produced analysis showing that, between 2011 and 2016, average Hollywood film running times increased by 10 minutes.

It is why books are getting longer (albeit with shorter chapters). Binge-reading is just as much a phenomenon as binge-watching.

This trend was kick-started by JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series. From the fourth instalment of the boy wizard onwards, the books were released at 00:01 to queues snaking round the block of book stores. The same reception has greeted publications since by Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and George RR Martin.

And it’s why TV and online video ads recut for mobile can work harder even if they’re longer, documentary-style, telling great stories.

To drive engagement and response on mobile, video ads need to be tailored to the medium. This can include rewriting the script, changing the sequencing of the storytelling and delivering branded messages both earlier and later than on TV or desktop video ads.

Contrary to popular belief, that may also mean mobile video ads being considerably longer than for other formats, although we also know that up-to-six-second mobile ads can have tremendous impact.

Meanwhile, TV ads replayed online without a skip function quickly become irritating, repetitive and ultimately ignored. Quality will out.

Crisis of attention? There is no crisis of attention.

Michael Karg is group chief executive of Ebiquity