Creatives weigh in on the YouTube frenzy.

So what could possibly be wrong with having your commercial become red-hot on YouTube?

Well, a lot—if, for example, you're a liquor brand. Recently, one client was less than thrilled when a short Web film promoting one of the company's liquor products became a sensation on the YouTube sharing site—the reason being, it meant lots of underage consumers were now passing around the video, thereby potentially inviting criticism from watchdog groups. Hence, instead of bragging about being a hit on YouTube, this client wished the whole matter would just go away.

And that's just one of a number of problems that can crop up when a commercial enters the wild west environment of YouTube—wherein an advertiser can't control how its ads will be seen, by whom, what will be said about them, and so forth. But even in light of that slightly scary loss of control, the consensus among agency creative directors interviewed seems to be that the pluses of the YouTube revolution outweigh the negatives. "Overall I feel it's a positive development because it has democratized content creation," says Bruce Bildsten, the longtime Fallon creative who recently opened a new agency, named Brew. Bildsten adds this caveat: "YouTube is going to require marketers, agencies and creatives to change their thinking—dramatically." As Bildsten notes, "clients are used to being able to control virtually every aspect of their communications." That control has been slowly eroding since the Internet became a reality, but the success of YouTube has really ratcheted up the "control" issue, seemingly overnight. With more and more commercials now among the 60,000-plus films put on the sharing site each day, there's a growing likelihood someone will put your ad on the site (or on similar sites, such as Google Video)—assuming the ad is interesting enough for anyone to actually want to share it with others.

Which brings up another aspect of YouTube that can be both exhilarating and a little scary: It provides a kind of instant popularity vote on ads, albeit a highly unscientific one (advertisers are still trying to get their head around the various factors that can influence the popularity of an ad once it's on YouTube). One thing most people seem to agree on: If an ad is original, distinctive, and entertaining, it's more likely to catch fire on YouTube. And that just reinforces what creatives ought to be striving for in their ads anyway. "It's basically the same objective," says Saatchi ECD Leo Premutico. "The things that seem to do well on YouTube are things that are fresh and entertaining. So the plus side for us, as creatives, is that YouTube is helping to put even more emphasis on the need to create entertaining spots. And it's something clients can't ignore, because it can result in free exposure for the advertising."

However, Gerry Graf of TBWA is finding that client attitudes toward YouTube are mixed; some are excited about the prospect of having their ads seen there, while others are ambivalent or maybe even opposed. "I think it depends a lot on who the brand is trying to reach," he says. "If it's a younger market you're going after, then it's good." Graf says TBWA's Masterfoods client—which has youth-targeted candy brands such as Skittles—has been pleased to see several recent spots do well on YouTube. Says Graf, "It's nice to be able to go into a client and say, ‘A hundred thousand people saw your commercial today and it didn't cost you a thing.' But still, certain clients don't seem that interested, at least not yet."

As for the ones who are interested, are they likely to increase efforts to get their spots widely seen on the site? Undoubtedly some will try, but creatives are skeptical as to whether one can plan for YouTube success. "I don't think you can force things to be viral," Graf says. "The best viral stuff happens not because someone set out to be viral, but because they happened to produce something that is interesting enough to make people want to pass it around." BBDO's Eric Silver adds: "My take on YouTube is that it works best for an almost accidental viral film, as opposed to planned advertising. Once something smacks too much of advertising, it gets in trouble in the YouTube environment."

And almost everyone agrees it's a bad idea to try to trick people on YouTube, a la the recent "Lonelygirl15" episode, in which an actress posed as a real-life teenager as part of an attempt to seed interest in an in-the-works film project. "In the online community, once people figure out you're setting them up with a hoax, you lose all credibility," says Taxi creative director Zak Mroueh. Kevin Roddy, creative director of BBH's New York office, says that if you're going to try mock videos and pranks, the key is to make sure people are in on the joke instead of feeling like they've been duped. "There's a line that you don't want to cross, in terms of making people feel that they were tricked into taking some kind of action based on false information."

Roddy believes that it's also a mistake to do any kind of hard sell on YouTube. "People don't go there to be sold to, they go to be entertained," he says. "I believe if advertisers begin to abuse the possibilities of YouTube, they'll ruin it. If agencies just use it as another medium—as in, ‘I'm going to create a version of this ad for YouTube'—consumers will sniff it out and they won't interact with it."

Of course, another interesting aspect of YouTube, from a creative standpoint, is that it could possibly create new competition for professional ad creators. Taxi's Mroueh, who counts Viagra as a client, says that he recently went on YouTube and discovered "hundreds of Viagra spots, created by I don't know who, circulating all around. Who knows, maybe eventually the kids creating this stuff will approach clients, offering to create content." Bildsten agrees: "The very definition of who's a ‘creative' is changing: now it's anyone with a digital camera, Final Cut, and an idea. It's complete democratization."

And is that a good thing? "I think it's a great thing," says Bildsten. Mroueh finds it "exciting" and "inspiring." But whatever one thinks of it, it's a reality, he says. "So we should embrace it and try to make it work for us." That may mean adjusting to having less control, as Roddy notes. "The fact is, once something is out there in the public domain, you've lost control. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so. Yes, people might pass it around because of how bad it is—they might begin to spoof on it. But even if that happens, you could argue that at least you're getting noticed and talked about."

To read more about Whose Tube?, pick up the latest fall issue of one. a magazine.

To download a pdf version, click here.

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