I think that advertisers need to understand that it’s not that attention spans are shrinking, it’s that our tolerance for things we’re not interested in is shrinking.

Ben Jones, Global Creative Director at Google’s Unskippable Labs

Welcome to the Quick Take with Think with Google, where we ask Google executives the questions every business leader wants answered. In our second episode, HBR editor of special projects and webinars Julie Devoll sits down with the global creative director at Google’s Unskippable Labs, Ben Jones, to discuss everything from the myth of the shrinking attention span to using data in the right way to power creativity.

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Julie Devoll, HBR     

Welcome to the Quick Take, a series of conversations between Harvard Business Review and Think with Google, where we ask Google executives the questions every business leader wants answered.

I’m Julie Devoll, editor for special projects and webinars at HBR, and we’re talking to Ben Jones, the global creative director at Google’s Unskippable Labs. Ben, thanks so much for joining us today.

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

My pleasure.

Julie Devoll, HBR   

So as creative director at Google, what is the most common question other creative leaders ask you?

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

They’re super concerned about the pace of change. How do I keep up? What capabilities do I need to build? And what’s actually true? I think as they look out at the marketing ecosystem, there’s a sense that there’s immense complexity, immense rate of change, and an immense amount of charlatanism out there. So they want grounding in what data is real: what can I rely on, what decisions do I need to make, and how quickly do I need to be evaluating those decisions?

Julie Devoll, HBR

And you’ve been working on YouTube for years now. So you must’ve seen a lot with that. So based on the data, what have you found that works, and what doesn’t?

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

We’re victim to some pernicious myths, I think. Number one being that attention spans are shrinking; they’re getting shorter and shorter and shorter. But if you look across media, that’s actually not true. In fact, the opposite is true. Hollywood movies are getting longer and not shorter. Books are getting longer and not shorter. And we’re in this golden age of long-form television. So if you think about Game of Thrones, we’re in the 10th year of that. There were five books before that, 5,000 pages of Game of Thrones, and we still haven’t gotten enough of it. So this idea that attention spans are shrinking is wrong, and when we make advertising based on the idea that attention spans are shrinking, we make bad ads. God knows we’ve got enough of those already.   

So I think that advertisers need to understand that it’s not that attention spans are shrinking, it’s that our tolerance for things we’re not interested in is shrinking. We decide quicker are we interested or not. And we move on quicker. So if you’re an advertiser, you need to be chosen. But if you are, then people want more from you.

Julie Devoll, HBR

So with people moving on faster, does that change the way you think about creativity?

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

When I was a creative director at an agency, we thought that there were big stories. You were going to tell an anthemic TV spot and move everyone in the world. As I moved into this world, there were all of these data signals, and the signals that you responded to would create a lot of little stories. So there was this dichotomy between big anthemic stories and little rational sort of small stories. And if you’re creative, you always want to be big, right? You always want to tell the big story. You want to move as many people as you can. I think that what we figured out over time is that there’s a different kind of richness in the signals. You can tell big stories, but they don’t feel big in the same way, in the same way you’re writing a third and you’re like “Open on!” and the anthemic music starts. But by the same token, you can build this engine or build this story machine that reaches a lot of people in very powerful ways. It’s a different kind of creativity. But it’s no less big.

Julie Devoll, HBR

Some things must have stayed the same. So talk about that.

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

You know, we’ve never been hungrier for story. We’ve never been more interested in character, invested in character. We’ve never given so much time to stories. So I think the power of stories as a creative multiplier for brands has never been a stronger opportunity. But the stakes have never been higher, because there are so many stories out there.

Julie Devoll, HBR

All right. We are awash with data, technology, new tools, machine learning. Are machines coming to replace creatives?

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

I think we’re a little drunk on data at the moment. I think creatives are on their heels because there is so much excitement about data that we don’t understand the way those two pieces fuse together. So if you’re a creative, what we need to understand is how to use that data, how to use the insights that come from it. We’ve been using machines to ask the questions that machines are good at answering and imagining that those will be useful. The reality is we need to get the machines to answer questions that improve the creative, that make the creative better, and I think that’s the challenge right now. What we’ll find for creatives is that the machine learning will make creative better, it’ll highlight what’s important. It’ll reveal patterns that you can key off of. But it’s more like a billion interns than Einsteins. So it’ll be a utility that’s helpful, that focuses the human effort. But it’s not going to be your creative director.

Julie Devoll, HBR

Does that make creative thinkers think about creativity differently in light of technology?

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

They should lean into the idea that it can be helpful for them. It’s going to require a different kind of flexibility. But it opens up new opportunities. And I think the creatives who are excited and who lean on the tools to work for them will create better work.

Julie Devoll, HBR

In this world of new technologies, what is experimentation’s role in creating ads that work?

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

The challenge for brands today is that we’re behind our customers. The customers are evolving faster than our sense about them is, and therefore our work. And the only way to catch up to them is through experimentation. If you wait for patterns to get baked out into best practices, by the time that you get there, your audience will have moved on. And so in order to leapfrog to where our customers are, we need to do these experiments. We need to say, “I don’t know. You don’t know. Let’s find out.” I think that there is an idea that experimentation is risky. But the risk has never been lower. It’s never been cheaper to find out. It’s never been easier to find out. It’s never been faster to find out. And so building in this experimentation mindset that allows brands to catch up with what their customers are saying, doing, feeling, needing, I think it’s an imperative for all brands.

Julie Devoll, HBR

As you look to the horizon, what are you seeing as the next challenge that’s coming for creative leaders, and what should they be doing to get ready for that challenge?

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

Out of all these tools that we have, there’s an immense amount of data emerging, and we need to figure out how to use it. I think when we started looking at all these audience signals, we thought it was just about rational matching, right? You like sports, it says sports. You like beauty, it says beauty. What we’re uncovering is that there are layers of signals that may be more powerful or may be richer. If we understand when you’re moving or if you’re an empty nester or if you’ve just gotten a new job, that opens you to a different kind of story, not just one that says, “Hey, you got a new job. How about X?” But it may make you more emotionally available, may make you dream a little more, aspire a little more. So I think we’re just at the beginning of understanding what signals there are, how to value them, and then how to respond creatively.

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

So if you’re a creative leader, you need to look past rational. Yes, use rational signals by all means. There’s great power in the matching. But it’s the first step; it’s not the last.

Julie Devoll, HBR

You talked a lot about the next generation of leaders. Do you have tips on how CMOs should be hiring more creative people and how they should be thinking about talent?

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

Two important things there. One, I think you need to force creativity through constraint. So you can’t just ask your teams to do a new thing or do a new thing in a new way. You need to take some part of your team and say, “You have no choice but to do this. Do it in a very different way. Only make six-second ads, only make long-form ads, only respond to certain audiences.” In that way, you’ll open up the kind of thinking that the whole team does. So that’s one. And the second is you need to open source your process. You need to work in a new way with partners. No one has all the data. No one has all the intelligence. No one has all the talent, and so you have to force people like us at Google and your other partners to be a much more open part of how you’re evolving, how you’re creative, how your work is effective.

Julie Devoll, HBR

Ben, this has been great. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Ben Jones, Unskippable Labs   

My pleasure.

Julie Devoll, HBR

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